Brickelltown demolition request nixed
History or blight? Opinions differ on whether two old homes in Brickelltown should be restored or demolished, and a decision last week by the planning commission to deny the demolition has placed the matter in the hands of Truckee Town Council, which will hear the appeal by developers Tom and Ernie Grossman in August.
President Chelsea Birch of the Truckee-Donner Historical Society said the organization is concerned both by the demolition of the structures before the historic registry is updated and by the potential that the demolition could set a precedent.
“Our board is concerned that any requests for demolition of structures in the historic district are premature at this point,” Birch said. “Before these requests are considered, the Town needs to update the Historic Resource Inventory and set guidelines for the Historic District. Once this has been done, we will better understand the historic value of all structures within the historic district.”
Birch said the demolition could set a precedent, because the developer is basing his request on economic hardship.
“He will get a better return on his investment by taking down the old structures and replacing them with new,” Birch said. “The next applicant need only show economic hardship to also be approved for demolition. We could be losing a number of structures in the historic district if this precedent is set.”
Historical writer Guy Coates said the location of the two plain structures next to the luxurious C.B. White House demonstrates the unique history of Truckee. The plain yellow house next to the mansion was owned by a railroad engineer.
“It is an interesting incongruity worthy of some future historian to study,” Coates said. He said the context of the history would be lost if the old homes are destroyed.
Last week’s decision by the planning commission to deny the demolition of the old structures, which are located to the west of the C.B. White house downtown, came as a surprise to developer Tom Grossman, who said he had received the support of town planning staff for the project.
Town planning staff recommended the commission adopt a mitigated negative declaration on the demolition.
“The next step was the planning commission,” Grossman said. “I’m not sure they understood the staff report, and what economic hardship meant in this case.”
Grossman is a member of the planning commission, and abstained from any action related to his project.
He said when his family acquired the structures in partnership with Ed Candler eight years ago, it was with the intent of eventually tearing them down to construct a new building.
“When we bought these buildings eight years ago, there was no talk of the historic district, just blight and how to fix it,” Grossman said.
He said his family’s goal in Truckee is to preserve historic structures – but it is important to differentiate between old buildings and historic ones.
In partnership with Ed Candler, the Grossmans restored the historic building where their offices are located, and also the former First Realty Building, which now houses the Sierra Business Council.
“The last thing I want to do is to tear down a historic structure,” Grossman said. “I save historic structures.”
The yellow and blue houses, each about 100 years old, both present daunting problems in restoration, Grossman said. The homes both have roof problems, crumbling pier and post foundations and asbestos siding. The floors are rotting in both homes.
He said banks have refused to loan the estimated cost of $225,000 to remodel the homes, because the loan would put a total of $450,000 into the properties.
The yellow house now has a value of $60,000. That’s a combination of the lot value, $100,000 – and the negative impact of the house – $40,000. Restored for approximately $125,000 the home would be valued at about the cost of the remodel, Grossman said.
The blue house, which is now valued at approximately $49,000 for the house and lot, would have a value of around $120,000 with restoration costs of $100,000.
The Grossmans initially bought the houses for $125,000 each.
Grossman paid Kautz Environmental Consultants, a firm which specializes in developing historic districts for communities across the U.S., to perform a cultural resources assessment on the five lots which comprise the Grossman property. The firm said the site should be considered a non-contributing member of the Truckee Historic Preservation District.
“It is apparent that the five residential lots which comprise the property lack archaeological integrity and that recent landscape modifications have effectively obliterated or obscured any meaningful archaeological context,” the firm wrote in its report. “No prehistoric or ethnographic resources were identified. Further, despite the observation that this Truckee neighborhood is historic, which is best exemplified historically by the neighboring C.B. White House, the two houses . . . seem to have lost a considerable amount of structural integrity.”
In fact, Grossman points to two reports by architectural firms, which indicate that both houses have severe structural problems. The report indicates the blue structure is not habitable at all, as its roof is caving in and the foundation is crumbling.
“The yellow building would be habitable only in summer, with a considerable amount of work,” Grossman said. “In the winter it would be too dangerous with any kind of snow load.”
He said he has offered to give the buildings and $5,000 per structure to the historical society, Tahoe-Truckee Unified School District and the Truckee-Donner Recreation and Park District. Both the historical society and the school district declined the offer, as they had no place for the buildings. The rec and park district did not reply.
Grossman said he hopes to spend up to $1 million on an office building on the site, designed to fit in with the historic nature of Brickelltown and spur economic growth in the area. He said Truckee’s Redevelopment Agency will eventually provide money to combat blight in the downtown area, but that time is many years away.
“We are ready to move forward right now with a privately funded project, which will not use taxpayer money,” Grossman said.
The Grossmans’ insurance company recently said it would increase the rates for the unoccupied buildings, and said they should be secured against vagrants. Following the planning commission decision, Grossman posted the property with signs warning people to keep out and surrounded the two houses with chain-link fencing.
He said their options now are to either let the situation remain as it is, or to rip the houses apart and rehabilitate them, which would involve prohibitive expenses.
For now, Grossman plans to let the buildings sit, while waiting for his appeal to be heard by the Truckee Town Council in August.
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