One year later: White Lakes mall continues to await demolition

FILE - Topeka Fire Crews respond to White Lakes Mall early Tuesday morning, Dec. 29, 2021.
FILE - Topeka Fire Crews respond to White Lakes Mall early Tuesday morning, Dec. 29, 2021.(Phil Anderson)
Published: Dec. 30, 2021 at 4:17 PM CST
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Thursday marks one year since the White Lakes Mall was set on fire by three teens and the building has seen a lot of activity and attention since.

Around 6:40 a.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020, a two-alarm fire was set at the White Lakes Mall. Crews worked for over 10 hours to extinguish the blaze which engulfed the building but saved Mainline Printing.

“So our production manager called me at 6:30 this morning and alerted me to what was some sort of situation happening on the other side of the mall,” said John Parker Jr. Chief Operator at Mainline Printing.

Parker said he immediately feared for the safety of employees and equipment as the third shift wrapped up on the north end of the mall while flames came from the roof on the south end.

“It seemed like every vehicle and firefighter was out here and working their tails off to protect our facility and do their job.”

While much of the building was damaged by fire and water from hoses, Mainline Printing sustained little disruption to first shift operations and only had to clean up a bit of water. The fire caused about $100,000 worth of damage to the building. Parts of the roof had collapsed and Topeka Fire’s Alan Stahl said flames spread through about one-third of the mall before the fire was extinguished.

“I’ve been doing this for over 20 years in the city and we have had a lot of fires but this one really stands out because of the building itself,” said Stahl.

Two days after the fire, on Dec. 31, investigators reported the mall had intentionally been set on fire. Joel Sink, 18, and two other juveniles were booked into the Shawnee Co. Dept. of Corrections for arson, criminal damage to property and criminal trespass.

About a month later, on Jan. 25, 2021, new information in an affidavit released to 13 NEWS indicated a Snapchat video recorded the beginnings of the fire. An anonymous tip was sent in about the video, which led to the three arrests.

Sink confessed he and two minors graffitied the property and started the fire. He said they tried to stomp out the flames, but admitted there was still the smell of a burning fire when they left.

In October, it was reported Sink had agreed to diversion, which meant he would serve no time for the fire he helped to start in the mall.

At the time of the fire, Topeka Fire Marshal Todd Harrison said Mainline Printing was the only business left in the mall, which once boasted a number of businesses in the 1960′s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Stores included in the mall’s heyday include JC Penney, Walgreens, Woolworths, Falley’s Market, Sears, Robinson’s Shoes and various clothing stores and shops.

However, when West Ridge Mall opened in 1988, most of those businesses moved in.

White Lakes Mall adopted its name from the namesake of the land it sits on, White Lakes Country Club. It was built in the early ‘60s and opened in 1964 for a total of $8 million. Eventually, the mall rebranded to White Lakes Center in an attempt to move from retail to business-oriented.

After the fire, Emily Cowan, founder of Abandoned Kansas, said she hoped the mall would rise from the ashes.

“It has a personal connection to my family because my aunt and uncle actually met there in 1983,” Cowan said. “He pulled up with some friends and he was supposed to be meeting some other friends, and they mistook [sic] my aunt’s car for their friends and they started talking and the next weekend they went on a date.” Thirty-seven years later they are still married.

Cowan told 13 NEWS she hoped the fire was a wake-up call for officials and urged them to preserve historic properties in danger of being lost, such as the Menninger Campus and former Sumner School.

In 2019, WIBW reported squatters were known to frequent the abandoned mall. This became an issue for officials and in August of 2020, the City of Topeka condemned the building.

At the time of the fire, the building was owned by KDL, Inc. Owner Kent Lindemuth was found to have filed for bankruptcy in 2012. Eventually, Lindemuth was acquitted of 117 federal charges against him, most of which were related to alleged bankruptcy fraud.

In March, Mainline Printing sued KDL, Inc., for neglecting to improve the property. In its petition, Mainline listed various examples of how the company failed to make repairs since the December fire. The petition also stated KDL had been in breach of their property agreement for years because of a lack of repairs and improvements made to the condemned property.

Mainline gave KDL a 20-day notice to make the repairs, which failed to be completed, so it asked the Shawnee Co. Court to enforce the agreement.

In August, the City of Topeka ordered KDL to demolish or sell the building to investors to demolish. Even before the fire, the City indicated White Lakes Mall had been in shambles. However, the mall did not meet the criteria for demolition until the fire.

Topeka developer Henry McClure said, “Broken glass, I’m seeing everything like, it looks like it’s been stripped like people have been ransacking it, just total destruction, and mayhem. Project Mayhem from Fight Club.”

McClure took a video inside the mall before the late December fire.

Demolition order from the City of Topeka sent to White Lakes Mall owner

On June 2, the City issued the order and stated the structure was so deteriorated, dangerous, unsafe and unsanitary the cost to repair it would be unreasonable - like a totaled car.

If KDL would not foot the bill or find a seller to for demolition, taxpayers could have been responsible for up to $1,000,000 of the demolition cost.

McClure said he worked for White Lakes’ second owner, Macerich Company, who owned the building in 1983. He said he could see an apartment complex or retail business filling the space.

“McDonald’s scrapes their building and builds a new one so that’s good real estate. KFC does the same thing, they completely gutted it. We’ve got wendy’s across the street but when people come to the market to see my pad sights -- and yeah, I admit, Bennigans is an eyesore, I’ve tried to lease it but people come to look at it and they look down the street, standing at Bennigans you can see the mall, and it’s like well wait a minute. This area is going downhill.”

However, in September, there was still no improvement from KDL, so the City of Topeka said it would move forward with demolition of the mall after the Council unanimously voted to start the process.

“We appreciate the council stepping up and doing the right thing and helping the city move on from what has become an extremely dangerous and blighted property,” said Parker Jr.

On Oct. 7, the City took the first step toward demolition, draining the mall of water built up in the basement from the fire.

Lastly, on Nov. 29, 13 NEWS reached out to the City about the demolition process, which officials said would begin by December. However, a city spokesperson said the demolition would then start in mid-January at the earliest.

At the time, city officials were working through asbestos information which was required to be addressed before demolition.

County property records indicate White Lakes Mall was appraised in 2020 for a little over $800,000 and taxes were about $42,000.

13 NEWS reached out to city officials on Thursday to see where the demolition process sat, however, the City said it would not be able to provide an update about the mall until 2022.

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