Collateral Damage

Pizza man is all broken up about his new crack

Sep 3, 2003 at 4:00 am
It's Tuesday afternoon and Maurizio's Pizza and Sports Café on 11th and Olive barely has a pulse. A few teenage boys are scarfing a pizza; a man in a suit is heading toward the pinball machines after finishing a late lunch.

Steven Scaglione, Maurizio's owner for the last twelve years, says his downtown pizza joint has a split personality. By day, the clientele are mild-mannered worker bees. By night, "we get gangbangers, purple mohawks, celebrities, cross-dressers. It's a zoo in here."

Scaglione, who usually has an easy smile, looks like he's ready for a fight. He pushes the kitchen door open and heads up the stairs to grab a flashlight from his second-floor loft above the restaurant. Then he starts the long, hot, dark climb to the top floor of his five-story, 122-year old building.

"The floor joists are supposed to be one-and-a-half to two inches into the wall. Now they're barely touching the wall," he says, directing the flashlight to the spot where thick horizontal beams meant to hold up the attic floor above are separating from the brick wall. The building is held together by mortar -- not by steel, like modern structures.

He trudges up one more flight of stairs to the stifling attic, where he motions to the building's back wall. The blue sky is peeking through a two-inch crack in the brown brick wall. The fissure starts at the top and works its way to the bottom of the building, where it narrows to seven-eighths of an inch.

The crack appeared last May, shortly after contractors dug an underground parking garage on an empty lot next door for developer Craig Heller's Louderman Lofts. Since then, Scaglione's building has shifted so much that the walls have pulled away from the ceiling in the bathrooms and the freight elevator can no longer glide up the shaft.

Scaglione is suing Heller's contractor, HBD Contracting Inc., of St. Louis, for damages to the building and negligence. The restaurateur claims that Heller ignored him when he asked to see plans for the garage and that his contractors didn't take adequate steps to protect the Maurizio's Pizza building. (Heller says Scaglione never contacted him personally about the garage.)

"They looked at me like, 'You're a dumb pizza guy,'" Scaglione says of his efforts to get construction plans from Heller. He also says the city Building Division initially wouldn't let him or his lawyer see the plans because "nobody wants to get in this guy's [Heller] way.

"They have to deal with Craig on other things, so they don't want to stick their big toe out and get it stepped on," he says.

Since 1998, Heller's company, Loftworks LLC, has breathed new life into downtown with the development of 900 loft apartments and condos. So far, twelve of the 21 Louderman loft units have sold, according to the company's Web site. (Prices range from $219,000 to $665,000).

Scaglione opened his restaurant at 1116 Olive Street in 1991 and moved to his present location across the street six years ago. "I took a chance down here and stayed open late when no one else was," he says. Maurizio's is open until 3 a.m. weeknights and until 4 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. Its menu also offers pasta, subs, steaks, package liquor and, for those customers still left lusting, a package of condoms for $4 [Mike Seely, "Rubbers Meet the Road," October 16, 2002].

Scaglione says he wanted to get a restraining order to prevent Heller's contractors from digging the underground garage because he was concerned it would damage his building. But he says he couldn't afford the half-million-dollar bond that he would have been required to put up in order to stop Heller's project.

Residents of Louderman Lofts can park in the heated, underground garage and access their building through an elevator.

It's not that Scaglione doesn't think Heller and his lofty ambitions are good for downtown. "He is good for the city," he says. "But I was around long before Craig Heller was doing anything down here. All my sweat and work is in this business."

Now he's afraid all that work is going to go down in a pile of rubble. His lawsuit contends that Heller's contractors should have underpinned the pizza building when they dug the garage next door to give extra support around the building's base. Instead, he claims they cut a footer that extended out from his building and provided additional stability.

"You don't cut someone's footer off even if it extends onto your property," says Martin Walsh, former St. Louis Building Commissioner, whom Scaglione hired as a consultant.

When Heller turned plans into the city Building Division, his engineers recommended providing additional supports to Scaglione's building if necessary.

Given the fact that the ground was exceptionally moist when the garage was dug and that part of the building's foundational footing had been removed, "our position is anybody in their right mind would think it was necessary," says Scaglione's attorney, Jim Martin, of Martin, Malec & Leopold.

Building Commissioner Ron Smith says city engineers approved HBD Contracting's plans, which included cutting the footer that extended from Scaglione's building. "It is my understanding that it was done correctly, that there was no deviation from the plan."

Smith takes umbrage to the idea that Heller is given special treatment by the city. "We review everything based on what's in the code," he says. "In fact, he [Heller] is usually complaining because we're hitting him up for things he needs to do in his buildings."

HBD's vice president, Brian Kowert, says a structural engineer decided against underpinning the pizza building after the hole for the garage was dug. Kowert claims Scaglione's contractors damaged the building when they installed a sewer shortly after the garage was excavated.

City inspectors have looked at Scaglione's building since it shifted and deemed it safe, but they will be returning to make sure it is not in violation of city code, Smith says.

That's just what Scaglione is afraid of. He says the building needs emergency shoring to prevent the upper floors from collapsing onto one another. But Scaglione says he can't afford it and wants HBD Contracting or Heller to pay for both short-term and permanent repairs. Scaglione had intended to convert the upper floors of his pizza building into lofts. That project is on hold, perhaps permanently, unless the building's structural integrity can be restored.