With the number of days before Minnesota’s short construction season ends dwindling, the Faribault City Council on Tuesday pressed a city commission into action.
Last month, the Heritage Preservation Commission tabled a request from the council to approve demolition of an historic downtown building at 27 Third St. NW the city had planned to convert to parking, wanting to see a final report on costs to repair the dilapidated structure.
Last December, the city purchased that building and its neighbor at 225 First Ave. NW for $238,930. The city intended to demolish the buildings to make way for a new public parking, the Heritage Preservation Commission in February objected to the city’s proposal to allow the Third Street building to be razed, arguing that it holds significant historical value. Councilors toured the building and noted massive structural deficiencies including a 25-foot hole in the roof.
In hopes of convincing the Heritage Preservation Commission to support demolition of the building, the Council commissioned a report from architectural and engineering firm ISG to determine the state of the building. According to ISG’s preliminary report, it would cost nearly $3 million to bring the building back to usable, safe condition.
While HPC members said they wanted to wait to see ISG’s final report, they made it clear they see no path forward for restoration of the building.
Although HPC members had effectively given up on hopes of restoring the Third Street building, the Commission’s decision to table the issue meant the HPC was not planning on revisiting its decision until its next regularly scheduled meeting Sept. 16. That wasn’t good enough for City Administrator Tim Murray.
Murray warned the council that the number of potential construction days left in 2019 are dwindling and said he’s worried that the building poses an increasing public safety risk the longer it stays up.
At Murray’s urging, Vohs said he’d try to call a special HPC meeting on Monday. Such a meeting would give the HPC the opportunity to approve the building demolition for the Third Street building before the council meeting the following day.
Vohs said it’s highly unlikely that the HPC would agree to approve demolition of the First Street building. He reiterated the general view of the HPC that adhering to the proper process is more important than the final outcome when it comes to demonstrating that Faribault is committed to preserving its historic downtown area.
Mayor Kevin Voracek and Councilor Peter van Sluis also encouraged the council to consider saving the First Avenue building. Noting that the building remains structurally sound, they suggested that the city could preserve it and rent it out to businesses and organizations.
“I think it would be a cool place to keep for a nonprofit or a makerspace or something like that,” said van Sluis.
Speaking in favor of preserving the First Avenue building, Vohs noted that historic preservation tax credits help downtown property owners fund millions of dollars in preservation and upgrades. He warned the council that not doing everything it can to avoid tearing down historic buildings could lead the city’s bid to expand its historic district to fail, potentially costing downtown businesses millions in tax credits to help maintain and upgrade buildings.
“They’re in the historic district and the council wants to tear them down but at the same time we have a proposal in to SHPO (the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office) to expand the downtown historic district,” Vohs pointed out. “So what SHPO thinks about us and how we handle our historic buildings is very significant.”
That argument resonated with Councilor Janna Viscomi. Previously supportive of demolishing both buildings, Viscomi noted the importance of bringing the Historic Preservation Committee on board. However, she wasn’t convinced that the building should stay, adding that she wasn’t comfortable with having the city act as landlord in this case.
“I’m sure we could find some sort of use for (the building), but I don’t know what that use is,” she said.
City Engineer Mark DuChene said that the city hasn’t evaluated the potential cost of demolishing only the 3rd Ave building. DuChene added that the city needs to first accept the bid to demolish both buildings and then draft a change order if it wishes to preserve the 1st Street building.
DuChene and Councilor Jonathan Wood, who owns a construction business, noted that because extra precautions would have to be taken to protect the First Avenue building from being damaged by the demolition of the 3rd Street building, the price of demolishing the Third Street building may actually be higher than the price of demolishing both.
Voracek and Councilor Royal Ross suggested that the lot be used as a green space after demolition is complete, rather than a parking lot. They noted that if Faribault’s Downtown Master Plan is implemented successfully, more residents would live downtown. Thus, the need for green space downtown might become more significant over time and the need for parking less significant.
Faribault Chamber of Commerce & Tourism Director Nort Johnson urged the Council to stick with the original plan to build a parking lot on the site. Johnson pointed out that the city made the decision to buy the property after two-year a study by the Parking Commission identified a dire need for more downtown parking.
“We have a shortage of downtown parking at critical times,” Johnson noted. “Anything you put back into development is going to do just the opposite of remedying that problem.”
While the Council will have to decide almost immediately if it wants to demolish the First Avenue building this year, it won’t have to decide right away how to use the space. If demolished, the vacant lot will sit covered with gravel over the winter while the ground settles.