Friday, October 31, 2014

Lot of promise: Neighbors, city still waiting after downtown building razed

By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer | 11/30/2012

The lot at 124 S. Main Street in Ottawa’s historic downtown is a lonely place.

Gone are the more than 100 years of commerce, which took place in the historic, three-story building that once stood on the site.

The lot at 124 S. Main Street in Ottawa’s historic downtown is a lonely place.

Gone are the more than 100 years of commerce, which took place in the historic, three-story building that once stood on the site.

Lawyers with the city, the lot’s owner — CrossFirst Bank of Leawood — and the two adjoining property owners are in the midst of negotiations stemming from the demolition of the buckling building earlier this year.

But the demolition, which was approved by Ottawa city commissioners 10 months ago, has left some downtown business owners wondering what will become of the lot.

“In my opinion, I think you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone to build a retail store there,” Larry Skeet, co-owner of Our House Runneth Over Antiques, 120 S. Main St., said. “Personally, I’d like to see public restrooms put there, along with some landscaping and a picnic table or two.”

Skeet said public restrooms are sorely needed downtown.

“People come off the street all the time and want to use the restroom,” Skeet said.

Public restrooms also would be useful during public events downtown like the annual Ol’ Marais River Run car show, Becci Shisler, program director for the Ottawa Main Street Association, said.

“I would like to see permanent public restrooms built on the lot,” Shisler said. “We have had downtown business owners tell us there’s a need for public restrooms. I would support putting in public restrooms and some landscaping on that site.”

Skeet also suggested a walkway be left on the lot to provide direct access between the parking lot behind the 100 block of South Main Street and the front of the street — without having to walk around the block to get to the front entrances of the shops.

“We have a sign up that says parking in the back, but people don’t use it,” Skeet said.

Skeet said he is hopeful something can be done soon to repair the lot. He said he thinks people are wary of walking past it because the temporary mural makes it look like construction is taking place at the site. Consequently, they aren’t reaching his antique shop two doors down, he said.

The Ottawa City Commission voted 5-0 Feb. 15 to approve total demolition of the 130-year-old building, after reviewing engineering reports and hearing the testimony of expert witnesses during two public hearings on the matter.

The city’s structural engineer, Moni El-Aasar of BG Consultants, based in Manhattan, testified the third and second floors would have to be removed. He said they were not safe to occupy. In his opinion, El-Aasar said, the first floor and basement could be saved from a structural point of view, but perhaps would not be salvageable from an economic standpoint.

Engineering reports included estimates that it would take more than $200,000 to shore up the building structurally, but that would not include the cost of refurbishing the building — ridding it of mold and other hazards — to make it inhabitable again.

Representatives of CrossFirst Bank, which had taken over the building in a foreclosure, indicated during February hearings that it would not be feasible for the bank to undertake the restoration.

And with no would-be buyers lining up to take on the project, the city commission said it had little choice but to approve a complete demolition of the structure in the interests of public safety — especially in light of some engineering reports that concluded: “The current condition of the upper floor masonry, the condition of the East and West walls, the weak mortar, and the probability of catastrophic structural failure all make this a potentially life-threatening situation.”

Jay Shadwick, the Overland Park attorney representing the bank, told commissioners at the hearing that if the demolition were approved, the bank would leave the lot in pristine condition.

The building has been demolished and the basement filled in, but more work remains to clean up the lot, which for now is hidden behind the temporary mural of a period clothing storefront.

The owners of the two adjoining properties are in negotiations with the bank to protect their walls from the outside elements, following the building’s demolition, Bob Bezek, the city’s attorney, said. The city also has been in discussions with the bank regarding the condition of the lot.

Bezek said earlier this week he thought a settlement could be reached in a matter of a few days. Shadwick, the lawyer representing the bank, could not be reached for comment Friday.

 Accountants Russell and Mary Thomas fled their one-story building at 122 S. Main St. for the more friendly confines of the Foot & Ankle Clinic several doors north in February until the demolition could be completed.

Mary Thomas on Thursday declined to discuss the matter, but said she was hopeful their exposed party wall could be winterized soon.

Richard Wright, owner of the building to the south at 128 S. Main St., expressed concerns at the February hearings about the potential harm the demolition could do to his adjoining building.

Wright acknowledged Wednesday that he was negotiating a settlement with the bank, but he declined to discuss the details because the settlement had not been finalized.

He opted to go forward himself with repairs to his adjoining wall.

“With winter coming on, we capped the top of the roof that was exposed by the demolition,” Wright said. “We filled in pocket holes where the floor joists went into the party wall and repaired a crack on the front of the building. We’ve sealed up the wall tight for the winter.”

Wright said the city has been good to work with throughout the process, but he said he wished the bank would have spent the money to restore the building. He said he hated to see the historic building torn down.

But now that the building is gone, local officials are contemplating what should be done with the vacant space. While the bank still owns the lot, some officials have weighed in on what they would like to see happen to the space.

“We would love the opportunity to talk with the bank about their plans for the lot,” John Coen, president and chief executive officer of the Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce, said.

“Anything that enhances the downtown would have the blessing of the chamber,” Coen said. “I’ve heard discussions about public restrooms. I would also appreciate seeing another retail business go in. I think there is an opportunity to build there and make it fit in with the Victorian-style buildings that are currently downtown.”

Coen cited the example of the Sears building on the site of the former JC Penney location at 221 S. Main St. as the last retail store built downtown. Sears, which has since moved across the street to 220 S. Main St., built on the former JC Penney site after that store burned in 1992.

Gene Ramsey, city commissioner, said he was not keen on the idea of putting in public restrooms on the site or putting in a pocket park, such as Edward E. Haley Community Park at the corner of Second and Main streets. The park is on the site of the former Haley Title Building, which collapsed about 35 years ago, according to Herald’s archives.

“I hope that whatever the bank decides to do with that land, somebody puts in a retail building,” Ramsey said.

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