For many, the surest sign of impending doom is the presence of dozens of metal poles that appear to be propping up the only exit ramp in downtown Lexington's Annex parking garage.
"I do get nervous, actually, especially going down the swirly thing," said Caroline Hall, motioning toward the ramp, which is named the helix because of its spiraling design. Hall parked in the Annex garage recently when she renewed her car's license plate tags.
The six-story parking structure, built in 1966, is wedged between the Fayette County Clerk's office and the Lexington Division of Police headquarters in the 100 block of Main Street. That explains why it is Lexington's busiest city-owned parking garage.
The garage's crumbling concrete exposes the rusted steel inside slabs and columns on every floor. When it rains or snows, water trickles from the upper floors through cracks and seams. And its deteriorating facade and the jury-rigged supports on the exit ramp are enough to give anyone pause.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
"I think that the city really hasn't taken care of this garage," said Hall, looking at a crack in the ceiling on the second floor. She said she knows it's "a very old structure," but she doesn't think it's well-maintained.
City officials say motorists shouldn't be nervous about using the garage. That's because it has received a great deal of attention — including constant assessments and routine maintenance — for the last several years to ensure that it is safe, said Tom Wilson, administrative officer in the Department of General Services for the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government.
"We wouldn't have it open if it wasn't," said Wilson, who oversees the city's parking contracts and receives reports about the condition of its garages.
'Fair to poor' condition
The condition of Lexington's parking garages came under scrutiny after Stephanie Hufnagel, 22, and her unborn daughter were killed on May 16, 2006, by a slab of concrete that fell from a privately owned garage. The panel was knocked loose after it was struck by a slow-moving pickup on the second floor of the Chase Bank parking garage. The 5,000-pound panel broke away from brackets that held it on and fell on Hufnagel, a bank employee who was walking below. She was eight months pregnant with her second child.
City-owned garages are inspected routinely these days.
Twice a year, the city contracts Desman Associates, a nationwide architecture and engineering firm that specializes in parking garages, to inspect the Annex and recommend repairs.
The engineering firm rates garages, and individual components of garages, as excellent, good, fair, poor or obsolete. A garage in fair condition is usable, but deterioration has begun to accelerate. Poor condition denotes a high level of deterioration, or that the garage or component "is no longer functioning as intended," according to the report.
The Annex is somewhere in between. In 2006, Desman Associates reported that the Annex was in "fair to poor" condition, and that rating hasn't changed in the past five years.
The most recent inspection was conducted in November. The report, obtained by the Herald-Leader through an open-records request, was submitted to the city last month.
The report said that even in "fair to poor" condition, the Annex garage "can continue to support realistic live loads associated with its current, self-park operation."
Although periodic repairs have been made, no significant improvements have been made to the Annex since 2006, according to the report. Loose concrete has been removed, potholes have been patched, seam covers have been replaced and brighter light bulbs have been installed.
In March 2006, Desman Associates had completed a report outlining possible longer-term repairs for the Annex garage that were expected to cost the city $1.9 million to $2.4 million. The more expensive options, which included concrete repairs, new drains and sealers to inhibit corrosion, would possibly extend the life of the garage for as long as 20 more years, the report said.
Those repairs were not made, Wilson said, and there are no plans to authorize them.
Wilson also said he was not aware of any plans to rebuild or replace the garage.
"The city is in the middle of their budget process right now, and at some point in the future, I'm sure they'll have to make that decision," he said.
Robert Tober, associate vice president of Desman Associates and a structural engineer, said the city had recently asked him to assess what repairs would be necessary to extend the life of the garage an additional 10 years, but as of yet, they haven't authorized him to begin the work.
Tober said he does not think the city has the money to put into the garage for more extensive repairs. Without those repairs, it's hard to say how much longer the garage can function.
"You can't label garages under one umbrella as far as what the typical lifespan is," he said.
Although the condition of the Annex garage has not improved since 2006, the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government has spent more than $250,000 maintaining it. The bulk of that money was paid to a Hamilton, Ohio, company called Lithko Restoration Technologies to install dozens of metal poles to stabilize the helix ramp.
