Pipes burst inside the former Winona Junior High School auditorium two years ago, flooding the theater. Now some city officials are proposing that the historic building be demolished.
by CHRIS ROGERS
Winona’s historic preservation rules protect landmark buildings from being torn down or remodeled in a way that alters their historic facades. Whenever the owners propose renovations, the city of Winona’s Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) carefully considers the treatment of windows, awnings, and cornices. Propose a sign that does not meet the guidelines, and the HPC may very well deny the application. But if an owner lets a historic property fall apart beyond repair, there is little the city can do about it.
It is an issue that historic preservationists call “demolition by neglect.” The term refers to situations where a property owner allows a historic building to deteriorate so much that demolition becomes unavoidable. Like most Minnesota cities, Winona does not have rules specifically addressing it. While local codes govern what owners may do when they fix up historic properties, there is often no requirement that owners fix them.
Algae and Biesanz stone
Winona’s former junior high school auditorium is a “classic example” of demolition by neglect, HPC member Peter Shortridge said in an interview. Developer MetroPlains’ project to convert the former junior high school’s classrooms into the Washington Crossings apartment building in the early 2000s became a poster child for the potential of repurposing historic buildings. However, MetroPlains never found a feasible way to repurpose the former school’s gymnasium, swimming pool, and over 1,000-seat theater. Nobody else did either, and that portion of the building has sat unused for years, with gym shorts still laying where they were left the day the school closed. Then things got worse in winter 2015-2016. Instead of external downspouts, the auditorium has rainwater drains that run inside the building. That winter, the drains froze and burst, flooding the auditorium with water every time it rained that spring. When the Winona Post visited in May 2016, there was a foot of water in the balcony and algae growing in puddles in the lobby. A MetroPlains representative asked the city of Winona Port Authority for $50,000 to fund repairs necessary to fix the problem. MetroPlains still owed the city nearly $400,000 — around $300,000 in principal and $100,000 in interest — on a loan the city had granted for the original Washington Crossings project in 2001. The Port Authority Commission rejected the drain repair funding request. After that, MetroPlains’ agents did not fix the busted drain, but rigged up a system to collect the water and manually drain it.
This spring, city staff and the Port Authority Commission offered to forgive MetroPlains’ debt in exchange for MetroPlains demolishing the auditorium and turning the land over to the city for use as a parking lot. That deal is still in the works, but another city commission, the HPC, is voting today on whether to propose making the auditorium a local historic landmark. That move could help protect the building from demolition, though some HPC members acknowledge it may be too late.
‘For want of a nail’
It is just like the old proverb, Shortridge said. For want of a nail, the shoe is lost. For want of a shoe, the horse is lost. “And pretty soon the whole auditorium is lost,” he said. The $50,000 drain repair was a minor expense in the grand scheme of things, but the resulting water intrusion made saving the building far harder. Winona Building Official Greg Karow has recently inspected the auditorium, and he said that the mold caused by the ongoing water intrusion has had a significant effect on the building’s condition. “That’s this tiny little horseshoe nail that wasn’t put on,” Shortridge stated.
MetroPlains Vice President Jean Huwe disagreed with Shortridge’s characterization of the auditorium as an example of demolition by neglect. Unfortunately, the building is beyond saving, but it is not MetroPlains’ fault, she stated. From the day it was sold, there has never been a feasible proposal to repurpose the auditorium although many potential buyers checked it out, she said. “I don’t think that anything that has really happened to it in the last 15 years would really [require] more money put into it for renovation,” she continued. “There is some water coming into it, but that is a minor expense compared to what it would take to get that building up and running as an auditorium.”
When Winona Post readers heard about the Port Authority’s proposal to demolish the auditorium, they shared a range of reactions. “Save it somehow!” one wrote on the Post’s Facebook page. “If someone had really wanted this building they had almost 20 years to step forward,” another commented. Winona cannot support a 1,000-seat theater anyway, some said. “It’s just sad that they let it get that bad,” one man stated.
‘Duty to maintain’
Around the U.S., some other cities have adopted rules specifically to prevent demolition by neglect. In Raleigh, N.C., for example, city code requires owners to maintain historic properties and allows the city to fine property owners or seek a court order to have the repairs done at the owners’ expense, if necessary. These rules walk a line between local governments’ interest in preserving landmarks and private citizens’ property rights, and the legal implications vary state-to-state. In North Carolina, for example, state law specifically allows cities to adopt rules to prevent demolition by neglect. In Minnesota statutes, there is no such explicit permission. Demolition by neglect ordinances are rare but not nonexistent in the North Star State.
Minneapolis City Code includes a “duty to maintain” provision that prohibits owners from allowing a historic property “to fall into a serious state of disrepair,” and Excelsior, Minn., has provisions that allow the city to use eminent domain to acquire, repair, and resell historic properties in danger of demolition by neglect. Former Excelsior Planning Director Pat Smith said that ordinance was written following the deterioration and demolition of a landmark building. On a couple occasions, the possibility of the city exercising that power was enough to convince owners to fix up historic properties, Smith said.
“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.” He added, “The main thing that we did was just to threaten that the city would condemn the property and basically take it by eminent domain. That was the bottom line: that the city is so willing to preserve this building that they’re willing to buy it for its assessed value and turn around and sell it to someone who will maintain it.”
Conversely, the city of St. Paul withdrew proposed changes to its historic preservation ordinance — including an anti-demolition-by-neglect rule — after public hearings this spring. The Pioneer Press quoted one citizen as telling St. Paul officials, “I can understand telling homeowners some things they can’t do to historic properties. But that is entirely different than telling homeowners what they must do.”
Should Winona require maintenance?
Since he joined the HPC a couple years ago, Shortridge has brought up the topic of demolition by neglect now and then, but the group has never formally proposed adopting demolition by neglect rules. There is currently no proposal for the Winona HPC to do so, but both Shortridge and HPC Chair Kendall Larson said they supported the idea. “If a community values its historic assets, it will create a policy and support [systems] to preserve, maintain, and protect those assets,” Larson wrote in a statement. “The Winona HPC has frequently discussed demolition by neglect policies as a tool for the city to consider to enable it to better preserve its historic resources. I believe working with [the] City Council, city staff, and other city commissions to shape a policy for Winona would be in the best interest of preserving historic Winona as we know it,” she added.
“It’s just like shoveling your sidewalk or mowing your lawn,” Shortridge stated. If someone is going to own historic property, it comes with certain responsibilities, he said. Maybe next time a property is at risk of demolition by neglect, the city could step in sooner, he suggested.
Shortridge added that in addition to rules requiring maintenance, the city should create tools to help fund repairs. “I think we should have both,” he stated. “We need better tools to identify early on buildings going into that slide of neglect … and then we need a better, proactive pool of funds the HPC or maybe even the Port could use to stabilize and preserve things.”
“It’s a big deal,” Minnesota State Preservation Office Historic Preservation Specialist Michael Koop said of adopting demolition-by-neglect ordinances. “It’s a big step. Because — from what I’ve read and what I’ve talked with folks [about] — you really have to have the guts. It’s not for the faint of heart.” Cities must be truly willing and able to follow through with enforcing the rules, Koop stated.