by CHRIS ROGERS
After the owner missed court-ordered deadlines for rehabilitation work, the Winona City Council will meet in private on Monday to talk with its lawyers about whether to give the owners of the fire-damaged former Mason Jar building more time to fix the building or ask a judge to order its demolition.
The building was nearly destroyed in a February 2015 fire and the burnt-out shell of the over 130-year-old building has sat since, held up by a thicket of steel braces. Owner Chase Hoffman planned a unique and challenging rehabilitation project to save the historic building, but after months of back-and-forth between with city inspectors about when that work would begin, the City Council voted to declare the building a public hazard this spring, laying the legal groundwork for the city to raze the building if the repair project did not move forward in a timely manner. At the time, City Council members said they did not want the building to sit roofless for another winter, and Hoffman agreed to a schedule to start construction work this summer.
Construction work did not begin this summer, and the city wound up taking Hoffman to court this fall, where Hoffman told Judge Nancy Buytendorp he would follow a detailed, new timeline to begin repairs this fall and put a roof on the building by January 3. Some of the intermediate steps in that timeline included having steel construction materials arrive at the site by October 1, completing the construction of footings by October 25, and framing the basement and first floor by November 22.
“He’s missed almost the entire deadline that he put in front of the judge. He’s several weeks behind,” Winona City Manager Steve Sarvi said in an interview.
Hoffman acknowledged he missed some of the court-ordered deadlines. He described the status of the project: “A lot of the construction prep work is completed, so what’s happening [is] we completed the excavation and we completed additional design work based on things we found during the basement floor removal. We have all of the basement plumbing and underground roughing — that’s complete, and the forms are being set for the footings which we are tentatively planning for next week, and the structural steel order has been placed.”
Should citizens or City Council members be concerned about the project missing those court-ordered deadlines? Hoffman responded, “You walk by and you just don’t see a lot of tangible progress, and it’s easy then to connect the dots that because the project has taken so long to get to this point … that is simply a reflection of how the rest of the project is going to go.” However, he said, some of the most difficult work — engineering and design — is now complete. “Once the design process is competed, which it is, and the material arrives on the site, then a lot of the unique nature of this project is behind us and it more resembles a traditional construction project with quantifiable durations for framing and interior build-out,” he stated.
“When you tell a judge, ‘I’m going to do this by this date,’ and you don’t, it’s very serious, and that’s how we’re taking it,” Sarvi said.
Sarvi laid out the options the council will have at Monday’s closed session to discuss legal strategy with city attorneys: “The council could say, ‘No, he’s pretty far behind, let’s go back to the judge and let the judge make a determination.’ The council could say, ‘Well, he’s behind, but there’s various reasons for that, and he’s got other things in his favor, the bank is sticking by him … So let’s give him more time.’” While the language of the last court order seems to give the city permission “to abate the hazard by either repairing or removing the burnt-out structure,” Sarvi said that, even if the council asks a judge for permission to raze the building, it is not a slam-dunk case. “A judge may say, ‘No, he’s doing everything he can do. Give him another couple months to figure everything out …
Or the judge may say, ‘This is what you’ve said you were going to do, and you didn’t do it, along with all the other timelines you gave the city … and it’s time to tear it down.”
Some Winonans have encouraged the council to do whatever it can to save the historic building, while others have urged the council to tear it down already. In the last court hearing, Buytendorp seemed focused on whether the building posed any threat to public safety.
For what it’s worth, Sarvi pointed out that there are other reasons the city might not want to rush toward demolition. “I would just remind people that, OK, if it comes down … the real question is, ‘Well, then what?’ Do we have a vacant lot? Who is going to pay to clean it up? Do we really want the taxpayers on the hook for this if there’s a way forward? I know it’s very frustrating, believe me.”
Normally, the city would charge the demolition costs to the property owner, but if the property owner cannot pay, then the city cannot get its money back, Sarvi explained.
Hoffman had owned the building in his own name, but shortly after the court order he sold it to an limited liability corporation, which includes himself and other partners.
Other empty lots downtown have been very slow to be redeveloped. The former Islamic Center lot is still empty four years after the fire that destroyed it.
“At the end of the day, you want a building there that is generating taxes and benefiting the community. That really is the end goal,” Sarvi said.
“I think it’s in the best interests of the entire city to allow the project to proceed as it is,” Hoffman said. “We’ve talked about the setbacks we’ve had from the schedule in the court order and the recovery from those setbacks moving forward … It’s in the best interests of the downtown; it’s in the best interests of that block and the neighbors on that block to move forward with our revised reconstruction plan versus the alternative.”