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Pure Oil Building Wins in Extra Innings

Deja vu all over aagain as Yogi would say.

It was a strange night at City Hall. If you recall last week’s meeting, we were told that the vote to uphold the Historical Preservation Commission’s decision to deny a demolition permit for the Pure Oil Building would prevent the matter from reaching the City Council meeting the following week. But not so fast. The City Council has to make that decision.

But you thought the City Council already made that decision. Shows how much you know. When is a city council not a city council? When it’s a COW, of course, COW being Committee of the Whole. So now we needed a resolution to uphold the decision the City Council, I mean COW, made last week. The resolution was described as a vote affirming the decision the City Council, I mean COW, made last week. But it’s not really affirming that decision, just that a decision was made. So the City Council unanimously resolved that they, I mean COW, made a decision last week.

That led into a motion to reconsider that decision. Except that Robert’s Rules of Order normally require that a motion to reconsider be made at the same meeting the motion being reconsidered was made. So if the City Council was reconsidering the motion they just made, then I guess it would have to be a motion to reconsider whether they made a decision last week. But it turns out the motion to reconsider was actually to reconsider the decision to uphold the HPC decision made by the City Council, I mean COW, last week.

Confused? I am. Anyway, we learned that the historic preservation ordinance allows the petitioner, Joe Stanton, to appeal the HPC decision to the City Council. So why did he appeal the HPC decision to the City Council, I mean COW, last week? I don’t know. Who’s on first?

After several false starts and some confusion about what the council was voting on and what the results were, we finally got through this part of the agenda and got to the part where the petitioner pled his case. Joe brought a banker and a real estate agent to help bolster his cause. The appeal was based upon the first standard of the rehabilitation guidelines from the Secretary of the Interior and the technical and economic feasibility of the “project” according to those guidelines.

Only there was no actual project, from what I could tell. The council was not supposed to consider the proposed bank. So we had some theoretical project for some theoretical use and some theoretical costs for that project. Since this theoretical project would not provide any theoretical return and would therefore not pass muster for bank financing (no more no doc loans), the petitioner argued that he had met the burden of proof for the first standard of the rehabilitation and economic and technical feasibility. The first standard of rehabilitation (key word rehabilitation), by the way, says that “a property shall be used for its intended historic purpose or be placed in a new use that requires minimal change to the defining characteristics of the building and its site and environment”.

The petition was for demolition of the building, which seems to be an extreme form of rehabilitation. Kind of like execution. So I’m confused about just how the standards of rehabilitation apply. And to add to the surreal atmosphere of the evening, the mayor retained his composure and Bob McQuillan said something I agreed with and so did the mayor. Actually two things.

The first was about working things out and extending the olive branch so there is no winner and no loser in the situation. The second was about how there are 10 City Council members and probably 10 different ideas about what economic and technical feasibility is. I’ve been thinking that we didn’t have a good handle on this concept, either.

As I listened to Dick Untch try to explain how the first standard of rehabilitation and economic and technical feasibility needed to be addressed, I realized how true this was. Joe has his idea of what technical and economic feasibility is and how that should apply to the first standard of rehabilitation and I have mine, which is somewhat different.

You see, I feel that the rehabilitation standards address how the historic aspects of the property should be preserved during the process of rehabilitation. In the preface to the Standards of Rehabilitation, it states that “rehabilitation is defined as the act or process of making possible a compatible use for a property through repair, alterations, and additions, while preserving those portions or features which convey its historical, cultural, or architectural values."

Many of the improvements to the property listed in Joe Stanton’s letter to the HPC do not apply to the defining features of the property that the guidelines address. Things like bringing in new electric service, HVAC improvements, and compliance with ADA requirements do nothing to preserve the historical aspects of the building. Those improvements, as well as sprinklers, smoke alarms, and building code requirements should really be considered a cost of doing business when your business is renting commercial space.

I don’t see these kind of improvements and compliance with regulations as being covered by the rehabilitation guidelines. All of these factors may make the cost of a project prohibitive, but they cannot be construed as requirements for historical preservation.

I guess that what I learned from this process is that we may need to plug a few holes in our ordinance. Demolition needs to be addressed as a separate issue and held to a higher standard. Economic and technical feasibility need to be defined in terms of rehabilitation of the historical features of a property. Economic hardship needs to be addressed, as well as property owner financial distress. We need experts to help property owners with rehabilitation projects both in terms of design and financing. We may need some form of public financing to help owners adapt historic properties to commercial purposes. We need to be committed to historic preservation and to making it work to the benefit of property owners and the public.

Last night’s meeting had a lot of high and low points, but in the end I think the City Council made the right decision. It also showed that there are a lot of good people in Geneva, who are committed to preserving Geneva and making it work.

