LANESBOROUGH — Late last year, Lanesborough’s fire chief headed up to the Berkshire Mall one Sunday morning to check its fire alarm system. What he found troubled him.
Several things, actually.
Joined by a town police officer and his fire inspector, Chief Jeff Dechaine was able to enter through an unsecured door. They heard a chirping sound coming from the alarm system and went to check a panel near the defunct mall’s south end.
“Trouble codes” were popping, including one that indicated a power supply problem, Dechaine put into a report later that morning, Oct. 10.
“We also checked the alarm panel at the cinema center entrance which also showed trouble codes,” he wrote, “and indicated the alarm had been silenced.”
Dechaine’s report now is part of a growing case file in Western Housing Court, part of an effort by Lanesborough since November 2020 to address what officials believe to be safety hazards at the once-popular shopping center.
Today, as the mall seeks to attract tenants, its owner is fighting a slew of court complaints, the latest of which asks a judge to order the mall to board up all windows and doors and erect 6-foot-high fencing around all entrances.
That’s necessary, the town says, to prevent people from entering the darkened mall.
Apart from nearby Target, which owns its parcel, the last business operating on adjoining property, Regal Cinemas, closed in late January.
“This is a critical concern of the town, as there continues, even after the last [court] hearing, to be people breaking into the building,” said Jeffrey T. Blake, of KP Law, who represents Lanesborough. “The town is only interested in securing the property against unauthorized entry.”
To achieve that, the town wants the court to again require the mall to conduct in-person patrols of the inside and outside of the structure every other hour, around the clock.
Last spring, after those patrols had been ordered March 25 by a housing court judge, the town agreed to their suspension, saying the mall’s owner, Durga Property Holdings, had made progress shoring up its fire-suppression and security systems. Those actions were said to include a working electronic surveillance system.
Eleven months later, the town wants those 24/7 patrols reinstituted, citing new evidence of trespassing.
“Multiple incidents reveal that the electronic surveillance of the Property is not sufficient,” Blake wrote in a Jan. 21 motion, “in clear violation of the Fire Code. … The Defendant’s continued failure to adequately address the Fire Code violations … has subjected the Town, a municipality with limited resources, to significant costs and expense.”
Blake says that in the months that Lanesborough officials have tracked safety issues at the mall, the in-person surveillance alone has been “ineffective.”
“The property owner does not seem to be able to retain reliable guards, so the town is requesting that the building be boarded and secured,” Blake said.
James M. Sheridan III, the lawyer from the Fall River area representing Durga, could not be reached for comment. The mall had used a Pittsfield lawyer, Christopher M. Hennessey, for more than a year, but Hennessey said he has withdrawn as counsel.
In a recent filing reviewed by The Eagle, Sheridan provided the court with the names, phone numbers and work hours of a new security detail that would fulfill the 24/7 requirement.
Judge Jonathan J. Kane is expected to rule soon on the town’s motion to compel in-person surveillance, as well as the new barriers over doors and windows.
Signs of trespass
Blake says that the building must be secured to keep people from entering. Lanesborough Police reports filed with the court document instances of trespassing inside the mall.
On July 16, Officer Jason Costa responded just before midnight to a report of a break-in. Someone had been wandering around inside the former J.C. Penney space, using a cellphone flashlight to see. Later, that person appeared to have been picked up by a car on the building’s east side. A month before, the door leading to the former hair salon at Penney’s was found to be open.
On the night of Oct. 2, Costa went to the mall and found that a center court door on the mall’s east side was halfway open. Once inside, he heard sounds coming from a fire alarm panel on the building’s south end.
Costa told a mall representative that someone coming out of the movie theaters might have sneaked through what he termed the “makeshift barrier” and entered the building. Three days later, another officer found two doors to be unlocked.
In an interview this month, Monto Bedi, president of the consulting firm working to revive the mall, said he has had trouble lining up tradespeople to work at the site, even as he tries to bring back tenants.
“Things have been working against us,” he said. “There are a lot of frustrations that we have uncovered.”
Bedi said he contacted nearly two dozen companies to ask about working on the property’s fire-suppression system. That system, the town claims, was decommissioned by the mall’s owner without authorization from local fire officials.
A year ago, the town’s case against the mall included questions about the condition of the water system, as well as the integrity of a water storage tank that stands on the western edge of the property and serves water needs to the entire parcel, including Target, which sits on property owned by the retailer.
A leak in the tank that had been releasing 1 to 2 gallons of water per minute, according to an official with Berkshire Engineering, had been repaired.
Bedi’s firm works under contract to the mall’s owner, Durga Property Holdings, of Cincinnati, whose principal is Vijaya Kumar Vemulapalli.
Durga, a Sanskrit word meaning “the Inaccessible,” is the name of a Hindu goddess.
Durga bought the mall in 2019 for $1 million from Mehran Kohansieh, also known as Mike Kohan, who had paid $3.5 million for it in 2016, when the property still had cash flow from existing tenants.