In 2007, the city paid Lithko $153,500 to install the poles and perform other repairs, according to invoices obtained through open-records requests. An additional $14,000 was spent in 2008 for additional poles and increased rental fees.
It's unclear when the "temporary shoring" poles, which have been in place for more than three years, will be removed. The city has paid $2,100 to $2,700 a month for rental fees and inspections of the poles, plus additional maintenance from Lithko.
Wilson said he did not know whether the ramp was in danger of collapsing before the poles were put in place; Desman Associates recommended the shoring before he took over as administrative officer in 2008.
"I would assume it's just additional support," he said, deferring further comment to structural engineers.
Tober said the poles were put in place for two reasons: public safety, and to prevent the closing of the garage if extensive repairs were needed.
"If something that would happen would require an immediate repair of that helix ramp, what does that do to the garage?" he said of the only exit ramp.
According to the contract, Lithko is responsible for monthly repairs that included knocking down loose concrete on ceilings and walls, which exposes the rusted rebar beneath.
It might be an eyesore, but much of the exposed rebar doesn't indicate structural problems, Tober said.
"Some of the concrete that has come off serves no structural purpose ... other than fireproofing protection versus the steel," Tober said.
Desman Associates' reports recognize rusting as probably the largest contributor to the deterioration of the garage.
Rusting occurs when water seeps into the concrete through cracks, pores and seams. The process is accelerated when salt, such as the kind used to de-ice roads in the winter, is added to the mix.
To slow this process, crews don't use salt in the garage, Wilson said. Instead, the city de-ices the garage with Calcium Magnesium Acetate, a chemical compound that is less corrosive to metal.
However, during this winter's heavy snowfall, the city has already spread about 12,500 tons of ground salt on streets throughout the city — 500 more tons than during typical entire winters, city spokeswoman Susan Straub said.
There is no telling how many pounds of that have been carried into the Annex garage by the cars that park there. This winter's effect on the garage probably won't be seen until the spring, Wilson said. Typically, cracking and crumbling becomes more apparent when the weather warms up quickly, causing the concrete to expand.
"We always take a really good look at it in the spring," he said.
Concern for safety
Despite the city's assurances, many of the hundreds of people who park in the garage daily aren't convinced that the deterioration they see with their own eyes doesn't pose a threat.
The Annex garage holds 380 cars at once, and an average of 800 cars per day passed through the garage in January — 1,100 cars per day on the first and last days of the month, as people rushed to do business at the courthouse or the clerk's office.
That's the highest average number of any city-owned garage, said Sherry Aytes, office manager at LexPark, which contracts with the city for parking services. The Transit Center garage, near the bus station, averaged 427 daily visitors. The courthouse garage averaged 344, and the Victorian Square garage averaged 267.
The garage's many visitors often share their fears with Freida Downey, who can be found most workdays sitting in a booth at the bottom of the helix ramp, collecting tickets and parking fees.
"My customers express concern for their safety and my safety," Downey said.
Local architectural engineers have expressed concern about the poles propping up the helix, she said. One woman, an employee at the county clerk's office, won't park in the garage when she brings her young son to work.
"She's scared of it," Downey said. "They walked from the courthouse garage to our building because she refused to bring her children to the (Annex) garage."
Jeff Adams, an employee for the city's Division of Enhanced 911, parks in the garage daily. The helix ramp is his biggest concern.
"That scares a lot of people, especially if there's a lot of cars on it waiting to get out," he said. "That ramp is going to come down, there's no doubt about it."
The damage is so bad, Adams said, that he doesn't know whether routine maintenance will keep it safe.
"From the looks of some of it, it looks like it needs to be started from the ground up," Adams said.
But according to the dozens of engineers and construction workers who inspect the garage monthly, motorists have no reason to be afraid.
Tober compared the garage's deterioration to the beginning stages of cancer.
"It is a sign that the garage certainly has deterioration mechanisms that have already manifested themselves," he said. "But what we want to do is ... control it and make sure that the garage can operate safely."