News Column

Menasha leaders at odds over preservation, development

September 3, 2014

By Jen Zettel, The Post-Crescent, Appleton, Wis.



Sept. 03--MENASHA -- Since mid-July, residents have watched as crews dismantle one of the city's most historic structures: the former Hotel Menasha.

As sections of the building fall, tensions are rising between those who want to save the downtown's historic buildings and those who favor economic growth.

City officials and the developers have been quiet about when demolition will be finished and what the next steps are, but they've been quiet from the beginning -- a point of frustration for those interested in preserving the city's historic structures.

Kara Homan, the city's principal planner, said the hotel site developers are still in the design phase. Once the design is finalized, the site plan will go before the city's Plan Commission, Landmarks Commission and Common Council for approval.

"My understanding is that the hotel demolition will be completed in the next several weeks," Homan said in an email to Post-Crescent Media.

Hotel opens door

Paul Brunette, a member of the city's Landmarks Commission, said he was distraught after the Common Council granted a demolition permit for the hotel without seeing conceptual drawings of the structure that will take its place. The commission denied the request and recommended the council do the same.

The developers -- John Bergstrom, Kim Vanderhyden and John Hogerty -- promised thedevelopment would be a landmark for future generations with retail, office and residential space.

Without drawings, Brunette fears the city could lose more than a historic structure.

"You have promises that are not supported. It makes me feel sick," he said.

Local historian Peter Adams said municipal preservation commissions are meant to carefully measure the impact of altering or demolishing historic structures. The Common Council's decision to allow demolition without plans for the new building causes concern.

"I think the issue here fundamentally is that the override came without public consideration of what was the trade-off," Adams said. "The public has no idea what's being built. They have no idea that what will be built will be harmonious with the rest of the historic district.

"It's a pig and a poke and -- without consideration of those factors -- can produce lamentable, irreversible changes to the character and the function of a downtown."

Menasha Mayor Don Merkes was silent as the project moved through the Landmarks Commission and the Common Council.

In an email to Post-Crescent Media, Merkes said the city's "goal is to preserve those buildings that add to the vibrancy of our community."

However, he said redevelopment is the best option for buildings that are "functionally obsolete, abandoned and/or structurally decayed."

Saving history

With sections of the hotel being razed every day, the commission and other preservationists have turned their focus to bank buildings next door.

The hotel site developers allowed the city to take limestone brick from the demolition site to save for future use as sections of city sidewalk perhaps, Brunette said. The commission members hope to avoid a similar situation with the bank buildings and keep the facades intact.

Community Development Director Greg Keil and Homan recently confirmed that the owners of the former banks are working with the hotel site developers.

At its August meeting, the commission supported sending letters to the building owners in hopes they could collaborate on ways to incorporate the facades into designs.

Brunette said the commission hasn't received a response from the owners. However, chairman Tom Grade has met with city officials.

Commission members started a Facebook page called "Save Menasha" and are circulating a petition to support saving the facades. The page has 101 likes, and some 130 people have signed the petition.

Building a future

Despite the history they represent, the buildings do nothing for the city if they're empty, downtown business owners say.

Pat DuFrane, owner of the WeatherVane Restaurant, said new development could boost traffic downtown, while historic, vacant structures simply stand there.

"If they're vacant, they don't do anybody any good to look at ... You can't just have a ghost town of empty buildings," he said.

Doris Szymanski has seen an increase in traffic at her business, Club Liquor, since demolition started at the hotel, which she hopes continues as the site is developed.

The lack of plans for the development doesn't concern Szymanski. The former hotel was a low-income housing option during its time as the Historic Hotel Pub and River's Edge Apartments, which at times attracted tenants who caused trouble downtown.

"That (the development) was a good situation for the city and I think anything that happens down there is going to be a vast improvement," she said. "The promise of what's to come down there is a vast improvement."

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(c)2014 The Post-Crescent (Appleton, Wis.)

Visit The Post-Crescent (Appleton, Wis.) at www.postcrescent.com

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Source: Post-Crescent (Appleton, WI)


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