Elevators reported fixed at Greensburg senior apartment high rise as city takes legal action

November 12, 2018 GMT

Two days after Greensburg officials took an absentee property owner to court over inoperable elevators in a downtown senior apartment building, the elevators are working again.

Both elevators at Pershing Square Apartments on West Third Street were operating as of about 3 p.m. Wednesday, said Barbara Ciampini, the city’s planning director. Ciampini said she was notified of the fix via text.

The city will “wait to see” whether it wants to pursue a criminal case against the owner, Beverly Hills, Calif.-based I Choose Not To Run LLC, for alleged code violations, she said.

“If we don’t get any fire calls with residents stuck inside from now until the (court) hearing date, I will dismiss,” Ciampini said. “But if our fire department gets calls, then I will hold the hearing.”

No hearing has been scheduled. Code violation charges were filed Monday before Greensburg District Judge Chris Flanigan.

“My concern is that the elevators are original to the building. As long as they function properly, it will be fine, but it may be time to plan for new elevators,” Ciampini said.

Greensburg firefighters responded to Pershing Square Apartments at least four times prior to a September incident in which an elderly resident was trapped on a broken elevator.

The city issued an ultimatum to the property owner on Sept. 21: Fix both elevators in 30 days and provide a copy of the fire safety and evacuation plan or face a criminal complaint and fines.

The owner provided a copy of the plan. Until Wednesday, it had not fixed the two elevators, officials said.

“It’s ridiculous,” said Tom Bell, Greensburg fire chief. “By not having that second elevator, they were overusing that single elevator.”

The fire department started responding to the 12-story building in August because of alarms triggered by an overheated elevator, Bell said.

One elevator was out of order, putting an extra strain on the other, he said. The overheated motor in the “elevator penthouse” would then set off the smoke detector. The overheating also caused periodic breakdowns.

On Sept. 21, firefighters responded to rescue a tenant trapped in the elevator. They considered evacuating the building before a technician repaired the elevator.

That same day, the city planning department issued two notices of code violation -- one for the lack of a fire safety and evacuation plan and one for the lack of an inspection certificate for both elevators and a plan to replace them.

“What it comes down to is, they haven’t complied with the ultimatum,” Bell said Wednesday morning.

The working elevator was being shut down for 30 minutes twice a day, which Bell described as a temporary solution.

Pershing Square residents contacted by the Tribune-Review declined to give their names but described a climate of fear surrounding the elevator’s unreliability and management’s response to their complaints.

“When it breaks down, these old people ... are stuck,” said a 69-year-old female tenant. “If they’re downstairs, they can’t get back upstairs to get their food, they can’t get their medicine. They’re stuck for hours.”

The elevator broke down for two hours Oct. 18 because that was the day the Westmoreland County Food Bank used it for multiple deliveries, said a male resident.

A Greensburg man whose 84-year-old mother lives in Pershing Square said his concerns prompted him to email the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on Sept. 28. Although privately owned, the building is subsidized by HUD.

“My mom’s fortunate -- she’s on a lower floor and can walk. I feel for the other people who have wheelchairs and walkers,” he said.

The man got the following response Oct. 4 from Nancy Luberto, senior account executive for the HUD Philadelphia Field Office:

“We contacted management regarding the status of the elevators at the subject property. We confirmed that one elevator is currently not working, but management has provided documentation to verify that it is currently being repaired. I will continue to follow-up with them until it is complete.”

HUD’s Pittsburgh Field Office did not return a call seeking comment.

Neither the building owner, I Choose Not To Run, nor the property management company, Preservation Management Inc. of South Portland, Maine, returned calls seeking comment.

The California company bought the building from Pershing Square Associates for $6.7 million in February 2017, according to county records. Pershing Square Associates was formed in 1979 and terminated this year, according to the Pennsylvania Secretary of State.

The California Secretary of State’s office lists Brian Chien-Chih Chen as the manager of I Choose Not To Run, which was registered in Pacific Palisades in July 2016. Chen is a business partner with wealthy real estate investor Alan Smolinisky, according to news accounts.

Chen was Smolinisky’s landlord when Smolinisky was a student at the University of Southern California in the 1990s. Together, they founded Conquest Student Housing. The company built and operated high-end housing for USC and University of California-Santa Barbara students before the partners sold it in 2009, according to a 2013 story in the Los Angeles Times.

Conquest properties were listed as being owned by several different limited liability companies, including the White Album Housing LLC, Sgt. Pepper Housing, Magical Mystery Tour, All You Need is Love and Yellow Submarine, according to a 2006 report by the UC Santa Barbara newspaper. All are references to albums or songs by The Beatles.

I Choose Not To Run is listed as a real estate investment business by the California Secretary of State.

The company’s name is an apparent reference to the 1994 “Seinfeld” episode “The Race,” in which the character Jerry balks at a track race rematch against a high school rival, stating, “I choose not to run.”

Smolinisky and Chen also operate Beverly Hills-based Triple Lindy Urban Renewal LLC. HUD last year listed the company as the applicant/grant recipient of a $15.2 million apartment complex project in Toms River, N.J.

That company’s name is an apparent reference to a dive featured in the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield comedy film “Back to School.”