Commission votes on fate of Heritage House
At tonight’s Historic Preservation Commission meeting, the members of the commission voted 4 to 1 to defer action for 120 days in order to allow interested parties to contact each other, coordinate their efforts, and submit their ideas to the city. Don Jensen, chairman of the commission, voted against the deferral.
The meeting was open to the public, and several public comments on the raze order were taken. Mike Maki, a planner for the city’s Department of City Development, showed photos of the property before the committee took action. Most of the photos were taken last year, but some were two years old and before the damage from an October 28th fire. Photos showed broken windows, missing bricks, debris everywhere, mold, peeling paint, rippled hardwood flooring, the growth of moss, and much water damage.
Public comments were made by Jennifer Heim, Mayor Keith Bosman, John Fox, Khristine Roemer, John Christensen, Ray Forgianni, Lou Rugani, Jessica Shauman, and Cheryl Johnston. Heim requested that the committee hold off on the decision until after the strategic plan was completed. She pushed for a convening of creative people to come up with ideas for an “adaptive re-use” of the building. “I’ve bought three historic buildings since I’ve moved here,” she said. “I want to see this building saved.”
Bosman stated that the city’s position was to allow the demolition of the building, or allow sixty days. “It would take that long to allow time for discovery of its problems,” he said. “The Kenosha Area Business Alliance (KABA) has committed the $400,000 needed to take out the building. Two years from now, the money may be gone. Then, the cost would fall on the backs of the taxpayers. It will cost $2 million to make the building weather-tight, and another $4 or $5 million to bring it up to a usable shape. The city has no money to throw at this project. It’s a public safety hazard. Realistically, I’m all for saving buildings, but this building is beyond saving.” He mentioned that the former city hall had been a handsome building, and it had been discarded forty-five years ago.
Fox, a lifetime resident of Kenosha whose father was a former head chef at the Elk’s Club, said that he liked one thing Bosman said, and that was that forty years ago, we are now talking about wishing we had saved a building. “Well, forty years from now, will we be looking back and saying the same thing? Will we be wishing that we had saved the Heritage House?” One of Fox’s points was that the city/county had not yet acquired the building, so “how can we decide on what to do with it?” His other point was that no structural engineering firm has been hired to do an evaluation to deem it unsafe. “How can we make a decision? Heim saved the Orpheum Theater. We should be able to do the same with this building.”
Roemer said that she loves downtown. She has started a one-woman campaign and has gathered the signatures of 80 people one day at the market who want to save the old Elk’s Club. She would like to save the shell, gut it, and re-create the building. “It could become the anchor of downtown.” She stated that she spoke to the historical preservation representative at The Lakota Group meeting last night at the Museum, and he was very excited about the building. “We hired these professionals; we ought to let them give their opinion.” She stated that she saw a roof estimate of $265,000, which was done two years ago. “An Interested Citizens Committee should be formed to work with The Lakota Group, senior students from Carthage, Gateway, and Parkside, and create some business plans for possible uses of the building. “When it’s gone, it’s gone. It’s a great gem, a destination spot. We should be able to recreate the ballroom to a functional use, maybe make it a bed and breakfast, or a four-star culinary school. Tearing down a historical building is not the wisest use of our funds or resources. I’m going to cajole and beg you. We need time to develop some ideas.”
Christensen, whose family owns the building, said that his mother bought the building in 1991 and spent a lot of money refurbishing the building. He stated that he wants to talk to the mayor and Jeff LaBahn, interim director of the Department of Community Development & Inspections, about a deferral. “It’s been estimated to cost $264,000 to tear the building down. I’d like to find a group to donate the building to. I have the key to the building; I can take groups through it. But, it’s going to take big bucks to fix it. I have some connections in Chicago, but none of these developers are interested. We should defer the decision for 120 days, and then make that the final day. I go through the building on a weekly basis. If there is no compromise, then the building should come down.”
Forgianni, former director of City Development, stated that he believes the building will be torn down, but that he wished that were not the case. He mentioned other buildings that were saved; namely, the Harborside Fire Station, Maple House, the Orpheum Theater, and the History Center. “We couldn’t re-build this building today. The construction methods that were used in old buildings then would be too expensive. Those would be lost forever.” He didn’t feel that sixty days was enough time. He stated that he felt that it would be “necessary and wise to wait until the downtown plan is complete to find out if it’s feasible to save the building.”
Rugani stated that he agreed with what was stated previously by those who spoke before him. “There used to be a Landmark Committee. The significant title change was made to the Historic Preservation Commission. Their mission is to preserve. Kenosha has a “can do attitude,” but we need time. There has to be an interest on the part of city leadership. Just because there are broken windows, doesn’t mean that we just pitch the building. It might cost $10,000 to secure the building until an interested person or a developer comes along with a vision to make something out of lemons.”
Shauman stated that she is an event planner, a wedding planner. She stated that there is a person missing, and “I’d like to be that person. I don’t have the resources, and I’m not a business expert. But I do have energy, and I’d like to give it a shot. We need to get everyone in this room who’s interested in working on this on the same page. We need some direction. If KABA is willing to spend $400,000 to demolish the building, why can’t they use that money to back a future entrepreneur?”
