Brickelltown owner gets tentative OK to raze homes
Developer Tom Grossman, who seeks to demolish two Brickelltown homes, received a certificate of economic hardship for both structures at last week’s marathon Truckee Town Council meeting.
The certificate allows Grossman to proceed with demolition, once all necessary conditions are met and required permits are received from the town, including submission and town approval of plans for a replacement structure on the site. According to the Downtown Specific Plan, the replacement structure would have to be a historically appropriate design.
As part of its approval of economic hardship, council also required Grossman to negotiate in good faith with anyone who has a profitable plan to save the yellow house.
The decision came after a five-hour appeal hearing, including more than three and a half hours of public input and more than two hours of council discussion and presentations by proponents and opponents of the demolition.
Town planning staff initially recommended that council approve both certificates for demolition, because the town’s figures showed that both homes met the finding for economic hardship. According to the figures produced by town staff, the rental income for either of the homes would not have been sufficient to offset the costs of loans to renovate them.
“Approval of a certificate of economic hardship allows the applicant to pursue planning and building approvals for a historically compatible construction complying with all Downtown Specific Plan standards,” Community Development Director Tony Lashbrook told council. “Demolition may only occur after all approvals and permits have been issued.”
Lashbrook said the council’s decision would require balancing the community’s desire for historic preservation against the community’s desire for economic development of the downtown area.
“Think about what best serves the policies of the Downtown Specific Plan,” he said, pointing out that council has no authority to require Grossman to invest money into the dilapidated structures and bring them up to code.
Lashbrook said that currently there are no programs in place to provide incentives aiding Grossman with the development of his property, and that he would advise against committing future redevelopment money to renovate the homes.
“If you commit now to use redevelopment money on these structures, you may not be able to use that money for other, more historic structures,” Lashbrook advised. He said it will be at least five years before any funds from Truckee’s fledgling redevelopment efforts are available.
In his appeal presentation, Grossman gave a brief history of the homes. He said that downtown merchant Ed Candler first bought the property 10 years ago, with the idea of constructing an 8,000-square-foot office building, and invited Tom Grossman’s father, Ernie Grossman, into the deal a few years later.
The project went to the county for consideration, but was halted because of the pending incorporation, Grossman said.
“Then they met with Steve Wright and (former Town Planner) Elizabeth Eddins, and said they had a plan for the buildings,” Grossman said. He said the investors knew the structures were historic and in a historic district, but that they never did maintenance because they never intended to keep the homes. Grossman and Candler decided to wait for the completion of the Downtown Specific Plan.
“A few years went by and Ernie and Ed traded parcels,” Grossman said. At that time, the Grossmans moved into the renovated historic home located behind the two dilapidated structures.
“There was one transient living in the blue home and the other was full of kids, with about 15 cars coming and going every hour,” Grossman said. “When they offered to pay their rent with a bag of green leafy stuff, we decided that wasn’t the proper use for that building.”
Grossman admitted he had made mistakes following the planning commission’s decision last July to deny his certificate of economic hardship – spraypainting signs on the buildings and accidentally knocking down a railing on the yellow house. He said his insurance company required the fence around the structures if they were not occupied. However, he said some maintenance has been done to keep the buildings from being even more unsightly – such as the removal of four 30-yard dumpsters of trash after the last tenants departed from the yellow house.
“We want to build something that will add to the community and do more than these buildings have ever done,” Grossman said. “The Downtown Specific Plan has good guidelines, but the council must interpret them.”
He presented figures showing that each of the buildings would represent a loss of more than $100,000 to renovate, even assuming that some incentives were available in five years.
“As investors and as people who want to build something nice, it does not seem reasonable to make us wait five years,” he said. “I’m not sure council in five years will look at this and say ‘Those buildings are phenomenal.'”
Reasons for preservation
Chelsea Walterscheid, president of the Truckee-Donner Historical Society, urged council not to approve the certificate of economic hardship, because it might set a precedent for how property-owners in the historic district treat their buildings.
“We want to discourage demolition by neglect,” Walterscheid said. “If you sit on a structures long enough and do not renovate them, then they become eyesores.”
She said property-owners who invest in the historic district should do so with the expectation of smaller returns, and not buy properties with an expectation of destroying them.
“Had Mr. Grossman kept his houses up to standard, they could have been rented and generated income,” she said. “That decision (to defer maintenance) was in line with his plan to demolish the buildings. He planned this right from the start.”
She urged the town to prioritize its historic preservation policy, and to provide property owners with incentives to maintain their historic structures.
