Third floor of fire-struck buildings will be demolished

UPDATED 5:50 p.m.

CHAMPAIGN — The city of Champaign and the owners of three Campustown buildings have agreed to demolish the third floor area of three buildings damaged by fire on Wednesday.

Champaign Fire Department spokeswoman Dena Schumacher said Green Street will remain closed between Sixth and Wright streets until the partial demolition is completed.

She expected the demolition will take place on Thursday or Friday.

Schumacher said firefighters will remain on the scene around the clock at 625-627-629 E. Green St. until the demolition work has been completed.

The buildings contain Zorba’s and Mia Za’s Cafe restaurants and the Pitaya clothing boutique.

Matt Mortenson, owner of longtime Campustown business Zorba’s, said he was looking forward to brisk business this coming fall, with additional home football games and more traffic to his restaurant.

On Wednesday morning, he spent several hours watching Champaign and Urbana firefighters battle a blaze that caused a partial building collapse and many nearby residents and business employees to evacuate neighboring buildings.

No injuries were reported.

“A structural engineer has come to the scene and has determined the building is not safe for anybody to be nearby or in,” she said. “He is recommending that the parapet come down and the glass windows come down” on the building at where a fire hit Wednesday morning.

"This is a beautiful old building," she said. "What do you save and what don't you save?"

She said half of the block remained without power on Wednesday afternoon.

Schumacher said firefighters met with business owners to discuss the concerns over the building.

“The bottom line is, we cannot investigate, we cannot let people nearby, and we cannot let the street be opened until a determination has been made on what will happen to the building,” she said. She said firefighters continue to chase hot spots in the building as they come up.

“I don’t know how you come out of something like this,” Mortenson said about the fire that spread through the building on the 600 block of East Green Street that contains Zorba’s and Mia Za’s Cafe restaurants and the Pitaya clothing boutique.

Mortenson said he hoped to get into the building today to inspect the damage.

The morning fire that damaged a 1920s-era building was largely contained by 10 a.m., with neighboring businesses and residents being told they could return to their homes and businesses around 11 a.m.

Schumacher said METCAD received numerous reports of a fire at Green and Wright Streets at 7:56 a.m. Wednesday. Champaign and Urbana firefighters responded to the three-alarm fire.

Mortenson said he typically arrives at the restaurant between 5:30 and 6 a.m. to place orders, pay bills and handle other business in his basement office.

“I was getting ready to leave at 7:45 a.m. and noticed smoke coming out of the roof above the apartment above Pitaya,” he said. He called 9-1-1 and quickly notified neighbors.

Here is a gallery of videos shot at the scene. And here is a photo gallery.

Zorba’s has been in Campustown since 1973, he said. He has worked there since 1982 and bought the business in 1997. He now runs the restaurant with his four children.

“We had police officers and firefighters going door-to-door evacuating businesses and residents,” Schumacher said.

Dan Davis, who lives at 621 E. Green, said firefighters woke him up at 8:55 a.m.

“When I got outside, the whole Green Street corridor was filled with smoke,” Davis said.

There was a partial building collapse in the building that houses Za’s, Schumacher said.

Nearby buildings, such as Freestar Bank to the east and Sushi Rock and Casablanca to the west will likely have water and smoke damage, she said.

Smoke that had been coming from the top of the building was beginning to dissipate by 10 a.m.

Firefighters were also trying to cut through the roof of the Freestar Bank building just to the east, at 631 E. Green St. That building includes two University of Illinois offices, the Women’s Resources Center on the second floor and the LAS Global Studies office on the third floor of the building. The Women’s Resource Center has three employees, two of whom were not working Wednesday, said Jeff Unger, director of the UI News Bureau. The one employee who was at work today evacuated the building and was not injured, he said.

No one was in the LAS Global Studies office Wednesday morning.

Nearby buildings were also evacuated.

Three ladder trucks were on the scene, some spraying water onto roofs on the south side of Green at Wright Street. Firefighters also sprayed water through second-story windows of a building just west of Zorba’s.

By 8:55 a.m., black smoke had turned grayish-brown and remained pervasive, and flames showed but only briefly. The smoke drifted north several blocks and a little east. An hour later, the smoke had lessened.

Two main arteries in Campustown were blocked to traffic, with Wright Street cut off between Healey and John streets, and a lengthy section of Green Street through Campustown also closed.

METCAD notified the media of a fire at 8:02 a.m., and the University of Illinois sent an emergency alert at 8:24 a.m., warning people to avoid the area. The Champaign Police Department asked motorists to avoid Green Street east of Fourth Street, as well as portions of South Sixth Street.

Because no UI buildings were involved, “Until we realized the fire had a possibility of spreading to where our people were and they needed to be evacuated, there was no reason for us to send a text,” said spokeswoman Robin Kaler.

“Once the fire folks told us, sometime after 8, ‘we’re going to evacuate the whole block,’” the UI sent out their alert, she said.

The alert is sent by text message and e-mail, and the UI also posts an emergency message on all its web homepages for various units on campus.

Champaign City Planner T.J. Blakeman said the 625-629 W. Green St. building dates to the 1920s.

“All the exterior walls look to be still there, which is good,” said Blakeman.

“Hopefully they’ll try to save the facade. We don’t need an empty space” in Campustown, he said, referring to the hole left at the corner of Church, Neil and Main Streets after the Metropolitan building burned in downtown Champaign several years ago.

“Campustown will be open tomorrow if not today. There’s no reason not to shop and eat in Campustown,” Blakeman said.

News-Gazette photographer Vanda Bidwell and staff writers Christine des Garennes, Jodi Heckel and Tim Mitchell contributed to this report.

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susselsprout wrote on March 23, 2011 at 9:03 am

"The bright sunlight caused rainbow-like effects in the water spray." Really? Glad to know that. Did the water also cause puddles on the sidewalks?

sahuoy wrote on March 23, 2011 at 10:03 am

The water reached as far as the comment above making for areas of piddles residents should avoid. Get out the beans, wieners n smores for the unofficial camp out celebration.

cnstallion wrote on March 23, 2011 at 2:03 pm

lololol..you read my mind... who the hell wrote that?.. did they find in neccessary to tell us about the rainbow?.. hahahha

Gadfly295 wrote on March 23, 2011 at 4:03 pm

Worth noting that CFD did an outstanding job during a time when their city council is considering reducing staffing...

chambana2 wrote on March 23, 2011 at 8:03 pm

So sad to see such a beautiful landmark destoryed but on the bright side it could and should make way for another skyscraper in campustown. It would be great to add one more building to the Champaign skyline. For goodness sake don't let it turn into an ugle hole like the blight in downtown Champaign.