Johnston stated that she feels it’s a wonderful building, and she urged the commission not to tear it down. She asked for time to make connections with people, pool their resources, and save the building. She stated that she’d like to be given the opportunity to help the community in some way. “I want to bring the community together. One hundred and twenty days should be ample time to gather the professionals, get the proper approvals, etc., and go with some kind of an idea for that building. It’s going to cost $264,000 to tear it down. I’m eager to come up with a plan.”
Maki stated that, yes, other prior historic buildings were saved and re-used, but those buildings were smaller and not in such a deteriorated state. “It’s been marketed for a number of years. The owner spoke; Chicago is not interested. The repair cost is greater than 85% of the assessed value of the building, which is $251,000. The roof repair alone is greater than 85%. KABA has offered the funds to raze the building, but there is a time limit on the offer.” Maki said staff in the city’s Department of Community Development & Inspections have recommended to defer action on the property for sixty days, which would push a decision on the raze order until April.
Alderperson Jan Michalski asked whether or not a structural analysis had been done, and Maki stated that it had not. “The city doesn’t own the building at this point in time. The owners have stated that they have no funding.” Michalski wanted to know if the city could forgive any tax delinquencies. LaBahn replied that there are a number of encumbrances on the property, but that they “go beyond what the city is owed. The County is also owed some money.” Michalski was the one who made a motion to defer the decision for 120 days. “I understand that the building may have to come down. If nothing concrete comes up in 120 days, then nothing will.”
Commission member Merike Phillips stated that there were some important points made here tonight. She stated that she feels that the Elk’s Club “deserves a chance to be preserved. It would require the staff to work with the current owner and the mayor’s office to turn the building over to the city, sell it for a dollar, and come up with some incentive for a developer.” She also urged that a historic structures report be completed, and as Forgianni stated, wait at least until the downtown study is completed. Sue Dyke O’Day wanted to know when the downtown plan would be finished. Michalski thought it would be completed in April. Tom Schleif agreed with the 120-day deferral. He did state that, once the downtown study is completed and a report is written, “it may change everything.” Phillips stated that, if the city owns the property, the liens would go away. “Isn’t there some kind of an incentive that KABA, a business, a realtor, can provide? We need some kind of leadership, some drive.”
Maki made a few last comments to the commission. “The city has no money allocated. It’s hard to market the property. The Common Council has not approved any funds toward this property. There is no money to do a structural analysis. And, KABA has only made the funds available for a limited time.” When pressed by O’Day as to how long the funds were available, Maki stated that he doesn’t know for sure. Bosman interjected that there is no guarantee the funds would be available beyond sixty days. “I can’t even guarantee the sixty days. The longer we push this down the road, the more likely the taxpayers will end up shouldering the bill.”
Christensen stated that there had been a person back in 2009 from Green Bay who was looking at the building for an assisted living facility. He had a structural report done, even an environmental study. He stated that he has it somewhere, and that he would find it. “The guy did want some tax incentives, though.” He offered to give his cell phone number to the people in the room who expressed interest in working together, but was told to give his number to Maki. He also expressed his interest in meeting with the mayor to discuss tax liens.
Fox was given another opportunity to speak as well. He said, “We’ve heard here tonight that we have people interested. Why is the city using city dollars to tear down a building we don’t even own? Just because it’s not pretty, doesn’t mean that it’s not sound.”
Even though Jensen pushed for only deferring for 60 days, the commission did approve a 120-day deferral.
Other business conducted at the meeting was the re-election of the current chairperson, Jensen, and vice chairperson, Schleif.
The commission also discussed the Kenosha High School (Reuther) lighting informational item. Apparently, the Kenosha Unified School District (KUSD) has “lost” one of the historic light fixtures which was stored thirty years ago. The architect has located two light fixtures identical to the original ones on eBay, but they have no funds to purchase them. They are looking to the commission to provide support. Maki stated that “we’ve given them information on seeking funding sources. They wanted at least a letter of support from the commission to provide to potential funders.” Michalski moved that a letter of support be provided, but no funds. All were in favor.
Also, the commission voted to amend the commission’s bylaws and rules to accommodate the name change from City Development and Neighborhood Services and Inspections to Community Development and Inspections.
During the Public Comments portion of the meeting, Fox thanked the commission and hoped that something good would come out within the 120-day period. “It’s wonderful to have a Historical Preservation Commission like this in our city.” He also brought up the subject of the city’s renovation of several parks in the city. He is a proponent of preserving Kenosha’s park space. He stated that “public parks need to remain public parks. Forever public parks,” he said. He mentioned that the bathroom in Eichelmann Park is scheduled to be torn down in the parks project, and he urged the commission to preserve that bathroom.
Phillips wanted to give a directive to the city to find out what needed to be done in order to turn the building over to the city. Maki stated that the city has been made whole as far as any tax liens. “The County would have to agree to relinquish any tax liens owed to it.”
Michalski stated that he provided copies of a proposed historic preservation ordinance in the packets that were given to the commission members this evening. He asked that it be placed on next month’s agenda. The next meeting is scheduled for March 29th.