In closing, she offered a compromise for the Grossman homes, saying that the preservation of the yellow house would better benefit the community.
Planner Paul Lord of San Francisco, who compiled Truckee’s first Historic Resources Inventory in 1981 and edited the book “Fire and Ice: A Portrait of Truckee,” presented a defense for preservation of the two structures.
“Many costs of renovating these two homes would nearly be duplicated in new development,” Lord said. “If there are limits on the development potential of this property, then what we are really talking about is a property owner’s right to go broke – either through renovation or new construction.”
He recited a bit of the known history of the yellow house, which was built by prominent lumberman W.H. Kruger around 1907 and sold to the Adolph family, well-known clothiers in town.
“These homes are very much a part of the Brickelltown neighborhood, which is referenced on http://www.tahoe.com as a historic site,” Lord said.
He said any proposal for new development on the site could not be seen as a suitable replacement for the old structures.
“Historically appropriate development, that term would make preservationists cringe throughout the nation,” Lord said. “That’s building a movie set.”
He said successful historic districts across the nation have shown that preservation makes good economic sense, and said that in Truckee, surveys show that people return because of the environment and the historic nature of the town.
Lord urged consideration of incentives for property owners, including tax increment financing and redevelopment funds. He also said consideration should be given to programs such as Community Block Redevelopment Grants.
“Demolition by neglect is an issue being dealt with across the country,” Lord said. “You must set a tone for whether or not you allow demolition by neglect.”
He encouraged the town to consider alternatives in historic preservation and to get programs in place to provide property owners with incentives.
Other Truckee residents spoke up in favor of preserving the homes, including Steve Frisch of the Truckee Downtown Merchants Association.
Frisch said that the Town of Truckee did not follow its own ordinances in considering the structures for demolition. He said the Downtown Specific Plan states that a standard must be put in place to determine architectural significance before demolition permits may be considered in the historic district.
“The Historic Preservation Advisory Committee must develop those standards, to be approved by town council, before a historic resources inventory can be conducted,” Frisch said.
The recently-completed draft of the Truckee Historic Resources Inventory identified both of Grossman’s homes as “contributory” structures to the historic district, but not as landmarks in their own right.
“Without independent criteria for architectural significance, you cannot proceed and make the required findings for a certificate of economic hardship,” Frisch said.
However, he offered a compromise solution.
“It has always been our belief that Tom and Ernie Grossman want to build a good project to contribute to Brickelltown,” Frisch said. “We propose a compromise: Deny the certificate of economic hardship on the yellow house and approve it on the green one. Increase the maximum floor area available on both lots (the green house lot and a vacant lot) for construction.”
Frisch said the renovation and a certificate of occupancy for the yellow house should be tied to final approval of a certificate of occupancy for the new project to be built on the other lots. He said the council could also relax its standards for parking to provide an additional incentive to the Grossmans.
If a business owner is short the required number of parking places, they pay a $5,000-per space fee to the town. Relaxation on those standards for the Grossman property could provide up to $30,000 in incentives, Frisch said.
Local historian Guy Coates, who has written many articles for the Sierra Sun, urged council to consider the occupants of the two Grossman homes were just as much a part of our history as those who lived in the C.B. White House.
“The man who lived in the yellow house deserved equal respect,” Coates said. “His name was Ewell. He was a railroad man. He fought blizzards on the summit and sent his kids off to World War I. Truckee is a mosaic of little houses that working people lived in.”
He said there would be permanent effects of council’s decision, and noted that many in the historic district have gone to great expense to renovate and preserve their homes.
“Restoration is a labor of love,” Coates said. “People cared enough to preserve these buildings.”
He said the town should put the application for National Historic Registry on the front-burner, which would help to put more incentives in place for restoration.
Other opposed the preservation of the structures, and said council should approve demolition.
“This is not Nantucket,” resident Ben Maul said. “Let’s get real here. This is Truckee. This is an old piece of junk building we’re talking about tearing down.”
Others, including Mike Mason, said that the most important things downtown are the appearance and the parking situation.
“If (property owners) decide they are not going to repair structures, they can sit there until they fall down,” Mason said.
Another resident, J. Goodpastor, said Truckee’s downtown is embarrassing when compared to other communities along Interstate 80.
“When I walk through Auburn, I see a nice town,” he said. “When I walk through Truckee, it’s embarrassing. Some buildings need to be saved, but we should not make a precedent for keeping the junky ones.”
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