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Allentown shuts down Hamilton Business Center over fire hazards, unregulated businesses

Jason Addy
Heather Milhouse, who runs a salon in the Hamilton Business Center, reads violation notices posted by the city Friday, Dec. 8.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Scores of small business owners will be locked out of their offices after Allentown inspectors searched their building this week and deemed it an "immediate risk to human life.”

Health inspectors conducted “unannounced inspections” Tuesday at the Hamilton Business Center, 1101 W. Hamilton St., Allentown community and economic development chief Vicky Kistler said Friday.

Inspectors saw “life-safety violations and suspected illegal occupancy, including residential units” in the five-story complex, she said during a news conference at City Hall.

But they “were denied access” to areas of the building, including certain floors, prompting city officials to obtain an administrative search warrant for the building, an “extremely serious” step, Kistler said.

Paperwork filed by the city in support of the search warrant says city officials saw an “unlicensed laboratory with unknown substances” in the basement of the building, which has a day care on the first floor.

“The safety and wellbeing of our community members is the top priority for the city of Allentown."
Vicky Kistler, director of Allentown's Department of Community and Economic Development

A search Wednesday by inspectors, police and fire officials revealed numerous unregistered units, she said. The search also showed that the building also had improper sprinkler systems and blocked fire exits.

That creates serious hazards, as people would be trapped inside the building if it ever caught fire, Kistler said.

Firefighters could also get trapped, as the building’s layout no longer matches what the city has on file.

Kistler said fire exit signs on one floor lead people into a room and not to an emergency exit.

Jason Addy
A fire exit sign in the Hamilton Business Center points people towards three doors. One door opens to a janitor's closet; one opens to a bathroom and the other doesn't have a handle.

On the second floor, a fire exit sign points in the direction of three doors. Of those three doors, one leads to a utility closet, one leads to a bathroom, and one doesn't have a handle.

“The safety and wellbeing of our community members is the top priority for the city of Allentown,” Kistler said of the decision to shut down the building.

“If, god forbid, we were in this room post-fire, you would have held us negligent for not doing what we’re doing today,” she told business owners.

Building owner Gordon Roberts told LehighValleyNews.com that there are more than 90 tenants in the building, but city records show there should be about 70, Kistler said.

The investigation was prompted by a complaint, Kistler said. The city does not conduct regular inspections of commercial properties, she said.

People who own businesses in the building will be given a week to collect anything they want to take out of the building, Kistler said. After that, the building will be off-limits until a series of upgrades are made.

That process could take months, she said. But the building could reopen sooner if the owner brings it into compliance.

‘No clue what I’m going to do’

Many people with units in the Hamilton Business Center were milling around the lobby Friday morning trying to figure out what was going on, while others loaded boxes into vehicles.

Heather Milhouse, who operates Conscious Beautiful Salon out of the Hamilton Business Center, said she learned Thursday night that city officials were closing the building.

She was serving a client when police, fire officials and city inspectors executed the search warrant Wednesday.

Officials found no issue with the unit, Milhouse said, but being questioned in front of a client was “overwhelming” and “embarrassing.”

“It almost made me feel like I was a criminal, and I wasn't doing anything wrong,” she said.

Milhouse said she spent a lot of time and money outfitting her suite to be used as a salon, but she will now have to cancel all upcoming appointments.

“This is my livelihood. I have no clue what I’m going to do,” Milhouse said.

City will ‘try to help’: Kistler

Milhouse was among several business owners who said they just want the city to help them get back to work after abruptly shutting down the Hamilton Business Center.

Allentown’s business development team — Daniel Diaz and Michael Al-Khal — are set to work with business owners in the building to find new locations, Kistler said.

“We’re willing to do what we can to try to help,” Kistler said. “But this is not what we do. This is very unusual for us.”

She hopes media reports about the Hamilton Business Center’s forced closure will prompt landlords who have unused space to contact city officials.

The business development team has already held discussions with an Allentown property owner about taking on the Marshall & Friends Child Care Center as a new tenant, she said.

Some businesses could one day return to the Hamilton Business Center if it’s brought up to code, Kistler said, but some will not, as they violate the city’s zoning laws.

City Council member Cynthia Mota is among the dozens of Hamilton Business Center tenants looking for a new office.