Posted: September 5, 2013 Historic Status Considered for Confluence Project Properties
By Andrew Dowd, Leader-Telegram staff
To see the full article, visit the Leader-Telegram
Photos by Leah Akervik
Owners of several downtown South Barstow Street buildings filed for demolition permits just hours before Eau Claire's Landmarks Commission began a process that could bestow local historic status on their properties.
The commission voted 4-3 Tuesday to schedule a public hearing - a first step toward granting the local designation, which would require up to 18 months of discussion between developers and the commission before buildings could be demolished.
Senior city planner Pat Ivory said Tuesday night that he did not immediately know if application for those demolition permits would pre-empt the commission's decision.
Commission member Dave Strobel, who also serves on the City Council, led the push to pursue local landmark status for buildings on the west side of the first block of South Barstow Street - an area that would be demolished for the proposed $77.2 million Confluence Project.
"I think it's the commission's mandate to look at something within this district," Strobel said.
Stuart Schaefer, whose company Commonweal Development is a partner in the Confluence Project, called the decision a delay tactic. The commission already held a hearing on the Confluence's redevelopment proposal in November, he said, and didn't seek property owners' input before the current attempt to bestow landmark status.
"Essentially, you're just wasting everybody's time," he said. "The timing is odd, to say the least."
Strobel said Tuesday's action just gives the public a chance to talk about those buildings at a hearing and then the commission would decide on the landmark status.
"What you're forgetting is the public and city of Eau Claire has an interest in those buildings. It's part of the history of this town," Strobel told Schaefer.
While Strobel's opinion prevailed on the commission - which could hold the public hearing on the properties at its next meeting on Oct. 7 - there were others who felt the buildings didn't warrant the additional protection.
Commission member Carrie Ronnander noted that there's been no push from building owners to get the local designation. A previous owner of the Kline's Department Store building, 6 S. Barstow St., got onto the National Register of Historic Places three decades ago, she said, but never sought local landmark status.
"I would say I'm not in favor of landmarking this particular building at this point," Ronnander said. "I feel there are better properties in this city that are in better condition that we could put our energy into landmarking, instead of that one."
The current owners of 6 S. Barstow St. already applied for demolition on Tuesday, Schaefer said.
John Mogensen, an Eau Claire developer who specializes in refurbishing old buildings and owns several landmark properties, also said he plans to raze a couple of buildings he has on that block for the Confluence Project.
"I applied for a demolition permit for my buildings today," he said.
Mogensen owns and refurbished the building that formerly housed Obsession Chocolates. And he gutted the long vacant 2 S. Barstow St. building, with plans to turn it into a storefront and apartments.
The city could encourage developers to keep those buildings "limping along," but he said that's less desirable than the Confluence Project.
"I don't think they're worth saving, compared with what we could get in the future," he said.
Janice Wnukowski, president of the Eau Claire Historic Preservation Foundation, contended the buildings had strong exterior walls and represent the oldest remaining business buildings from Eau Claire's early years.
"I would say the entire block has enough historical significance," she said. "I just feel they're all important enough to be saved."
In addition to seeking $10.9 million from the city of Eau Claire, which has been holding meetings to discuss the project, Confluence backers also are seeking $25 million in state funding from UW-Eau Claire for a community arts center included in the project. Legislators visiting Eau Claire last week said a decision on that funding wouldn't be made until 2015.
"To me the 18-month review is even less than the time it would take to get financing for the fine arts center," Strobel said. "I do not see this group as trying to kill this project."
Schaefer disagreed and said the historical review could taint the project's efforts to seek state funding.
"There's no question this procedure has potential to delay the project," he said.