by CHRIS ROGERS
For a city trying to preserve historic buildings, not destroy them, it is an extreme step to take. But after watching the roofless, fire-damaged building deteriorate over two winters, the Winona City Council started the legal process to demolish the former Mason Jar bar if reconstruction does not begin this summer.
On Monday night, the City Council laid the legal groundwork to condemn the building, voting unanimously to declare 151 East Third Street a “hazardous building” and order owner Chase Hoffman to either begin rebuilding it or tear it down within two months.
The council laid out a timeline for Hoffman to avoid condemnation and save the building: he must submit all building plans by May 8, apply for and receive a building permit by May 18, and begin reconstruction by June 19. Council members and city staff signaled that they were willing to be somewhat flexible, but stated that if Hoffman does not follow the timeline for reconstruction — or demolish the building himself — the city will seek a district court order allowing the city to raze it and send the bill to Hoffman. Those court proceedings could take until July or August, Winona City Attorney Chris Hood said, but starting this process now is necessary to prepare the city to take action before winter.
In interviews, Hoffman has steadfastly said he is working to rebuild the property, preserve the 130-year-old building, and meet city deadlines. As Winona Building Official Greg Karow described it, Hoffman has been cooperative, but he has not delivered. Pointing to a timeline that Hoffman gave him last fall — it called for beginning construction in December 2016 — Karow told the council, “None of this has been fulfilled. None of this has come to fruition.”
The former Mason Jar bar burned in a February 2015 fire. The blaze destroyed its roof, damaged its walls, and left the building a shell. A structural engineer commissioned by the city measured how much the building’s exterior walls had shifted, leaned, and bulged. Even with the steel braces that now girdle it, the building has continued to shift some, Karow stated. “We don’t know how much this thing is going to move,” he added. The city’s chief inspector said the former bar poses a potential threat to public safety and has negatively affected neighboring businesses. “We don’t feel it’s appropriate to wait. If Mr. Hoffman can’t come through in the next 30 or 45 days, we feel it’s appropriate to raze that building,” he stated.
“I don’t see where the City [Council] has any other real choice here but to approve this motion,” Mayor Mark Peterson said just before the vote.
When he stepped up to the microphone to address the City Council, Hoffman said he had not yet seen the proposed deadlines. A Winona Police officer served him last month with a letter about Monday’s meeting and the potential condemnation, but the letter did not include the proposed timeline for avoiding condemnation. City staff handed a copy of the timeline to him as he stood at the podium. Apparently looking at the deadlines for the first time, Hoffman said, “I can work with [getting] a building permit by May 18.” As far as the getting final engineering plans and starting construction, Hoffman said he could not say off-hand whether those deadlines were feasible.
To get a building permit by May 18, Hoffman will also need a certificate of appropriateness (COA) from the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) because the building is part of the city’s downtown historic district. Because Hoffman is also applying for Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) tax credits, SHPO’s requirements are likely to be more stringent than the HPC’s would be, but he still needs to apply and go through an HPC review, city staff said at a meeting earlier this month.
“There has been a lot of work done,” Hoffman told the council, describing work on shoring up the building with braces, demolishing fire-damaged parts, and preparing plans for rehabilitation. In previous interviews, Hoffman said he had a hard time finding a engineer willing to take on the project. Karow said the building will need a brand new structural skeleton built on the interior. That new skeleton would hold the building up. The exterior walls would become “virtually non-load-bearing,” Karow stated. However, he said, it is unclear whether the exterior brick walls are solid enough to be bolted to interior supports. Answering that question is one of the main engineering tasks yet to be done, according to Karow.
“I think we all understand that this is a key building for downtown, and when I look at it, I don’t see the shoring. I see a beautiful building in the end, and I certainly hope that is the case here. Waiting over two years has really been kind of a milestone for Winona to wait for a rehab on an old building. So I really hope you can stick to this schedule and we don’t have to resort to tearing the building down,” Peterson said.