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Former Maas building is beginning to fall apart

While the debate continues over whether to tear down the former Maas Brothers store, parts of the city-owned building are falling off on their own.

A long, narrow masonry panel on the east side of the building fell to the ground Tuesday, City Manager Michael Wright said in a memo to the City Commission.

No one was injured, and city officials closed the sidewalks on the east and south sides of the building until the rest of the panels are removed, said Wright and Public Works Director William Baker.

"Inspection of the remaining panels indicate additional failures may be imminent, especially now that the wind can enter behind the panels through the openings," Wright said in the memo.

The sidewalks on Osceola Avenue and Cleveland Street were lined Wednesday with traffic barriers and ribbons, blocking pedestrian traffic.

"Sidewalks are blocked off purely as a precautionary measure," Baker said Wednesday.

Baker said the panel probably was loosened by strong winds that accompanied last weekend's storm, which spawned several tornadoes in other parts of the county.

The panel appears to be composed of asbestos, Baker said. It will be tested at a laboratory today, he said.

If asbestos is found, the city would have to hire a specially certified contractor to remove the panels, Baker said. If no asbestos is found, any contractor can remove the panels, which would be cheaper. Baker said he didn't know how long the sidewalks would be closed or how much it would cost to remove the panels.

The 32-year-old building, which overlooks Clearwater Harbor and Coachman Park, has been the center of debate for more than a year. City and elected officials, business leaders and residents have discussed and, at times, argued over ideas for the building.

On Nov. 3, voters will decide whether the city should sell the building to the Florida Gulf Coast Art Center. If the sale is approved in the referendum election, the building would be torn down and a new one erected.

If voters reject the sale, the debate is sure to begin again. Other suggestions for the property have included commercial redevelopment, which probably would mean that the building would be razed.

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