Waukesha condo residents: Not financially feasible to save building, move-out could start Thursday

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WAUKESHA, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Later this week, residents of the Horizon West Condo Building in Waukesha may have the opportunity to return to pack their things for good.

Owners met with the contractor and condo association at City Hall Monday, Dec. 6 to discuss next steps. Contractor Steve McGuire said three people will be allowed in at a time and will be given four hours to move. The owners can pick the day they want to move. McGuire said the building is stable and safe to enter. He'll submit a move-out plan to the fire chief Tuesday morning, who will have to approve it.

It's a lot longer than the 10 minutes residents got over the weekend, but it's still not a long time to gather everything they own. Some are still thinking about the personal items they'll have to leave behind. Resident and de facto spokesperson Alicia Halvensleben said, "If I have to get in and get out, how quickly can I pack this, that, and the other thing and just get whatever I possibly can out? If I have to leave something behind, what do I have to leave behind?"

Also in the meeting, they discussed what comes next for the building. McGuire said the fire chief issued an order which states repairs to the building must start within six months. But McGuire does not believe that's possible at this point. He said, "The fact is we have to figure out what the problem is with the building, get some estimates together. And then figure out whether the condo association can achieve the funds they need to pay for those or if this just doesn't work and it's cheaper just to tear the building down."

The building is salvageable, but residents say saving it is likely not financially feasible, so they're preparing to move out before their home is demolished.

Halvensleben said, "This is our building, this is where we live, this is our home. No one wants to destroy their own home." But it may have to happen if the price tag to repair the building is too steep.

At the meeting, McGuire explained his team is still trying to total up the costs. "I've never run into anything this bad before. I've never run into a building that was structurally compromised."

He described how the damage was uncovered. "As we took the balconies off, we discovered the existing structural steel of the building and those columns had been compromised. They were rusted through. And not just in a couple locations, but several," McGuire said. He said the structural engineer his company hired and the one the city hired both agreed there was a serious issue. He said the columns could no longer support the weight they were designed to support.

"If one of [the balconies] collapsed and then pancaked on top of the other one, it would be a catastrophic failure of several decks. At that point, if the structural column supporting those was hit and it was compromised, it could create the column to buckle and cause a catastrophic failure of the building. It was imminent the balconies come off the building," McGuire said.

The condo building was built in 1967, so some structural decline was expected. McGuire said, "You might find there's water damage in a certain area, and there's one or two columns that need to be repaired, that's not a big deal. We found every column in the building was basically compromised."

That's leaving residents like Halvensleben in limbo, with no one to blame. She said, "Nobody did this to us, it's something that happened to us. I think we wish there was somebody that we could point to and say 'you did this, ok, we're going to come after you.' But really, unfortunately, it feels like there isn't that person."

Halvensleben added, "There are still a lot of questions in the air, but it sounds like more than likely the building is not going to continue to stand. That we'll just have to move everything out and say goodbye to our homes."

Alicia says the biggest concerns right now are questions for insurance companies: if the 48 individual owners need to work with their own companies, if the HOA insurance will help, and if insurance will help cover temporary housing costs.

That's if the insurance companies want to help at all. Halvensleben said, "Insurance companies seem to just say 'this isn't our problem.' We're hearing that from a lot of different insurance companies."

Those companies need official documents, most of which are not available yet because it's only been a few business days since the emergency evacuation was ordered.

The city has not issued an official raze order yet, but if and when it comes, it will likely fall to McGuire to break the bad news. He said, "We like to tell clients 'your building is done early and it's under budget.' Here we're telling clients 'I'm sorry, but your building is uninhabitable and you're not going to be able to move back into it anytime in the near future.'"

McGuire is trying to pass along information from the city of Waukesha as best he can. Alicia says the residents are hearing from him, but not the city. She said, "It would be nice if maybe even we could have a representative from the city at some point in the future to talk to us, maybe at the next meeting, sooner rather than later. Because a lot of the questions we're asking, we're asking of our contractor, who's trying to do his best to represent what he's hearing from the city, but that isn't from the city themselves."

Even if the building is repaired, residents will still have to move everything out in order to gain access to the structural issues and then rebuild from within.

With a lot of people in the community wanting to offer support, Alicia says a looming need will be moving services, whether it's vans or volunteers. She hopes to have more information to share soon.

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