Howe Avenue storefronts may be saved

The small building with Liquid Lunch and the Joy Lee Restaurant that survived the downtown fire may be saved.

“We’ll try to repair them,” owner Elaine Matto said of the two storefronts still standing on Howe Avenue. “That’s where we’re headed with that.”

Matto, who owns the property destroyed and damaged by the Jan. 6 fire with her husband Ralph, said the small structure suffered no direct fire damage.

However, the building’s roof was impacted by debris and firefighting efforts.

Electricity will be returned through a city meter because the existing meter was destroyed, and the building continues to dry out from all the water used to battle the blaze.

“We’re starting that process,” Matto said. “Hopefully, it will take a few months. We believe those tenants want to come back.”

Appears OK from the outside

Joseph Ballaro, the city’s chief building official, said no decision has been made on the storefront building’s long-term future from an inspection standpoint.

Ballaro said while it’s being treated as an unsafe structure for now, he hasn’t been able to make a thorough inside inspection.

From the outside, he said, it appears the building may be salvageable. “It doesn’t look that bad,” he said.

Owner may decide what to do

Whether it makes economic sense to keep the structure up likely will be up to the property owner based on what happens with insurance coverage, according to Ballaro.

“My involvement right now is limited,” he said. “Chances are the decision will be made by the owner.”

Windows that were smashed have been covered with plywood. Some windows were undamaged and remain in place.

“If it’s in danger of collapsing or causing personal harm, it will have to be taken down,” Ballaro said. “I wouldn’t want to speculate on what will happen.”

Structure in rear is fine

The white-colored house-like building in the rear of the property, near the Viaduct Square public parking lot, is considered safe. One of the Matto sons lived in this building, and first contacted other family members about the fire when it started.

As for the overall property, Elaine Matto said immediate goals are to remove all the debris and fill the hole that was the basement of the main four-story building.

Waiting to see what happens

Michele Bialek, co-owner of Liquid Lunch with her husband Fred, said they are waiting to see what happens with the property.

“It goes back and forth,” Bialek said. “Its all up to the insurance people and the landlord.”

She’s taken the approach that it’s best to sit back and wait for a decision to be made because it’s out of their hands. “We don’t want to get our hopes up,” she said.

Bialek, who lives in Shelton, said their desire is to continue a presence downtown. Liquid Lunch also has locations in Shelton’s Scinto Corporate Park and in Milford.

‘We’re part of the community’

“We’re part of the community,” she said. “We’ve been here close to a decade and don’t plan to go anywhere.”

If the property owner decides to rebuild, they likely would want to move into the new structure. “Whatever happens, we’re there,” Bialek said.

At the same time, she said Liquid Lunch has been approached by other property owners and the city of Derby about other possible locations.

Another store owner, Annie Hwang of Petal Pusher Florist, said this week she may be able to reopen in a Derby location within the next month or so.

‘Very sad’ time for the owners

For the Mattos, the past few weeks have been overwhelming. “It’s very sad and totally unexpected,” Elaine Matto said.

She said they have been busy dealing with two insurance companies because different companies covered the buildings.

She is so grateful that no one was killed or seriously hurt in the massive fire. “Thank God because it could have been so much worse,” she said.

Matto said the community outpouring since the fire has been “unbelievable,” and she’s proud the community has come together to help the displaced apartment tenants and business owners.

“The response was instantaneous, helping to get everyone relocated,” she said.

Buildings were in good shape

Matto said the buildings — some date back to the 1800s — were in good shape. “They were up to date — fire inspected, sprinkler system maintained. The fire alarms worked,” she said.

She is proud of how her husband has upgraded the structures since buying them in the early 1980s.

Matto said at that time, as unbelievable as it sounds, the apartments only had cold water and no showers or bathtubs.

“He’s a kind, generous person,” Elaine said of Ralph. “He worked with the people there to provide them with a good, clean, respectable place to live.”