Parkrose Resident Files Class Action Lawsuit Against Owner of Vacant Kmart Over Debris From Blaze

Stephen Vandervort, 36, says NFL owner Zygmunt Wilf and Prologis should pay.

Kmart blaze, July 19, 2023. (Portland Fire & Rescue)

Stephen Vandervort, who lives a half mile from the vacant Kmart on Northeast Sandy Boulevard that caught fire last week, today filed a class action lawsuit against the owner of the property and the company that leases it, alleging that they had neglected to maintain it properly, creating conditions that led to the fire.

Vandervort flied his suit in Multnomah County Circuit Court and is seeking to represent all property owners who were affected by the fire, including those who have had to collect chunks of black residue the size of softballs that wafted out of the conflagration and settled in their yards.

The property is owned by an entity called RFC Joint Venture, which is controlled by Zygmunt Wilf, a New Jersey real estate developer who also owns the Minnesota Vikings football team. A San Francisco company called Prologis has a lease on the property lasting until 2083 and plans to build a freight warehouse there once its building permit is approved.

“RFC and Prologis maintained a derelict building—a former Kmart store—on the property that had no beneficial use and posed an obvious danger to the local community,” Vandervort says in his complaint. “Defendants had a duty to maintain the property so as to avoid creating a dangerous nuisance to the neighborhood. Defendants failed to comply with their obligations.”

Vandervort, 36, said he awoke to news of the fire on July 19, and went outside immediately to spray his yard and trees with water to prevent embers from setting fire to his property. Soon after, he got a notice from Prescott Elementary, telling him that day care for his two daughters was canceled because the school couldn’t run its ventilation system with all the debris and ash in the air.

Later, he consulted with an asbestos removal company to see what he would have to do if the debris contained asbestos, a carcinogen. If asbestos were present, he would have to remove several inches of mulch and topsoil, the company said. So far, one test, done by Portland Parks & Recreation, has turned up significant asbestos, while some two dozen done by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have not.

The company that Vandervort hired told him the material was likely glass fiber and tar.

“It’s great news that asbestos isn’t evident, but now I have glass fiber and tar in the yard where my kids play in a sprinkler,” Vandervort said in an interview. “That’s supposed to make me feel better?”

In his suit, Vandervort details complaints about the property that he says demonstrate Wilf’s negligence.

The Bureau of Development Services says it has two open code enforcement cases on the property, prompted by a citizen complaint about the building being open to trespassers, said BDS spokesman Ken Ray.

“We inspected on July 6 and confirmed that there were multiple areas of entry to the property,” Ray said in an email. “We did not find evidence of homeless activity or signs of unapproved building occupancy. We gave the property owner 15 days to board up and secure the open and vacant commercial building. Included in the violation letter was a notice that a city inspector would re-inspect this property on or after July 21 to ensure that the building was secure.”

Vandervort says he filed his suit because he doesn’t think residents of East Portland should have to clean up after a wealthy property owner or his tenant. (Prologis is listed on the New York Stock Exchange and has a market value of $115 billion. Many reports show that Zygmunt “Zygi” Wilf is a billionaire.)

“If my 2000 Ford Ranger caught on fire, and the plastic bed liner flew into his property, I’m kidding myself if I thought he wouldn’t do something about it,” Vandervort said.

A representative for Garden Homes, Wilf’s real estate company, didn’t return an email seeking comment.

“We hadn’t yet received this complaint but will review,” a Prologis spokesperson said in an email. “The fire last week was an unfortunate and unexpected event. It is our understanding that an arson investigation is still underway. We have been working with the public agencies to help respond, including helping clean community parks and schools.”

The Kmart at Northeast Sandy Boulevard and 122nd Avenue has been closed since 2018. That same year, the city of Portland opened the door to different development for Wilf by changing the zoning for the 13-acre parcel as part of the 2035 Comprehensive Plan.

Vandervort, who owns a small event production company, moved into the neighborhood in 2015 and used to shop at the Kmart. “I bought my microwave there,” he says. “I have pictures of my daughters in the carts.”

Vandervort would rather have Wilf lease the land to Trader Joe’s, or another retailer. “But if I were a billionaire property owner, of course I’d want to rent it to a New York Stock Exchange-listed company so they can deliver Jeff Bezos’ goods all day long.”

Prologis handles items for companies including Amazon, which was founded by Bezos.

A map of debris from the fire at a vacant Kmart in East Portland (Source: U.S. EPA) (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

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