by CHRIS ROGERS
It was a debate over how far the company demolishing the former Winona Junior High School auditorium should go in saving pieces of the historic building. On Monday, the Winona City Council largely sided with the company.
Bob Kierlin’s Main Square Development wants to buy and demolish the auditorium to build a parking ramp next to Main Square’s downtown apartment-commercial complex. Decked out in Biesanz stone and Art Deco details, the over-1,000-seat auditorium was once an impressive venue, but it has sat empty for the last two decades. A feasible plan for its reuse never came together. Some interested parties kicked the tires and walked away. In recent years, un-repaired leaks led to major water damage and mold. Now, because of toxic mold and pigeon feces, city inspectors recommended no one enter without protective equipment.
Though some members opposed demolition, the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) ultimately approved Main Square’s request to raze the nationally recognized and locally protected building. However, Main Square representatives took issue with a condition the HPC placed on that approval. The condition would have required Main Square to go further in salvaging pieces of the auditorium. HPC members said they were especially interested in saving pieces of the auditorium’s exterior to be reused in the design of the new parking ramp structure. Main Square appealed the HPC decision to the City Council, and the City Council overturned the HPC condition.
When Main Square first asked the HPC to approve the demolition, city staff proposed an open-ended condition requiring Main Square to work with the city on salvaging of pieces of the historic building. After talking more with Main Square representatives, city staff then changed the proposed condition to mirror what Main Square was willing to do: Spending up to $15,000 on salvaging pieces of the building, in consultation with city staff and the Winona County Historical Society (WCHS). Main Square also proposed to fund an exhibit at the Winona County History Center; the proposed exhibit doesn’t have much to do with the auditorium, but it would celebrate the history of Winona’s local colleges, public schools, and private schools.
HPC members wanted more say in what would be salvaged from the auditorium, and some suggested the $15,000 cap was too small. The HPC approved demolition with this condition: “The applicant shall allow the city of Winona, Winona County Historical Society, and Heritage Preservation Commission, as far as reasonably possible, the ability to view the building interior and exterior for salvage or re-use, prior to the commencement of deconstruction or demolition to occur within 60 days. The parties will work in cooperation and good faith to determine elements that are salvageable. The Heritage Preservation Commission would make the final determination of elements that are to be salvaged from the auditorium. The applicant will provide elements of interest including cost for moving.”
Attorney for Main Square Cindy Telstad said that, with no cap on the cost and the HPC making the final decisions on salvage, the condition gave the HPC “unlimited control” with no checks or balances. She called the condition “unreasonable and arbitrary,” alluding to the legal standards a judge might use if Main Square challenged the HPC decision in court. Telstad stated that the 60-day timeline would delay the project, and because the HPC is subject to the Open Meeting Law, the review of salvage materials would have to take place at public meetings, “which doesn’t sound like a very logistically sound way to make those determinations,” she added. “Leaving that condition as open-ended as it is just creates too much uncertainty for the [parking ramp] project to be able to go forward with that uncertainty hanging over it,” Telstad stated. This project would create an opportunity for the city to create more downtown parking, Kierlin noted, saying he would be willing to lease part of the ramp to the city for public parking. “It’s kind of a win-win for everybody,” he stated.
This is all about whether pieces of the historic auditorium exterior are saved and possibly incorporated into the parking ramp, HPC member Peter Shortridge said. “I think the point of the HPC was to say to the petitioner, ‘There are probably some elements of this building in the exterior that really could be integrated into a [new] building that would at least echo some of what that [historic] building was and what happened on that site,’” he stated. “I do feel the HPC made a fairly modest set of conditions,” he added.
HPC member Kelly Fluharty said, “I recognize we’re now in a situation that some of these buildings are beyond the point of saving, but in the event that these historic structures are allowed to rot and be demolished, we should make the strongest case possible to preserve any existing elements so that future generations can see what was here.” She added, “These items, whether interior or exterior, do no good to any of us sitting in a landfill.”
The City Council’s discussion started with a motion from members George Borzyskowski and Al Thurley to approve Main Square’s request. “I am one who is happy to see something happening with that building,” Thurley said. “I appreciate the appellant coming forward to have a plan that will address at least some of the historic significance of that building,” Thurley said of Kierlin, adding that Main Square’s plan would also help the city address parking issues.
“I am probably one of the least likely members of this group to support demolition of a historic building,” Mayor Mark Peterson said. Years ago, he pushed for the creation of the HPC and ordinances to protect historic buildings. However, he stated, “I feel that the HPC was unreasonable by removing the cap. I don’t feel this should be an open checkbook for what should be saved.”
Council members Eileen Moeller and Paul Schollmeier called the decision agonizing — especially given the city’s need for parking, Schollmeier said. Moeller had sympathy for the HPC’s goal, but also agreed with Telstad that the condition was an overreach.
City Council member Pam Eyden proposed a slight compromise that carried the day. She proposed giving Main Square the condition it wanted — a $15,000 cap on salvage and no time limits on starting demolition — but adding a requirement that Main Square would consult with the HPC, in addition to city staff and the WCHS, on what to salvage. Moeller embraced the idea of having citizen HPC members involved, as well as city staff. “I think it’s really important that community members have a say in this, and to me, that seems like a reasonable compromise,” she said.
However, there was one hiccup. If the full HPC was involved in those salvage discussions, they would have to take place at public meetings — part of what Telstad had opposed. Peterson suggested another tweak to get around that issue: requiring that only one or two members of the HPC be involved in salvage discussions. With just two HPC members present, the discussions wouldn’t trigger the Open Meeting Law and the meetings could be held in private. Eyden consented and her proposal passed 4-2. Eyden, Moeller, Peterson, and Schollmeier voted for it. Borzyskowski and Thurley opposed it.
Like the condition Main Square was seeking, the City Council’s condition doesn’t specify who makes a final decision if the various parties disagree about what to salvage, but City Council members said they trust the parties can work together.
“Obviously, it was not what Main Square Development was asking for, but I think we’re confident that the parties designated in the second condition as amended by the council will be able to work together and carry out that condition,” Telstad said of the council’s decision. The parking ramp project will be able to move forward under that requirement, she stated.
While the salvage condition was the main point of debate, the auditorium’s impending demolition also became an inflection point for how the city protects historic buildings more broadly. HPC members described the auditorium as a case of “demolition by neglect,” meaning that lack of maintenance allowed the building to fall into such disrepair it grew beyond saving. For years, the HPC has talked about adopting an ordinance to require minimum maintenance of historic buildings and prevent demolition by neglect — something a few other cities have done. Eyden and Moeller encouraged the HPC to pursue those ideas.