City eyes historic statusfor downtown building
Less than a month after upholding the Historic Preservation Commission’s decision to allow the razing of the Mountain Plaza building, the City Council voted Monday to initiate proceedings to protect it.The downtown structure, at the corner of Galena and Cooper, also known as the Bidwell building, is the focus of a redevelopment plan. The HPC has approved demolition of the structure, pending the approval of redevelopment plans. The council reviewed the commission’s decision last month, but found no cause to overturn it.But Councilwoman Rachel Richards, who adamantly opposed letting the HPC’s decision stand, on Monday urged her council colleagues to either reconsider that decision or direct city staffers to prepare an application to designate the building as historic.”The reason I’m bringing this up is I feel very strongly about redevelopment and the loss of character to our downtown,” Richards said. The Mountain Plaza building, which Fritz Benedict designed, is not currently designated as historic, but it is within the HPC’s purview because it is within the downtown historic district.Richards is pushing for the city to pursue a historic designation that would prevent the building’s owners from tearing it down. Giving a structure historic protection without the consent of the owner, however, is not something the city has done previously with its newer, post-World War II properties.The HPC, however, has directed staffers to prepare a designation application for the Hearthstone House, a lodge of that era, also without the owner’s consent, according to Amy Guthrie, the city’s historic preservation planner.A building that is at least 40 years old can be designated without the owner’s permission.In the case of the Bidwell building, owned by the son and daughter of the late Bert Bidwell, planning consultant Mitch Haas has said some of the structure’s mechanical functions are failing and that the deeply sunken courtyard in the building’s front corner has made for a challenging design from a retail perspective. The basement space accessed off the courtyard has seen numerous enterprises come and go. One tenant, Kemo Sabe, has long been a fixture on the ground floor, though.The plans for redevelopment sprang from the city’s infill discussions, according to Jeannine Bidwell, who owns the building with her brother. At that time, the city was looking to encourage the redevelopment of some of the downtown’s tired buildings.”We thought this was something that the city wanted,” she said.Bidwell said she would not support historic preservation of the structure. Her father hired Benedict to design a building that could be constructed cheaply after the one that had been there collapsed.”It’s not like my father set out to build this great, historic structure,” she said. “It was built as quick and cheaply as possible. I don’t think there’s any historic significance to the building at all.”Although complete demolition has not been proposed, the redevelopment would essentially look like the structure had been scraped and replaced, Haas told the HPC. The new building would fill in the courtyard space and add floors to what exists now.With Mayor Helen Klanderud dissenting, the council agreed it would like to look at the structure’s historic merit, rather than limit itself to the review of the HPC’s decision, which it had little latitude to overrule.”I think that the process, and the building, deserve a fair hearing,” said Councilman Jack Johnson. Even with historic protection, the building’s owners could undertake a significant interior renovation, Richards added.”I do think this is a key property … I think we should be able to discuss it on its merits,” she said.The application for historic designation of the building will go first to a hearing before the HPC, and then to the council, Guthrie said.Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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The Wheeler Opera House will remain dark into 2021, with current COVID-19 public health orders in place. Meanwhile, the masonry work on the exterior of the building will continue into July.