Historic Preservation Commission delays raze order
The Historic Preservation Commission voted unanimously tonight to recommend to the city administration the delay of the raze order for the former Elk’s Club, the Heritage House building, located at 5706 Eighth Avenue. They want more time to discuss with interested parties and follow-up on all leads for potential uses of the building. Several developers have expressed an interest, and they will be going through the building in the next few weeks.
Mike Maki, a planner for the city’s Department of City Development, gave a synopsis of what has transpired on this issue. In February of 2012, the city requested permission from the commission to raze the building. The current ordinance calls for any action on any building that is on the local historical property list be reviewed by the commission. This includes demolition as well as alterations.
Maki said that the commission has two choices. Either they can recommendation preservation, or approve the raze order. Once the commission makes their recommendation, it goes to the property owner in an advisory capacity only. The property owner doesn’t have to follow the commission’s recommendation.
“In February, the commission approved a four-month deferral. In June, an additional sixty-day deferral was approved. The commission only has a maximum time period of six months to try to come up with a solution. This meeting marks the six-month period. The commission has no formal standing after today,” Maki continued. “If a plan comes forward, then it would have to come back here before the commission for approval.”
Chairman Don Jensen opened the public hearing. Kristine Roemer, who’s spearheading the preservation effort, stated that she’s representing a group who is an interested party. She distributed copies of their proposed vision. She stated that she appreciates the commission’s extension. She told the group about the Preservation Plus Organization, a 501(c)(3) organization that has been formed to preserve not just this building, but other historical buildings around the city. “People in the community are interested,” she said. “We’re glad we don’t have the pendulum, or the guillotine, hanging over our heads.”
The packet Roemer distributed contained an outline for their plans for the renovated building and potential sources of funds to finance the project. For more information, or to share your thoughts and ideas, please visit their website at: http://www.preservetheelkbuildings.com. Also included was a list of agencies to support and benefit, corporate and business partnership opportunities, sales projections for 2014, Friends with 10 (a lifetime membership opportunity for a one-time, tax deductible contribution of $10,000), Windows in Time (buy a window program), and 12 economic benefits of historic preservation.
Phil Haney said, “We’re too quick to tear things down in this country. Once it’s torn down, it’s gone forever.” He cautioned the city against listening to “big city slickers in sharkskin suits that will leave with a bag of money, laughing about us yokels. I don’t like being seen as a yokel.” He suggested a homeless shelter for those from large industries who’ve lost their jobs in the last 10 to 20 years.
Mary Dixon said, “It’s beyond my capacity how the city and the county could have allowed the building to deteriorate. It’s an eyesore.” Only one person called for tearing down the building. “What possible good is there? Someone is going to get hurt, and the city will be stuck with the bill. Tear the damn thing down. We need more parking. It would make an excellent parking lot. Enough said.”
Another gentleman echoed Haney’s comments. “I lived in Europe for seven years. You would never see this happen in Europe. They preserve buildings that are 300 to 400 years old. The American psyche is that, if a building is 50 years, we need to tear it down. That’s very short-sighted.”
After several more people spoke, Jensen reminded everyone that “the commission doesn’t have the power to save the building. City government can handle it now.”
Alderperson David Bogdala asked a couple of questions. “Can the commission take a vote to preserve?” Plus, he said, he was reading the minutes from the last meeting, and it talked about the building being razed with Kenosha Areas Business Alliance (KABA) money, not taxpayer money. Yet, when he asked KABA’s president Todd Battle about it, he said that he didn’t know of any money from private donations. Bogdala said that he would raise the question again at next Wednesday’s Finance meeting. He also reminded everyone that the city doesn’t own the building. “The city should have enforced the law on the books, and didn’t, as far as upkeep, maintenance, etc. We need to start reviewing the package of historic properties so that, five years from now, we don’t find ourselves in the same situation. We need to address the needs all across the city. This gives folks an opportunity to do what they want to do. We’re always asking for people’s involvement.”
John Christensen, present owner of the building, then got up and defended the building. He offered a solution, and that was that he has experience with sheet metal. He can do this building. “We could get the first two floors done, bring in some revenue, and then work on the upstairs. I was the one to sign the raze order. I realize now the mistake I made. I can find the guys, tradespeople, professionals, who can redo the building. You just have to find the money, and I’ll find a way to get it done. The building needs some tuckpointing, a new roof, and windows. All we need is a planner, an engineer, and a project manager. If the city tears this building down, then it should also tear down 10 to 15 other buildings in the city.”
Jensen then closed the public hearing, saying that “the commission could not consider the item before them. There is nothing we can do.”
Alderperson Jan Michalski said that Jensen was right. The committee has no standing. “We have no ability to enforce our judgment on this matter. It’s up the city. But, we are the Historic Preservation Commission. The formation of this commission is to preserve historic buildings. There is no way we can compel city government. But, I have heard recently that the mayor recently moderated on this matter. He is now more open to ideas.” He suggested that the mayor work with either Roemer or Christensen to come up with a reasonable solution.
Commission member Merike Phillips said that she has been in the building twice, once with her brother who is a structural engineer. “Yes, there is fire damage, etc., but the structure is sound.” They also checked out the roof, and she said that it wasn’t so bad. “Yes, it’s leaking pretty badly along the flashing on the east side, and there are some broke skylights. But, someone had an intelligent idea, and that was not to replace all of the windows immediately. We want to send a strong message to the city that we have done all we can for preservation. As I read in the paper, ‘No one will come to Kenosha to see parking lots.’”
Two motions were approved by the committee tonight. The first was to delay the exercise of the raze order, and the second was to follow the Lakota Group’s suggestion to recruit prospective rehabilitation and adaptive use of historic buildings. The commission wants the city to take an active role in preserving the recommendations of the Lakota Group.
Vice chairperson Tom Schleif called for a list of all historical buildings, and appropriate assessments of each one, so that “we are don’t find ourselves under the gun with the wrecking ball.” Jensen said that one good that has come out of all of this discussion is that all of us have a better appreciation of historic buildings.
The Public Safety and Welfare Committee has already approved this agenda item. Next, the issue comes before the Common Council next Wednesday, September 5th. The next meeting of the Historical Preservation Commission is tentatively set for Tuesday, September 25th.