BY MAIRE O’NEILL
New Mexico Innovation Triangle, LLC co-founder and CEO John Rizzo on Thursday responded to questions from the Los Alamos Reporter about the status of the demolition of the former Hilltop House Hotel.
Rizzo said it has taken NMIT longer than they would have liked to begin the process of demolishing the hotel which has been abandoned for about 10 years.
“We’ve been working with the County officials and the Fire Marshal during this process, and they have all been extraordinarily helpful and supportive to make sure this process goes smoothly and safely for the crews as well as the community but keeping the pressure on to do this promptly,” he said.
Rizzo noted that there are four different steps involved in the process and that they need to happen mostly in sequence. He said the first was to make the site secure with fencing and razor wire to prevent people from entering the property and potentially causing injury to themselves.
“The second step is the removal of loose materials that have been in the building since it was closed – these include mattresses, broken furniture, mini refrigerators, and other materials. This started last week and will move quickly today, tomorrow, and next week. The process is nearly 50 percent complete and well more than 20 semi-truck trailer sized dumpster loads have been disposed of and we are ahead of our original schedule,” Rizzo said. “Those materials are non-toxic and are taken to a local dump. All of this activity is being done on the west side of the building.”
The fees for dumping, transport, and labor are all included in the overall demolition contract, he said.
“The next two steps require the application to the County for a demolition permit, which has been submitted. There are also various inspections that need to be completed along the way – for example after asbestos removal and final completion,” Rizzo said. “The third step is the most complicated and requires the most care.”
He said when the building was inspected it became evident that the site had extensive use of asbestos in its construction. He explained that both airborne and fixed asbestos are present in the building.
“Thus, in this case, the actual demolition of the building cannot happen until the toxic asbestos is removed. If we simply demolished the building without removing the toxic material, then the asbestos particles would be released creating a health hazard. Because this material is disposed of in a special site that is very expensive due to the hazard, it cannot be mixed with non-toxic substances, thus the need to remove loose materials in the second step above and complete the demolition in the fourth and final step below after removal of the asbestos,” Rizzo said. Portions of the building can be demolished but only if those areas are cleared of asbestos first – so it is possible to overlap the two steps.”
He said the removal of the asbestos will happen as rapidly as possible, but with the caveat that it cannot create a hazard for the workers removing it and it can’t create an environmental issue if it’s released and not disposed of properly.
“In short, it will happen as fast as it can, with safety and environmental concerns taking precedence over speed,” Rizzo said.
The fourth step, he said, is relatively straightforward – demolishing the structure. He said those materials will be disposed of, and due to the lack of toxic materials in them, can be dumped into any number of sites.
“The question about timing and meeting the end of March order is one of dependence on how long the asbestos will take to remove and making sure the demolition happens immediately afterward, or in parallel depending on the process. If it goes better than plan, then portions of the building free of toxic materials could start coming down late in March, and if it takes longer, it will slip into April,” Rizzo said. “The County and Fire Marshal are working with and monitoring progress in real time and are driving us very hard to complete the job as close to the order as possible, but not at the sacrifice of safety to the workers or the community. The good news is that after 10 years, the building is coming down and it’s a matter of weeks to solving this problem that’s lingered for a decade.”
He said after the building comes down, NMIT’s plan has been to build an apartment building on the site to address the critical housing needs in the community.
“The number of units, scale, and architecture have been changing based on the ballooning costs of construction over the last year, the needs of the community, the challenges of labor and supply chains due to the pandemic, the relatively remote proximity of the site and the cost of financing the project. We would expect to have plans to submit to County officials ideally by the summer, as to what the final plans are,” Rizzo said.
Asked about the removal of the underground gas tanks on the property, Rizzo said they are not a public health hazard and that the County has said those can come out later in the process.
“The complication is there is a public sewer line that runs near the tanks that is ancient and so those have to be removed very, very carefully. Nobody knew when we started planning that sewer lines were there,” he said.
Asked why NMIT waited so long to begin work at the property in light of the Mar. 30 deadline, Rizzo said that the company frankly didn’t plan on doing the demo first.
“Normally you finance the property build, then do the demo. So we had to adjust our plans out of order and it took longer to get things lined up and done,” he said.
Asked what the County is telling him will happen when the Mar. 20 deadline passes, Rizzo said NMIT will be talking with the County about that soon.
“We frankly wanted to get a sense of how fast the asbestos remediation went and how we were performing on the removal of the material. Those two pieces of data help predict how fast the biulding could actually come down, safety,” he said. “For example, if one end of the building was free of toxic material, the demo could start on that end. The County officials and Fire Marshal have all been very clear and insistent about the deadline but they also recognize that we have to do this correctly.”
He continued, “I don’t think there is any disagreement that a safe and rapid demolition in that order is what’s important – particularly given the face that the site has been a hazard nearly a decade before we purchased it,” Rizzo said.
Editor’s note: Mr. Rizzo notified the Reporter at Thursday evening that all the material has been removed a week earlier than expected. He said asbestos abatement can begin sooner than planned.