Aug. 24--OXFORD -- Whether the Sigma Chi Foundation can tear down part of its building Uptown remains up in the air after the city's board of zoning appeals sent the matter back to the Historic and Architectural Preservation Commission for further consideration.
Earlier this year, the foundation, which is headquartered in the building at High Street and Park Place, announced plans to demolish part of the back of the structure. This displaced businesses, including Bill's Art Store and the Varsity Barber Shop. Sigma Chi had stated that parts of the building had become a dangerous fire hazard, and that to completely renovate the structure would cost more than replacing it.
In May, however, the city's Historic and Architectural Preservation Commission denied the application, stating that Sigma Chi had not presented an appropriate re-use of the property. They argued that the historic value of the building was more important than what would replace it, which was a small vacant lot, a park-like space, that would be open to the public.
Complicating matters was a mechanical fault that resulted in the May HAPC meeting not being completely recorded. Therefore, the matter was sent to the Board of Zoning Appeals, which itself was divided on how to handle the problem. They discussed the matter for more than two hours, essentially recreating the "lost" meeting.
Robert Benson, a member of the HAPC, said the property was one of the "last historic buildings on the square in Oxford ... we have an opportunity to clarify the history to the city and the region. We have not, until very recently, cultivated a culture of preservation."
Architect Scott Webb, representing Sigma Chi, disputed the notion that this was a matter of a historic building versus a small vacant lot.
"The goal of the project is not to tear down buildings and create an empty lot. The goal is to protect the investment," he said, adding that what remains of the building would be reconfigured to make it less of a fire hazard by reducing or eliminating a tangle of narrow corridors. The HAPC did find that the building did not have significant structural damage.
City Planner Sam Perry said part of the issue was that it turned into an all-or-nothing proposition, in that the HAPC could not cherry-pick plans it liked or didn't like, but had to consider the package as a whole. The commission agreed with Sigma Chi that the cost to repair the building outweighed its value, but disagreed on the re-use plan.
The Board of Zoning Appeals had difficulty reaching a decision. Prue Dana, the vice chair, moved to uphold the HAPC's denial of the demolition permit. That motion died for lack of a second.
Board member Michael Schnipper moved to allow Sigma Chi's permit, because he thought Sigma Chi had met the criteria. But his motion also failed for lack of a second.
Finally, member Jack Cohen moved that the matter be remanded back to HAPC so they could create a proper record of a meeting so that the BZA could make a determination based on record as required by law. That motion passed, with Schnipper and BZA Chair Jack Brady being the minority "no" vote. Dana said she found that acceptable, so that the HAPC could re-examine the matter.
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