I hope that the process spawns some new creative alliances to help create a long-term solution to the problems of historic preservation, because that is a large part of the character and charm of Geneva and why so many of us are proud to call Geneva home.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Noel G. Rooks April 03, 2012 at 05:10 PM
There was certainly a lot of confusion as to who was appealing what to whom and why, for certain. It was also kind of eye opening as to how much we all understood vs. how much the council understood as to what was being appealed, what we were debating, and what the actual proposal was. It certainly seemed like we were all on the same confused page for quite a while. I'm actually still a little confused this morning, honestly.
Bob McQuillan April 03, 2012 at 05:10 PM
Excellent summary of the meeting. As I said last night, I can see both sides of the issue but I don't necessarily understand the whole process. I was fearful that last night's decision was a "all or nothing vote." I was especially concerned when the discussion turned to the topic of if the building could be moved. The group's hard line that it could not be relocated really put the City Council up against it. The Council could have easily voted the other way. Keep in mind that last night's vote doesn't mean the building will be refurbished, it only means it will not be torn down. Eventually that building will reach the state where it can't be refurbished. That might be 10 years, 25 years or 40 years. The building was "saved" last night but unless something is done to maintain the building, it is only a matter of time till the same issue rears it's ugly head again. Hopefully Joe and the "save" group (sorry can't think of another name) can talk and come up with a viable solution. But everyone must be willing to compromise. Other Pure Oil buildings have been given new life but there has been no discussion about the specifics of how that was done. Was it public money or private money that rehabbed those buildings? There are many "old and history related" buildings in Geneva, and this topic will come up again. This particular case happens to be in the historic district but what about the 6th Street School & the Coultrap building. Must those be saved too? Tough Questions!
Bob McQuillan April 03, 2012 at 05:35 PM
That is exactly why I suggested a vote not be taken last night. Everyone in that room was confused over at least some part of the proceedings. No one was 100% positive how that vote was going to go. If they voted to override the HPC decision, the building is history. Luckily, I guess, the vote was to uphold the HPC decision which provides time for a settlement and compromise to be worked out between all interested parties. If the vote went the other way, which could have happened, I would not have wanted to be in that meeting room last night! The real question is; Was it worth taking the risk of the HPC decision being overturned.
Mike Bruno April 03, 2012 at 06:13 PM
Nice summary of the confusion of the evening. "Who's on first" was an excellent analogy.
Terry Flanagan April 03, 2012 at 06:57 PM
Thanks, Bob. We don't always agree but I admire the way you always stand up and speak your mind. And you're right. We need a long term solution to this problem.
Terry Flanagan April 03, 2012 at 07:01 PM
Thanks, Mike. I've enjoyed listening to you speak at the meetings about historic preservation and your Patch columns on the subject. I always learn something listening to you.
Jeff Ward April 03, 2012 at 08:44 PM
Damn you Terry Flanagan! I'm the only funny columnist in this city! The only think I would've included was that the Mayor and Mary McKittrick knew exactly what they were doing when they "mistakenly" put it on the COW agenda. Jeff
Jeff Ward April 03, 2012 at 09:54 PM
Damn you Terry Flanagan! I'm the only funny columnist in this city! The only thing I would've included was that the Mayor and Mary McKittrick knew exactly what they were doing when they "mistakenly" put it on the COW agenda. Jeff
Colin C. April 03, 2012 at 10:51 PM
Terry, Great summary! Thank you. I find it puzzling and disturbing that our Mayor, City Attorney, and City Administrator all did not seem to be clear on their own agenda or how to explain it to the members of the Council or the audience. In the end, at one point, a member of the audience had to come forward and read and explain their own agenda to them. That does not engender a great deal of confidence. As to going forward, YES, now is the time to help Mr. Stanton restore the Pure Oil Station and develop a viable use for it. And now is the time to develop a clearer and more efficient procedure for identifying and saving historic buildings in the future. I responded to Noel's blog with some background on what some of us are already doing and asking for help. If anyone is interested they can take a look there and join that conversation.
Terry Flanagan April 04, 2012 at 12:34 AM
Jeff, This was written in a stupefied trance following a mind-numbing session of nearly 4 hours during much of which I was afraid my head might explode. Consider this post a form of therapeutic relief and a warning about the dangers of attending these kinds of meetings. I think any doctor would advise you to limit yourself to no more than an hour of viewing at a time from the comfort and safety of your home using your Tivo or DVR.
Terry Flanagan April 04, 2012 at 12:41 AM
Colin, thanks for your comments, and as always, your efforts to turn this situation into a positive for Geneva and for everyone involved. I'm sure that with people such as yourself, Terry Emma, Noel Rooks, and Joe Stanton working toegether, you will come up with a viable plan. I'd be glad to help in any way I can.

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