Mehlville Fire stops construction on Sunset Hills hotel

New car wash cut off water to hotel, owner tells MFPD

The+new+Comfort+Suites+development+next+to+Helen+Fitzgerald%E2%80%99s+under+construction%2C+as+seen+July+17%2C+2020.

Photo by Erin Achenbach

The new Comfort Suites development next to Helen Fitzgerald’s under construction, as seen July 17, 2020.

By Gloria Lloyd, News Editor

Construction has stopped completely on the new 5-story Comfort Suites hotel in Sunset Hills after the Mehlville Fire Protection District issued a stop work order on the project that has been in effect for more than two months.

At press time the stop work order was still in effect at the fenced-in construction site, as confirmed by MFPD Fire Chief Ed Berkel. HR Sheevam, the owner of the Days Inn and the new Comfort Suites under construction at 3660 S. Lindbergh Blvd., submitted a new plan that appeared set in late March to win fire district approval, but had not been approved by press time. A new water pipe has to be finished before construction can resume.

Sheevam appeared at the March 10 meeting of the MFPD Board of Directors in hopes of pleading his case to board Chairman Aaron Hilmer, who was absent from that meeting. Board Treasurer Bonnie Stegman, who was chairing the meeting instead, and board Secretary Ed Ryan asked Sheevam to give them background on the situation.

Berkel issued the stop work order Feb. 18 because there isn’t enough available water going to the new 5-story hotel to meet the fire code, and nearby hydrants aren’t close enough to the construction site. The code requires 800 gallons of water available to come into the site in case of a fire, while the hotel is currently measuring 591 gallons.

Sheevam said that he did have 800 gallons available through the water line when construction on the hotel began in 2017, but the water level sank when the new Tidal Wave Car Wash opened a few months ago a few blocks down and across Watson Road at 3720 S. Lindbergh Blvd., the site of the former EconoLodge.

A distraught Sheevam said, “The hotel industry’s faced a tremendous uphill battle during COVID,” and said his design-build union contractor for the hotel construction ceased parts of its business midway through construction, leaving his hotel literally high and dry.

“This is my bread and butter,” said Sheevam, adding, “I had no idea that there was going to be a car wash next door to me. So when they started the project I had 800 gallons, I only have 591 now,” caused by a drop in water pressure which forced him to pay for a new 10-inch water line from Missouri American Water that he said was weeks away from being connected at the time of the meeting. “I want to be able to finish my project, I want to be able to work. I’m not good (at) this thing. … I’m willing to pay (a) fire department fee if they could guide me.”

The hotel developer said that he tried to hire consultants to fix the problem, but potential consultants would “run away” once he mentions the prior contractor.

“That’s not within our scope, as I’ve explained a couple times,” Berkel said. “We are not here to be your construction manager. You submitted the site plan which was approved in 2017 — here we are in 2021 and that work still has not been done.”

Sheevam asked to approach the table where Stegman and Ryan were sitting, and he showed plans that note one fire hydrant is 60 feet away from the hotel and another is 150 feet away.

“My confusion is I have water, why am I not able to do my work?” Sheevam asked the board members. “If there’s any way you could let me do with 200 gallons less for 30 days, this line will be installed, the permit will be issued by county to limit plumbing. … I’m just looking if there’s any way that we can put a pump in here to boost the gallon(s). Everybody says no, you have to have 800, and I don’t have 800 right now.”

Ryan, who is a retired engineer, advised that because the project was design-build, Sheevam needed to go back to his designer since the design provided no longer meets the fire code.

“Is there any caveat of, we had this two years ago but now the guy next door is building, and now I don’t have it?” Ryan asked the other fire district officials. “There’s nothing he can do about that.”

“You understand what you’re asking the board to do is ask them for a variance of some kind to allow you to open in violation of the fire code,” Chief Brian Hendricks told Sheevam, later adding, “Because what you’re asking us to do is look the other way on something that we just fundamentally can’t, because of circumstances beyond your control, beyond anybody’s control, if it doesn’t happen and they don’t put that line in or run into rock — the job gets too expensive and you choose not to do it — we’ve then put our signature on something that violates the code.”

The hotel owner said that he would not actually open the hotel without enough water, just continue construction for one month. If the weeks passed and the water line was not installed, he said he would voluntarily shut down again.

But Berkel pointed out other issues with the water system around the hotel.

The original contractor installed pipes, but never inspected or flushed the lines, Berkel said: “So the water supply that’s coming to the building, we have no idea about anything.”

Another issue is that if the water is not available to meet the fire code, nothing combustible can be brought into the building. But Sheevam brought headboards and TV panels into the hotel, and although those are made of non-flammable material, the fire code prohibits them until enough water to protect the building from fire is available.

The developer said he would move all the headboards and TV panels out of the hotel if he had to, but Berkel emphasized that his inspector told Sheevam and his workers that the code prohibited combustible items “multiple times … and you chose to do so. And that’s why we posted the stop work order. … At this point taking all of it back out is really an exercise in futility — we need to get everything resolved and moved forward.”

Hendricks also said the promise of non-combustibility by the manufacturer of the hotel items was not enough.

“If anything were noncombustible we’d have no problems, right?” Hendricks said, adding that St. Louis County also would not approve permits if the construction isn’t up to fire code.

Sheevam asked if he could get a variance so his construction workers could work from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day and promised the building would not otherwise be occupied, but the chief said that the fire district has to fight fires at buildings even if they’re occupied by someone who is not authorized to be there overnight.

Berkel, the longtime Mehlville fire marshal, is retired but still works for the fire district. Stegman noted that while officials were reluctant to grant any type of variance for Sheevam, as soon as he submitted new plans she was sure that Berkel would expedite the process of examining them.

“I place my trust in Ed Berkel,” Ryan said.

“He’s the best of the best,” said Sheevam. “I’m the one at fault. This is all on me.”