by CHRIS ROGERS
In 2015, pipes froze and burst inside the former Winona Junior High School Auditorium, flooding the local landmark and National Register of Historic Places-listed building. The pipes weren’t fixed. The water kept flowing. Over the last five years, toxic mold made the auditorium unsafe to enter without protective equipment, according to city inspectors. It is now slated to be demolished.
The story of the auditorium is an example of “demolition by neglect,” several members of the city of Winona’s Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) contend. The term refers to historic landmarks falling into such disrepair that they become beyond saving. “For want of a small amount of maintenance, you wind up with this huge cascade of events,” Winona Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) member Peter Shortridge said.
Next year, the HPC and the city’s planning department plan to draft an ordinance aimed at stopping demolition by neglect from claiming pieces of local history, likely through a requirement for minimal maintenance of historic buildings. It is something the HPC has been wanting to pursue for years. Such an ordinance would both help protect important landmarks and could place an additional burden on historic property owners. Some HPC members have called for boosting city financial assistance alongside the new rules.
While several HPC members and City Council members have called it an example of demolition by neglect, Peterson and the owners of the junior high school auditorium disagreed. In their defense, the auditorium’s owners made it clear way back in 2000: They were interested in converting the junior high school’s classrooms into apartments, but they didn’t have an economically feasible use for the auditorium, Peterson pointed out. The owners did everything they could to try to find a buyer, and gave tours to several interested parties who ultimately shied away, he noted. “I’m not sure that there was or would be a good use for the building,” Peterson said.
In any case, when HPC and City Council members approved the auditorium’s demolition this fall, many also saw it as an inflection point underscoring the importance of historic building maintenance. HPC member Innes Henderson beseeched city staff earlier this fall, “What is a proper avenue for petitioning the City Council or some other body in order to have some rule on the books that prevents demolition by neglect from occurring in the future?” Mayor Mark Peterson and City Council members Pam Eyden, Eileen Moeller, Paul Schollmeier, and Al Thurley have all expressed concern about the issue of demolition by neglect and support for efforts to prevent it in the future. “Unfortunately, I agree with them that we do have a situation of demolition by neglect, and I hope we don’t see more of this,” Schollmeier stated last month. “Demolition by neglect should be off the table in Winona,” Eyden said in 2018.
The city is poised to do something about that, though it is likely several months down the road. City officials plan to apply for grant funding from the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) this spring to hire a consultant to draft an anti-demolition-by-neglect ordinance and seek public input. The draft 2021 budget already includes $4,000 in city funds to match a state grant. The city isn’t guaranteed to win the state funding needed. Grant applications are due in March and awards are typically announced in May, Winona Assistant City Planner Luke Sims reported.
A small number of other cities in Minnesota and across the country have adopted anti-demolition-by-neglect ordinances, including Minneapolis and Excelsior, Minn. These ordinances essentially create a requirement or duty to maintain historic properties to a minimal standard.
In most cases, just the threat of city action is enough to spur property owners, former Excelsior Planning Director Pat Smith told the Post in 2018. “The people who want their buildings to be around for another 100 years are not going to be an issue,” Smith stated. “The people who aren’t maintaining it — something’s wrong. They don’t have the money; they don’t have the wherewithal. You can fine them, but that doesn’t really help.” In those rare cases‚ maybe twice in Smith’s career, the city had to be prepared to facilitate transferring the property to an owner who could maintain it, he explained.
Exactly what an anti-demolition-by-neglect ordinance in Winona might look like is yet to be determined, Sims said. “It really is about that duty to maintain,” he stated. “The big difference between cities is whether their ordinance has any teeth to really compel people to maintain.” The city hopes to gain insight from SHPO and an experienced consultant on what works elsewhere, as well as using public input to tailor an ordinance that makes sense in Winona, Sims explained. It has to be something the city can actually enforce, Shortridge stressed.
Requiring maintenance of historic buildings may help preserve pieces of Winona’s history for the next generation, but it will also affect property owners. Right now, remodeling or demolishing a locally designated historic site requires city approval. There are also some local, state, and federal funding sources for help refurbishing historic properties. However, there are no requirements for owners to fix up their historic properties — a point city staff have frequently used over the years to reassure the property owners. Creating a duty to maintain historic buildings would change that.
Asked whether such an ordinance would burden property owners, Sims stressed that public input on that issue will be a key piece of drafting any ordinance.
Responding to the same question, Shortridge pointed out, “You’re supposed to take care of your buildings period, whether they’re a historic building or not a historic building.”
Peterson put it this way: “I look at historic buildings in our community as resources.” He explained, “The Huff House is a spectacularly important building in our community, and it’s just one of many. The Watkins Home — you name it. And if someone owns [a building like that] and isn’t maintaining it, I think there should be a way to work with that owner and make sure it doesn’t get to the point where it [gets] demolished.” He added, “I guess I feel that people who own historic buildings have a certain obligation to the community to maintain them, and if they don’t want to maintain them, maybe they should sell them to someone who does want to.”
Some city officials have expressed interest in a carrot and stick approach. The HPC should look at pairing an anti-demolition-by-neglect ordinance with better funding sources to help owners afford repairs, HPC member Kelly Fluharty said this fall. “That seems like something that could make a demolition by neglect change more successful, not punitive,” she stated. HPC member Kendall Larson echoed, “We need to have something in place to help the property owners or help the buildings.”
Bolstering assistance for historic rehab is officially on the city’s to-do list in the Downtown Strategic Plan the City Council approved this spring, though city officials haven’t made any specific plans for how to do that. Currently, for nationally listed historic properties, there are various tax credits that can be a major help for large projects, but are too complex for smaller ones. Locally, the city has one, little-used funding program to help owners of downtown historic buildings: the downtown revolving loan fund or facade program that offers up to $20,000 loans, with deferred interest and loan forgiveness on up to $10,000. Downtown business owners urged the city to improve that program, complaining requirements to pay prevailing wages for repair work cancel out the funding aid, that the total loan limit is too small, and that the forgivable share should be increased.
“I do think that through this ordinance process, we will need to take a look at: What are the financial tools that are available? Are they being used? And if not, why not? And if there’s a gap, what can we do to address it?” Sims said.
If the city wins grant funding to draft an ordinance, it may begin its search for consultants next August, Sims said. Under that timeline, public outreach and early drafts of an ordinance would not begin until next fall and a final version might not be proposed until late 2021 or 2022.