The decision by the Faribault City Council Tuesday brings an end to a nearly year-long saga over the fate of the two downtown buildings, and overrides the Heritage Preservation Commission’s refusal to grant a certificate of appropriateness for demolition of a former hair salon

At its meeting the previous night, the Heritage Preservation Commission voted to reverse itself and grant a certificate of appropriateness for demolition of the building at 27 Third St. NW. The commission reversed after an analysis from engineering and architecture firm ISG found that the city would need to spend nearly $3 million to get the building back into usable, safe condition. But it stood firm on the neighboring building at 225 First Ave. NW.

A lack of regular fire and safety inspections enabled the Third Street building to be used even as it became increasingly unsafe amid inadequate maintenance. Earlier this year, the city began a program of mandatory fire and safety inspections of downtown buildings.

The city purchased the downtown buildings late last year after a report from the city’s Parking Committee found a significant shortage of available parking at critical times. The council voted unanimously to buy the buildings with intent to demolish them to make room for downtown parking.

Members of the Heritage Preservation Commission have since complained that the council did not consult them over the decision to buy the buildings. Although she initially voted for the building purchase, Councilor Elizabeth Cap has become a strong critic of the process.

At last night’s meeting, Cap reiterated her concerns. In addition to the cost, Cap says she has questions about the timing and circumstances of the building purchases. Cap’s comments echoed those of disgruntled Heritage Preservation Committee members.

“I’d like to echo the comments of Councilor Cap,” said Heritage Preservation Commission member Lee Nordmeyer told the council. “We’re very concerned about where this is going.”

Mayor Kevin Voracek and other members of the council maintained that the process had been followed thoroughly. Voracek insisted that the sellers had sold willingly to the city and that the need for downtown parking necessitated a major investment.

“There’s no conspiracy here,” Voracek said. “We’ve never strong-armed a seller as long as I’ve been here.”

First Avenue building

Even as they approved a certificate of demolition for the Third Street building, the Heritage Preservation Commission held firm on preserving the First Avenue building. It maintained that the smaller building, built in 1960, represents a rare remaining example of mid-century modern style.

Although City Administrator Tim Murray maintained that the First Avenue building is structurally sound, he said that the city would need to invest in significant interior repairs and improvements in order to get the building up to code and rentable.

“Whether that would cost $20,000 or $100,000, I don’t know,” he said.

Murray asked the council to override the Commission’s ruling, arguing that the need for more downtown parking was significantly greater than the need for another downtown rental. Murray said the council should table the motion if they wanted to preserve the building, in order to give City Engineer Mark DuChene time to draft a change order to the demolition process.

Ultimately, the council voted to approve the demolition of both buildings, with only Cap opposed. While Voracek and Councilor Peter van Sluis had mused at last week’s work session about the possibility of fixing up the First Avenue building and renting it out, they supported the plan to raze it.

“I’m very happy that we did due diligence with this,” said Councilor Royal Ross. “Now it’s time to remove it.”

Taking it down

Councilors then voted to award a $255,200 bid to complete the demolition of both buildings to JM Hauling of St. Paul Park, with Cap again alone in opposition. JM Hauling’s bid came in at some $120,000 below the city engineer’s estimate and at less than half of the high bid from Carl Bolander & Sons of St. Paul.

Cap raised concerns that the large discrepancy between bids could raise the possibility that JM Hauling could go significantly over budget. Cap also claimed that the cost for the demolition was not a part of the city’s budget.

City Engineer Mark DuChene said that he had asked JM Hauling to recheck its bid, and that it confirmed that it was comfortable with the price. He said that if JM Hauling comes in over budget while fulfilling the tasks spelled out in the bid documents, the company would eat the extra cost.

Murray pushed back on the latter claim, saying that while the cost of demolition is technically not covered in the budget, it will come out of a $1.7 million downtown improvement fund that the council approved in 2018. He said that even with the significant cost of this project, the fund is not yet fully depleted.

Reach Reporter Andrew Deziel at 507-333-3129 or follow him on Twitter @FDNandrew.

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