GARY | Once an emblem of Gary's economic prowess, the 14-story tower at Fifth Avenue and Broadway now symbolizes a past city leaders would just as soon forget.
Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson announced last spring she aimed to demolish the old Sheraton Hotel to prompt a rebirth of Gary's once-thriving downtown.
But the project faces a major roadblock.
"They can't do that because of all this asbestos. They need to fix this first," said Dan Goldblatt, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.
The situation raises questions about the hundreds of thousands in federal grant money the city spent five years ago to remove the crumbling, carcinogenic insulation.
At the time, IDEM inspected the work and declared that 98 percent of the asbestos had been removed.
But that figure is now at variance with a recent inspection by James Harless, a vice president and principal of the Soil and Material Engineers Inc. office in Plymouth, Mich., which the city hired provide a new perspective on the derelict structure.
Harless said more than 60,000 square feet of asbestos remains embedded in concrete ceiling seams, textured paint on exterior walls, floor tiles, electric fixtures, window frames and the boiler fireproofing.
It could cost as much as $1.3 million to remove or sheathe the crumbling material, preventing it from becoming airborne and inhaled, Harless said. Creative techniques could reduce that cost.
Opened 45 years ago as a Holiday Inn, the building was rechristened several years later as the Sheraton. As Gary's population and business capital moved out of the city, the hotel failed. Its last guest departed in 1985.
Former Mayor Rudy Clay proposed converting it into senior housing. His administration negotiated with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to provide about $750,000 in grants to strip out the asbestos in 2008 before any work could be done. J & K Environmental, of East Chicago, got the contract.
"They started from the top down," IDEM's Goldblatt said. "They cleared out all the top floors where people used to stay. They took out the asbestos, the walls and the bathrooms down to the structural supports at least to the second floor, when they ran out of money."
He said IDEM inspected the work to ensure it was done according to plan.
"Our guy was there several times and checked it out," Goldblatt said. "When IDEM signed off on its inspection, the building and contractor were in compliance.
"I know that 98 percent was quoted around. That may have been the case for the top floors, but likely not the amount cleared from the whole building. Whether they knew at the time there was more asbestos than money to remove it, I don't know. IDEM was just there to make sure it was done properly," Goldblatt said.
Harless said the contractor and IDEM assumed the asbestos problem was primarily confined to the building's interior.
"They did take out as much asbestos as they could for that amount of money," Harless said.
He said the contractor purposely left an asbestos coating on the hotel's exterior and the five-level parking garage, because it was deemed to be stable at the time. But that isn't the case anymore on the building's exterior, he said.
"We found it's too friable to leave on," Harless said. "That's got to come off."
Harless said the contractor properly removed the asbestos coating on the surface of the precast concrete floors but uncovered a previously unsuspected filler material — laced with asbestos — inside the seams of the concrete floor sections.
"That they never tested, because they didn't know it was there," he said.
Meanwhile, the city has asked federal officials for help, city spokeswoman Chelsea Whittington said.
"The (Environmental Protection Agency) emergency response team is reviewing a proposal to assist with the (asbestos) abatement," she said. "The city is awaiting their response."