The fate of a home and garage in the Pierre-Houston Street Historical District remains undecided after a tabled vote by the Manhattan City Commission Tuesday.
The Boys and Girls Club of Manhattan hopes to acquire the Wurst Home, located at 212 S. 5th Street and adjacent to B&GC property. Their proposed plan to demolish the 1927 house and turn it into green space for programming was rejected by the Historic Resources Board at its September 27 meeting on the grounds that the project did not meet numerous of the Secretary of the Interior’s standards for projects in recognized historic districts. That led them to appeal the decision with city commissioners.
Specifically, the HRB found upon review that the proposal by the B&GC did not meet standards 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9 and 10 and would damage or destroy historic resources. The district has been listed on the national register since February 2009, though the Wurst Home is considered a non-contributing property in the district due to non-historic asbestos siding on the structure.
By state law, city commissioners were required to operate in a quasi-judicial manner in deliberation while hearing the appeal. As such, the commission was obliged to review evidence and weigh whether the the project included all possible planning to minimize harm to historic property and whether there is a feasible and prudent alternative to the home’s demolition.
City Attorney Katie Jackson told commissioners these standards required them to consider relevant factors as they pertain to the property in question.
“Whether or not it can be used in some other way,” says Jackson. “It’s not talking about alternatives to the intended use in the future for an adjacent property, it’s focused on the uses of this property.”
Feasible and prudent alternative is defined by the state as ‘any alternative solution that can be reasonably accomplished and that is sensible or realistic.’
“You can consider technical issues, design issues, the project’s relationship to a community-wide plan if it exists, and economic issues,” Jackson says. “So it’s kind of an overarching feasible and prudent evaluation of other options.”
Based on US Supreme Court rulings that city staff is in the best position to analyze relevant factors related to such a project and present that information to the municipal government, City Planner Ben Chmiel presented his analysis of the relevant factors to commissioners.
“This is a tough case,” says Chmiel. “I don’t enjoy standing in the way of the Boys & Girls Club with a noble cause, they’re great at what they do. These are the facts that we were asked to come up with when looking at feasible and prudent alternatives for the property and […] we have to stick to those two criteria.”
Based on his analysis, Chmiel testified that a feasible and prudent alternative to the project would be to continue the home’s use as a residence. He noted evidence such as a consistent history of occupancy and that it is currently occupied as well as appreciating property value that doesn’t align with examples of uninhabitable homes that “should” be demolished,
“And if we do find that the demolition is unnecessary because there are feasible and prudent alternatives, then by that logic there are unnecessary destruction of historic, character-defining features,” says Chmiel. “With a wholesale demolition, razing the entire site, there’s not an opportunity to scale back that demolition.”
Manhattan B&GC Executive Director Trent Jones testified on behalf of his organization, saying they hope to be respectful to the historic district and ‘provide a space that contributes to the neighborhood and promotes safety and hometown pride’ — which he says it does not do currently.
“The city is currently in a position of deciding between allowing this home to continue deteriorating, being home to crime and being less than appealing to our local citizens and visitors to Manhattan,” says Jones. “Or allowing the Boys & Girls Club to take ownership and provide a well-maintained space that not only contributes but provides opportunities to hundreds of kids and teens each year.”
They also disputed the historicity of the home, due to its non-conforming status, despite its inclusion as a non-conforming property included in a registered historic district. The relevance of numerous factors raised by Jones was disputed by Chmiel and Jackson based on requirements to rule based on factors including technical issues, design issues, economic issues and adherence to a community plan.
Jones was asked about any considerations by B&GC regarding alternative usage of the building as administrative space or for some other purpose, which he indicated would be unsuitable given regulations that would eat up significant amounts of space if used for programming. He also says the home is not conducive or inviting for restructuring into a healthy work environment.
A contractor in collaboration with the B&GC also toured the home and identified approximately $155,000 in maintenance and repair work around the home which was entered into evidence, though the breakdown of what projects contributed to that price was not provided. Chmiel questioned if and how much of that cost pertained to habitability, though, given its current occupied status. No evidence clearly indicating unhabitability was presented.
Members of the Manhattan/Riley County Preservation Alliance presented public testimony on the proposal, with member Kathy Dzewaltowski calling Jones’ remarks disheartening.
“The view and not liking ones’ neighbors are not valid reasons for demolition.”
President Linda Glasgow also opposed the demolition, saying while work is necessary at the home that the foundation, walls and roof are sound indicating that there is more evidence that it is not in such a condition to warrant demolition.
“Another concern of the Preservation Alliance is the potential precedent that would be set by permitting the demolition of a habitable house within a historic district for reasons that aren’t relevant,” says Glasgow. “Comments about issues with tenants and houses facing concrete walls are not relevant factors that should be considered when determining whether there are feasible and prudent alternatives to demolition.”
Commissioners expressed some frustration with the seemingly restrictive requirements for their deliberation as set by state statute.
“I think the commission here would like to help the Boys & Girls Club as much as possible to expand their programming and do what you can,” says Commissioner Mark Hatesohl. “Our hands are tied, apparently; every indication is we have no legal ground to stand on that would allow us to override the Historic Resources Board decision.”
Hatesohl as well as Commissioner Aaron Estabrook and Mayor Wynn Butler leaned more toward overriding the HRB decision and authorizing the demolition, though either ruling could result in an appeal in district court. Butler took up an economic argument for the demolition, citing the $115,000 proposed sale price and $155,000 estimate of renovations as economically infeasible.
“I think the district is improved with green space as opposed to that building,” says Butler. “I think I can legally vote to overturn it and say I do not believe it is economically feasible to repurpose the building. And I also don’t believe it does any irreparable harm to the historic district because the building itself is not on the register.”
Though Chmiel noted the home likely could become contributing to the district with renovations to the siding and thus eligible for tax credits for additional modifications and maintenance, he did not provide a figure that would bring the property into a state that would be accepted by the state historic resources board.
Numerous commissioners also raised concerns about the asbestos, which Chmiel says is not a concern unless disturbed and sent airborne. Commissioner Usha Reddi, though, wanted to postpone the decision to see if additional evidence regarding the home’s habitability can be acquired.
“We have what we can see with our eyes,” says Reddi. “But […] I don’t know what else that might be there that’s unhealthy.”
Butler concurred, saying that evidence could be secured if the property owner would consent to a free inspection of its interior.
“The city can’t require risk assessment to go there, but we could ask the staff to go back and contact the property owner or the applicant could contact the property owner,” Butler says. “And ask the property owner to request that risk assessment go through the building.”
The item will return for further deliberation on December 7, 2021.
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