Winona Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) member Carl Sandquist explained why the HPC nominated the former Winona Junior High School as a local historic site. The City Council unanimously approved the HPC’s proposal.
City still pursuing demolition
by CHRIS ROGERS
Many Winona City Council members are skeptical that the former Winona Junior High School auditorium can be salvaged, but on Monday, the council voted unanimously to take local control over its potential demolition. The council designated the auditorium and the rest of the former school — known as the Washington Crossings apartment building — as a local historic site. The decision gives the City Council the power to approve or deny proposals to raze the building. It does not put to rest the debate over whether the building should be torn down. Another branch of city government is actively pursuing its demolition. While the auditorium’s local designation gives the city the power say “no” to a demolition proposal, it may also give the property owner a quicker route to getting a proposal to raze the building approved.
‘Give it a chance’ versus ‘do not resuscitate’
“I don’t think it’s worth saving. I think it’s too far gone,” John Berg said of the auditorium during a public hearing before the council’s vote. He referenced the recent Winona Post editorial, “Do not resuscitate,” which took the same stance. Old buildings are valuable and the HPC’s work is important, Berg stated, “but I think this is the wrong battle to fight because I think it has already been lost.”
Tearing down such a remarkable building for parking is shortsighted, Matthew Goergen told the council. “It seems like all the discussions about the future revolve around parking,” he said. “Fifty years from now, will a parking lot be considered such a good idea for putting in that lot, or will we be thinking, ‘How could we tear down this building?’” he asked.
Several citizens, who urged the council to support trying to save the auditorium, lamented all the historic buildings Winona lost during the urban renewal period of the 1970s and ‘80s, when city leaders believed demolishing old buildings would promote economic growth downtown. In recent decades, Winona has taken just the opposite tack. “[The auditorium] is a building that needs to be saved because I’m tired of us destroying our past,” David Wurch said.
The council does not need to know exactly how the auditorium could be restored, Goergen continued. “We’re not here to decide the building’s longterm future. Just give it a chance,” he said. “I feel like we just need to make sure of this decision before we tear it down because we won’t get it back,” HPC member Connie Dretske stated.
The council weighs in
Mayor Mark Peterson reminded council members that their vote on Monday night would not determine whether the auditorium would be demolished. That discussion may come later, he said. Council member Michelle Alexander was more blunt. “No one should leave here thinking that this stops the [demolition] process from moving forward,” she stated.
Alexander and council members Al Thurley and Paul Schollmeier all expressed doubt about whether the auditorium can be salvaged. However, they said that they supported naming it a local historic site so that there can be a local discussion and a local decision about whether the building is ultimately torn down. Thurley sits on the Port Authority Commission and voted for the tentative deal with property owner MetroPlains for the building’s demolition.
When Winonan Ted Hazelton said that he partly blames the auditorium’s condition on the Port Authority’s refusal to fund repairs, council member George Borzyskowski, who also sits on the Port Authority Commission, raised his voice at Hazelton in response. “When they came to the Port Authority, the building was already in shambles,” Borzyskowski stated. “It already had damage … That’s why the Port Authority did not get involved in loaning them that money.”
Council member Gerry Krage said he was not ready to decide whether the building should be demolished, but he said he was unsure it could be salvaged. Krage brought up a 2004 proposal to build a skyway connecting the auditorium to the Winona Public Library and for the city to remodel the auditorium into a community center and expanded library. The project was estimated to cost $19.4 million and was shot down by city leaders at the time. However, Krage pointed to it as a sign that even the city itself looked for ways to reuse the auditorium. “We have not been sitting idly by,” he stated.
Eyden: let’s stop demolition by neglect
Whatever happens to the auditorium, Berg urged the council to seriously consider adopting rules to prevent demolition by neglect from occurring in the future. The term refers to a situation where lack of maintenance causes a historic building to deteriorate beyond repair.
Council member Pam Eyden agreed. This vote is a good step, but Winona needs to look at establishing rules to prevent demolition by neglect at other properties, she stated. “There are a lot of buildings in town that I would really like to see preserved, and I have no idea if the owners agree with me,” Eyden stated. It is a complicated issue, but the city should do something, she continued. “Demolition by neglect should be off the table in Winona,” Eyden said.
Local versus national historic status
The former Winona Junior High School has been on the National Register of Historic Places for almost 20 years. That national historic status enabled the owner, MetroPlains, to get tax credits to help fund the renovation of the school’s former classrooms into apartments. That apartment project has been a poster child for how to repurpose historic buildings, but the former school’s gymnasium and 1,000-seat auditorium have sat unused for nearly two decades. Over the years, numerous parties have considered restoring the auditorium, but none ever found a feasible plan for its reuse.
In winter 2015-2016, drainage pipes froze and burst inside the building, flooding the theater. The flooding caused water damage and mold growth inside the building, according to city staff. In 2016, the Winona Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) and MetroPlains asked the city of Winona Port Authority Commission to fund a $50,000 repair to the drainage system. The Port Authority Commission refused, and MetroPlains has not completed the repair since. In a recent report, city staff stated that emergency responders should not enter the building without equipment to protect themselves from mold. This spring, the Port Authority Commission offered to forgive a $400,000 debt MetroPlains owes the city if MetroPlains will demolish the building and turn over the land to the Port Authority for use as a parking lot. City staff are still pursuing that deal. In response to the proposed demolition, the HPC proposed naming the building a local historic site in an effort to give it one last chance at being saved.
The former school’s national historic status means that lengthy environmental studies could be required before the building may be torn down, but at the end of the day, governments have limited power to stop the demolition of a national historic site. Local historic status is different. Under the city code, when a property becomes a local historic site, any exterior modifications — including demolition — require city approval. With its vote on Monday, the City Council took control over whether the building may be torn down. Whether the council would actually vote to block demolition seems far from certain.
According to city staff, the local historic designation also eliminates the requirement for MetroPlains to complete an Environmental Assessment Worksheet (EAW) prior to demolishing the building. Although the local designation gives the government more power to block a demolition, the elimination of the EAW requirement could make it easier for the owner to apply to raze the building. In an interview last month, MetroPlains Vice President Jean Huwe said the company was neutral on the proposed local designation. Without it, MetroPlains would have to go through a process with state and federal authorities to tear down the building; with the local designation MetroPlains would have to get permission from city officials, she said. “It doesn’t to matter to us who we’re working with,” she stated.