From: Dr. Stacey Mounce
I would like to bring awareness to my experience with the Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC). It was time for me to do an update to the building that my dental practice is in. I needed to deal with some windows and a door that were rotting from leakage and from simply getting old. Since my building is in the historic district, I had to go through the HPC and apply for a certificate of appropriateness before I could make any changes to the building. Since I was already going though that hoop, I investigated the state and federal programs for renovations of old buildings, as well. The state and federal programs were not advantageous for a small fish like me. I would have to spend big dollars to get the tax credits and incentives to make the programs worth my while, when all I needed was a new paint job, windows, and one door. The local program is restrictive, too, as well as time-consuming, so I opted not to apply.
I put together my plan and submitted it to the HPC, then attended the mandatory meeting to discuss my project. I felt that I didn’t even need to be at the meeting, because it was going to be their way or no way. My plan was denied. In my initial plan, I had presented an option to place decorative panels in accordance with architecture in place of transom windows. This option would mirror the other side of my building, where transom windows were removed years ago and solid panels were put in. I wanted to achieve some symmetry in the front of the building. This option was architecturally appropriate, as well as a cost-effective. The commission wanted the transom windows replaced with new transom windows, or for me to have the old ones restored. Their demands were three times the cost of the plan I proposed. The old windows were warped and damaged beyond repair; they were also very inefficient.
Because my application was denied, I had to submit a second one, and eat up some more time before proceeding. While I was going through this next phase of the process, I was allowed to begin with painting the building, which required a lift to be used. The city ended up charging me to have a parking stall for the lift — the same parking stalls that are closed off every year for Steamboat Days (and they aren’t charged to use up those stalls)! The city wants business/building owners to keep up their buildings and renovate, but they certainly aren’t very promotional or helpful in that process.
In my second attempt with the commission, I decided to put new transom windows in to replace the old ones. I was tired of dealing with the process and wanted to get the renovations done, so I gave in and budgeted for the additional expense. Of course, the commission said at this second meeting they were willing to look at other options! I wouldn’t have had to create a second application or attend another meeting, saving myself much unneeded stress and time, if they had thought through everything adequately at the first meeting!
I have read the entire Historic District Design Guidelines and the definition of preservation focuses on the maintenance and repair of existing historic material and retention of a property’s form as it has evolved over time. Rehabilitation acknowledges the need to alter or add to an historic property to meet continuing changing uses, while still retaining character. Elements that are deteriorated beyond repair should be replaced with new materials that reflect the size, style, and detail of the original. Substitute materials are acceptable!
I have looked at transom windows all through the downtown area. There are many creative versions where transom windows used to be. All of these ideas should be considered and acceptable.
The main point is that there needs to be more than one option to consider for exterior renovation. There should be two or three different solutions with quotes of costs to consider, allowing the owner to decide what fits in their budget. Those options can all still keep with the character of the building or surrounding area. There are many design choices that will fit with the style of the building and not change the personality of the exterior.
A business/building owner coming to the commission to “get permission” to renovate their building will already feel like they have no control on what they own. It is too easy for the commission to spend someone else’s money. The building owners are the ones paying monthly payments on their loans and expenses, not the commission. Common sense and empathy need to be a part of this process. My meeting with the commission was a one-sided conversation telling me what to do. Practices such as these will prevent owners from even coming before the commission and there will be less of a desire to renovate if the attitude of the commission isn’t more flexible on options and the process isn’t more time-efficient.
We all want downtown Winona to be neat, beautiful, and well maintained. You can get excited about the multi-million-dollar developments/renovations that are happening, but the majority of building owners don’t have that kind of money. It takes all economic levels to make our downtown be what we all want it to be. It also takes better communication and processes within the city entities. The HPC is a volunteer committee under the city umbrella and, in many cases, it has worked against the city. Members have even talked about wanting to get the historic designation for the old middle school auditorium. Where were they years ago when the buildings were sold? That would have been the time to do so, not when the building is beyond repair. Now there’s the Bay State Milling situation. The building next to Godfather’s Pizza is all of sudden important, and the HPC wants this preserved! Not every old building needs to be restored! The HPC is working against good progress and improvement for a longstanding business in our community, making Bay State spend more time, jump through more hoops and spend more money, using less common sense. According to the HPC website, the main purpose of the HPC is to identify, designate, protect, and promote significant historic resources of the city. This statement needs to be clarified. What is considered significant? Define historic resources.
All of this certainly indicates that there needs to be better programs and incentives in place to encourage building renovations and improvements. City entities need to work better together so that the process is efficient and not time-consuming. The HPC’s role needs to be redefined because, in more cases than not, all they have done is cause more trouble and roadblocks for progress and development. Winona deserves better.