Tempers flare as Ithaca building department labels Pyramid Sound building unsafe

July 11, 2012 by Mark H. Anbinder

Weeks of negotiations, wrangling, and protests came to a head in mid June as City of Ithaca building commissioner Phyllis Radke posted the Pyramid Sound Recording Studios building on Clinton Street as unsafe, prohibiting further use. The move came despite Radke's assurances to owner Alex Perialas just days earlier that she would not close the building.

Pyramid Sound is adjacent to the Clinton Street bridge replacement project. 14850 photo.Pyramid Sound is adjacent to the Clinton Street bridge replacement project. 14850 photo.Over nearly four decades, Perialas and his Pyramid Sound recording studios have been responsible for countless critically acclaimed recordings by such artists as Bad Religion, Aaliyah, Missy Elliott, Anthrax, David Gray, and Testament. City officials say they fear the building, which they say has not been maintained in adequate condition, could collapse due to this summer's Clinton Street bridge replacement project.

A number of local musicians and other supporters have created Facebook groups and an online petition to spread word of what they consider unfair treatment at the city government's hands, and to demand the City of Ithaca compensate Perialas for any losses to his business from the nearby construction project.

Building commissioner Phyllis Radke signed an order posting the Pyramid Sound buildings as unsafe. Photo courtesy of Andy Adelewitz.Building commissioner Phyllis Radke signed an order posting the Pyramid Sound buildings as unsafe. Photo courtesy of Andy Adelewitz.A statement on Tuesday, June 19th from the City of Ithaca acknowledged that city inspectors have not been inside the building, and that their decision is based on a structural engineering report by Keystone Associates, Architects, Engineers, and Surveyors LLC, at City expense, and on a "Structural Condition Assessment that Pyramid commissioned from its own structural engineer." The statement asserts that Pyramid's owner "declined the City invitation for an on-site review by the Building Department."

"Phyllis Radke finally came in and walked around the buildings with my engineer on Friday," three days after signing her order, Perialas told us. "We proved to her that there are two different buildings." The studio is actually the middle, and the newest, of three adjoining buildings. It's flanked on the west by William T. Pritchard Automotive's body shop and on the east by an old automotive garage that Pyramid uses for storage.

The oldest of the three, the storage garage, "was built the same year, or thereabouts, as the bridge that was put in across the street," says Perialas.

Mayor Svante Myrick says he has personally met with Pyramid owner Perialas and his lawyer on multiple occasions in an attempt to help resolve the situation to everyone's satisfaction. He says the City has offered $20,000 to assist with shoring up the structure, which he believes could be accomplished for that amount of money. "We got that number from his engineer," the mayor says. "I asked the contractor who is doing the bridge project to give us a quote on shoring up Alex's building, and they came back with a quote that was much, much, much higher."

Perialas contends that offer came "just a day before drilling to prepare holes for the pile driving was scheduled to begin," too late to have a chance to protect the building from the nearby work. Supporters suggest that the point of the offer was to give the City the appearance of trying to compromise without actually having to help resolve the situation.

"It's without any forethought of what it's supposed to be used for," Perialas says. "They expect me to use that money to do the shoring? That can't happen. I've been advised by my engineer and people on my side to say I can't be responsible for the shoring of the building. 'It's outside the scope of what you do.' It's the responsibility of the contractor."

A press release from Pyramid Sound states that cracks in the building's facade date to 2004, when seismic vibrations from the construction of the City's Cayuga Street parking garage caused damage. Perialas "complained to the city at the time, but was unable to see the fight through because he was simultaneously caring for his ailing father," said Pyramid's statement.

The engineering report from Keystone Associates, commissioned at City expense on behalf of the bridge contractor, appears to bear out the connection. "You can see all the cracks that were on the studio building; they line up with a pile column where they piled the steel for the parking garage," Perialas told us. "Settling cracks tend to zipper," he added. "When you see vertical cracks, that is from a large pressure impact. That doesn't mean it's going to fall down, it just means that they need to be mortared up, which they were."

Bridge contractors use heavy equipment to remove remnants of the old Clinton Street bridge. 14850 Photo.Bridge contractors use heavy equipment to remove remnants of the old Clinton Street bridge. 14850 Photo.

The contractor on the bridge project is using similar high-powered drilling equipment to excavate the foundation of the bridge, creating high-frequency impacts and strong resulting vibrations quite near the garage adjacent to Pyramid Sound's studio building.

Myrick's statement adds that Pyramid Sound repainted their building in mid June -- since 14850 Magazine first photographed the building -- but "while this has dramatically improved appearances, paint of course does not improve the structural integrity of a failing building, and so the same problems remain."

Pyramid Sound, repainted in mid June. 14850 photo.Pyramid Sound, repainted in mid June. 14850 photo.

"I hadn't planned to fix the cosmetic issues until this project was done," Perialas says, but on learning the bridge project would span two years, he says he decided to go ahead with repainting, which he'd put off since the parking garage construction.

Local musician Jeff Claus, a vocalist and guitarist for the Horse Flies and an acclaimed songwriter whose work has been recorded by the likes of Natalie Merchant, stresses that the studio building is structurally separate from the garage building to the east that has raised the most concern, and that the studio is "a building within a building, with separate walls that are suspended on large rubber bushings so as to ensure complete sound, seismic, and electronic isolation."

