This week, crews disassembled the bracing that has held up the fire-damaged former Mason Jar bar in downtown Winona for the last few years. “All’s well that ends well,” Mayor Mark Peterson said of the historic building’s long road to restoration.
by CHRIS ROGERS
It took three years and the owner missed two court-ordered deadlines, but the former Mason Jar bar in downtown Winona reached a major milestone this week when crews started removing the steel braces that have, for years, held the fire-damaged building up. Just a few months ago, whether the restoration project would succeed or whether the city would have to demolish the 130-year-old building was touch-and-go. Now, it is clear that out of three major fires downtown, 151 East Third Street will be the first property to recover.
“It’s a big milestone, and we’re happy to be at this point,” owner Chase Hoffman said. “I appreciate the city and the neighbors’ cooperation and patience up to this point, and we’re just thankful to keep moving.” He added, “From the public’s perspective, the aesthetics of getting that shoring gone is a huge win. Getting the sidewalk back and the public parking back is a huge win.”
After months of back-and-forth with him, the city took Hoffman to court last year, asking a judge for permission to tear down the building if he did not follow through on plans to repair it. City leaders were conflicted. One of the city’s fundamental goals is to preserve its historic downtown, and Mayor Mark Peterson was an advocate for being as patient as possible with the Mason Jar. However, other council members were willing to call in the bulldozers if Hoffman did not put a roof on the building before this winter.
Last September, the city and Hoffman settled their legal dispute when Hoffman agreed to a court order requiring him to install a roof by January 3, 2018. When that did not happen, Hoffman and the city agreed to a new court-ordered deadline to construct a roof and remove the steel braces by February 20. That did not happen either, but Hoffman’s contractors started making significant progress on the building. City attorneys kept pushing back the date for a court hearing to review Hoffman’s progress next, and city manager Steve Sarvi said the city was encouraged by the progress Hoffman was making. Sarvi stressed how bad an option demolition was. “As long as they’re making progress and moving forward with the ultimate goal, that’s all we can ask of them,” Winona Planning Commission member LaVerne Olson said.
Now the braces are coming down, and Hoffman said a roof deck has been constructed. This week’s snow delayed the installation of a waterproof rubber roof membrane, but Hoffman said that will be installed soon.
“Many people have been waiting a very long time for [this],” Peterson said on Monday. “I want to thank Chase Hoffman … for going forward with this project and city staff. I know they’ve worked hard for three years now. I want to thank the council, too, for supporting this project because I think in the end it will be an asset for downtown Winona. All’s well that ends well.”
Hoffman thanked the contractors and workers who made it happen. “The fact that the crew working there was able to do what they did through the winter, and a really cold winter at that, is something I’m grateful for,” he said.
Plans but no construction yet at other fire sites
Hoffman’s building was the last one in downtown Winona to burn and the first to be redeveloped. The Mason Jar was nearly destroyed in a 2015 fire. The former YWCA property at Fourth and Center streets was partially destroyed in a 2014 fire, and the former Islamic Center property near Third and Center streets was destroyed in a 2013 fire. There are plans for new construction at the latter two properties, but the owners have not yet submitted site plans or applied for building permits to start construction. There are upcoming deadlines that might prompt them to act this year.
Back in 2014, Dave McNally received a variance to allow the development of 44 apartments with just 24 off-street parking spaces at the former YWCA site. He never acted on that plan. In December 2017, G & J Property Management — a company registered to rural Lewiston resident Gary Heim — bought the former YWCA property from Dave McNally’s firm for $200,000. Last summer, the city established expiration dates for all new and outstanding variances. Now, G & J Property Management has until June to either propose a development, ask the Winona Board of Adjustment for an extension to the variance, or allow the variance to expire. “The new owners have given me some working drawings for the proposed renovation, but I have not issued nor have I received a building permit application for that project,” Winona Building Official Greg Karow said. The new plans are for an apartment building, but the building would be significantly different from McNally’s proposal, Karow added.
Scott Abramson received a conditional use permit (CUP) this January to build apartments and some commercial space at the former Islamic Center site on East Third Street. Under city code, he has one year to either apply for a building permit or ask the City Council for an extension to the CUP.