Fire: Peet's and Calla may be shut for months

Building is uninhabitable until examined by a structural engineer

There were coffee and scones this morning at Peet's Coffee & Tea at the corner of University Drive and Santa Cruz Avenue in Menlo Park, but money did not change hands. The refreshments were free, following a devastating fire yesterday, but while the empty tables and chairs inside beckoned, you had to find a seat outside.

"Really, we don't know when we'll be here and when we won't be here," Peet's District Manager Ross Brandon said in an interview at the store's front door as the portable coffee dispenser was packed up and the last scone given away. "We hope to open soon to serve the people of Menlo Park."

The coffee shop is one of several commercial victims of a four-alarm fire yesterday morning that climbed through the walls and under floors.

The fire left Peet's, the Calla boutique, and the professional offices upstairs without power and uninhabitable until the building is examined by a structural engineer, rewired, and made structurally sound and free of the smell of smoke, according to Ron La France, the city building official.

As to when the building comes back on line for regular use, it depends largely on when the owner obtains building permits to do the necessary repairs and how quickly the repairs are done, Mr. La France said in an interview.

Given the character of the fire -- that it burned slowly overnight behind the drywall, charring the wood framing and floor joists -- the building's wiring, which is also behind those walls, must be tested for continuity, he said. That step, he added, generally leads to a rewiring of the entire building.

Once the drywall is off, the remaining framing must be coated to seal in the smell of smoke, Mr. La France said.

It's possible that Peet's could be up and running before the other activities, he said, because the water damage was slight compared with what happened to the boutique next door. Firefighters had to cut open the ceiling above the boutique to get at the fire in the floor above. Water from the fire hoses then flooded the store.

In the interim, Peet's customers are being invited to the coffee shop at 153 Homer Ave. in Palo Alto near the intersection with Alma Street, said Palo Alto store manager Jamelle McDowell.

It may well be months before Calla reopens, store owner Phil Bachler told The Almanac on the day of the fire.

See earlier story

See photos


Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 18, 2009 at 12:23 pm

I had the opportunity to talk with a number of the affected merchants this morning. Clearly this fire will have a major impact on their businesses and there will be a prolonged delay before they will be back in operation. Thanks to the Fire District and superb mutual aid from surrounding jurisdictions this fire was confined to a single building - it could easily have taken out a whole block of businesses.

Hopefully all the other merchants on Santa Cruz who occupy buildings built years ago will realize that investing in improved fire detection and suppression equipment may be a very prudent thing to do rather than suffer the extended loss of use that will occur from a fire like this one.

It is short sighted to do only what is required by the very outdated City of Menlo Park regulations. If you are willing to pay for fire insurance then you should be willing to make a similar investment in fire prevention. The Fire District will gladly do surveys of any business that wants to ensure that its alarm systems are operating properly and to help them explore retrofitting fire sprinklers into their buildings.

Like this comment
Posted by John B. Lomax
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Mar 18, 2009 at 2:22 pm

Mr. Carpenter should have disclosed that he and the MP Fire Dept. want the city of Menlo Park to require automatic sprinklers in all homes as well as businesses. Having had to install sprinklers in a downtown building as a condition of remodeling, I know that the cost is prohibative. Those business men would be better advised to just increase their insurance to cover such a loss.

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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 18, 2009 at 2:34 pm

In fact, I have had my home retrofitted with fire sprinklers and I can assure you the cost of such a retrofit, the MOST expensive type of installation, was not prohibitive. And it certainly is saving me money on my home insurance and will avoid my family having to live someplace else for a year or more if our unsprinkled home had been badly damaged by a fire. Similarly, businesses should make an economic calculation of the cost of a long term business interruption and decide if fire sprinklers are a better alternative.

The new National Fire Code will soon require sprinklers in new homes regardless of what Menlo Park decides to do. You can wait until then and cross your fingers or you can be proactive. Your choice.

Like this comment
Posted by Maya Fiamma
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Mar 18, 2009 at 3:27 pm

How successful would sprinklers have been at getting to an electrical fire that started inside the walls? Firefighters had to hack through walls and ceilings to get at the source -- how would sprinklers have put out the fire?

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Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 18, 2009 at 3:41 pm

Very good question.

The origin of the fire appears, but it is not yet proven, to have been an equipment closet that would have had a sprinkler head in it if sprinklers were installed. The fire then apparently spread from that room through the electrical and ventilation chases to the inside of the walls and between the floor joists.

In my opinion, a sprinkler system would have extinguished the fire, and also sounded a proper fire alarm, before the fire had a chance to spread. Engine 6 would have responded in less than three minutes and the sprinkler system would have been shut off. There would have been zero damage to the rest of the structure and no smoke damage to the businesses in the building. When the building is repaired it will, ironically, be required to have fire sprinklers.

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Posted by fgsdf
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Mar 18, 2009 at 8:49 pm

I went over and looked at the buildings and the damage didn't look that bad at all. The fact that it will cost a million shows how crazy construction costs are in the US.

Like this comment
Posted by Purvis
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Mar 20, 2009 at 1:41 pm

Um, you should see the interior and the second floor -- that's where the damage was.

Like this comment
Posted by Salty
a resident of Atherton: other
on Mar 20, 2009 at 3:21 pm

I built my house in Atherton in 2005 and the cost to install fire sprinklers was approx $2 per sq ft. Prices are likely up a bit since then. Commercial installation is significantly higher because residential is pvc pipe and commercial is steel. I sell insurance, put sprinklers in your house and get a 25% credit on your premium. For your business the credit can be as high as 40%.

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Posted by Bulldozer
a resident of another community
on Mar 20, 2009 at 5:32 pm

What is the payback period on sprinklers via insurance discounts. My experience is that it would be on the order of decades. Further, the idea of having charged PVC in the ceiling for decades seems ripe for disaster.

Seems more cost effective to force people to have smoke alarms wired back to a monitoring service than to have sprinklers. Done properly, the alarm system can bring the resources quickly enough to prevent damage.

Instead, the government mandates systems which costs tens of thousands of dollars. They tax neighborhood water systems, requiring millions of dollars in water company related infrastructure expansion.

Sprinklers sound great on the surface. But, when you lift up the lid they smell rotten.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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