Musician Alan Rose speculates, "The outside view seemed intentionally designed to camouflage the wonders of what it held inside, to keep it safe." Rose, with multiple albums and countless local gigs to his name, says he was first in the building last summer, to record a song for a friend's book soundtrack. "Outside it's this little, unassuming old building. The inside seemed impossibly large, and it was full of the most amazing instruments and equipment," he says.

Alan Rose and the Restless Elements perform at the Ithaca Festival. 14850 Photo.Alan Rose and the Restless Elements perform at the Ithaca Festival. 14850 Photo."We all knew the bridge project was coming, and we all know it's necessary," Rose adds. "But what we couldn't have known, what Alex couldn't have known, without some sort of access to or summary of the plans, is what methods were going to be used and what their impact was going to be on a building and a business that had already been a victim of the Cayuga Street Garage construction project. That they wouldn't communicate with him until the project was already underway and it was seemingly too late to salvage a summer worth of bookings and the studio itself is just ridiculous."

Perialas says he was caught off guard by commissioner Radke's decision to post the building as unsafe. "She told me that she wouldn't post the building if I agreed to go out of the building during the pile driving, which was acceptable to me," he told us. "In fact on Monday morning, at 11:02am, she contacted me, and I asked if everything was OK, and she said 'Yup, I give my word.'" The next day, a building department staff member affixed her order to the studio door. Radke did not respond to requests for comment.

Radke's precipitous about-face had immediate consequences for at least one band with a project in the works at Pyramid Sound that week. Bassist Arly Kamholtz, one of the founding members with Jake Roberts of post-rock band Black is Green, says the band's first album was being mastered the week the facility was closed. Perialas was working on the album on Monday, Kamholtz says, and was to have finished the project on Wednesday. "Even though this is a setback for us," Kamholtz says, "this is a huge loss for the community, and much worse for Alex."

Amy Puryear, a music teacher who also performs with the Double E Band, helped organize a protest earlier in June at Mayor Myrick's city hall parking space, which he turned into a tiny park this spring. She says when she went to City Hall to request a permit for the protest, superintendent of public works Bill Gray approached her. He likened the situation to a neighbor wanting to build a new house next to a "house of cards," and pantomimed blowing down a house of cards in his hand. Puryear says Gray added that the two buildings were to be declared unsafe whether the bridge project went ahead or not. Gray did not respond to requests for comment.

Pyramid supporters say the Building Department staff member who posted the building commented that the facility had been considered unsafe two years earlier. "I spoke with the commissioner of the building department who spoke with the staff, and they insist they said no such thing," the mayor assures us. "We went back through the records and it was not deemed unsafe two years ago."

The protest went on as scheduled, with several local musicians and area residents speaking and performing. 

"My father and Bill Gray had a history, and it was based on that sheet piling that was put in in the late '90s," says Perialas, speaking of a project about 15 years ago that shored up the walls of Six Mile Creek near the Clinton Street bridge, as well as patching a sinkhole that had developed in what was then the Woolworth's department store parking lot, behind the building that's now the Tompkins County Public Library. That former parking lot is now the site of the Cayuga Street parking garage. "It was right on the wall, literally it's four feet from the building," says Perialas of the work done on the Six Mile Creek walls.

"Bill Gray has a history with other people in our fair city of not agreeing," Perialas adds. "He believes like an evangelist that he is doing everything right for the city."

"Not all of the outcomes are positive," Mayor Myrick told us when asked about commissioner Gray's clashes with the Perialas family. "Over a twenty year career like Bill Gray's had, there will be incidents and run-ins. Do I believe it? Yeah. Do I believe it's affected this project? No."

While the Keystone Associates report, commissioned by the City, suggests the bridge project could proceed with lower-force procedures without risk to the nearby buildings, the City has rejected that plan as requiring too much extra time and expense. "The force that we use for the drilling would be fine if the building were in fair condition," the mayor says. "When we do a construction project nearby, how much is incumbent on us, and by us I mean the taxpayers, to take responsibility for fixing the building or slowing down the project. In this case, I've decided it's the property owner's responsibility, and that the city should assist them in taking care of that responsibility, but that responsibility shouldn't fall on the city."

"What I got was a verbal commitment that has no ties," said Perialas. "If I was to accept an offer, and it was never really in writing, I would be responsible for anything that happened." Mayor Myrick admits that the City's offer would come in exchange for "a release on anything that happened up to the date the building shoring is installed and the building is declared safe." Such a condition could only reasonably be contingent on work adjacent to the building stopping until the building was declared safe, but the City would not agree to stop work.

In fact, work has progressed, and the contractor is now taking advantage of the Pyramid Sound building being empty. "They're working on this change to the tie-back wall," Perialas tells us, "and that is now directly in the middle of the door to the shop. It's so convenient for the building to be posted, because if it weren't, they couldn't do their work. It seems so pre-meditated."

Just as we were about to go to press, the City addressed the topic in the July issue of its Ithaca Cityscene newsletter. The newsletter says Perialas has "rejected the City's offer of $20,000 toward a solution of his choice," which he says isn't true; he simply hasn't accepted the offer under its current conditions.  

Claus adds that he is "deeply disheartened by what is occurring and by how this has been handled by the city officials." 

Perialas is also the director of Ithaca College's sound recording technology program, and was recently featured in an issue of Fuse, the college's student-published magazine. "I'm hoping instead of all this stone throwing that's going on, we could come to some agreement," he says. "It's so childish."

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