December 19, 2014

Elyria
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A question of history: Budding dispute between Elyria Schools, Landmarks Commission

Elyria School District officials say they’re gearing up for a battle with city preservationists who want to monitor the restoration of Elyria High’s Washington Building, a fight the district says could result in costly delays for the new $68 million Elyria High School.

Preservationists, however, say school officials’ fears are baseless, and the district is simply trying to circumvent the checks and balances for the protected West Avenue Historic District, an area where the current high school sits and the new one will be built.

Elyria’s ordinances say any alterations, renovations or demolitions to buildings inside the historic district —  roughly, a few blocks around Elyria High School — must first be approved by the Elyria Landmarks Preservation Commission, a seven-member board of volunteer Elyria residents.

CHUCK HUMEL / CHRONICLE
A view of the Washington Building at Elyria High School, built in 1894. The building is set to be renovated as part of the district’s new school project.

Landmarks Commission members say the perception that there’s going to be a tussle is simply not true.
“This tension has been manufactured by the press,” said Clint Rohrbacher, a Landmarks Commission member. “We’re not in any way, shape or form an obstructionist group. We were appointed to restore the historical integrity of Elyria’s landmark properties and buildings.”

Elyria Schools Superintendent Paul Rigda isn’t so sure.

“When you read between the lines, you don’t pick up on a lot of trust,” Rigda said of the Landmarks Commission and city officials. “They’re supposing we’re some construction company putting up a fast food store on this site. It’s ridiculous.”

The historic district

If all goes as planned, the new Elyria High School will open in 2012.

The school will expand southward as the district purchases and demolishes dozens of properties sitting within Sixth and Seventh streets and  East and Middle avenues, as well as a few on the northwest corner of West Avenue and Sixth Street.

A caveat that helped sell the new high school to Elyria voters in May was that school officials agreed to restore the 19th-century Washington Building rather than tear it down.

The restoration of the Washington Building and the destruction of homes within the targeted expansion area have drawn the Landmarks Commission into the mix. A city commission formed in 1987, the Landmarks Commission approves or rejects proposed modifications to exteriors of nationally registered historic buildings and buildings in historic areas, such as the West Avenue Historic District. Earlier this month, school officials asked Elyria City Council members to eliminate the high school and its expansion area from the historic district, a move they hoped would sidestep the Landmarks Commission.

Why? Rigda isn’t shy about his feelings for the commission.

“We simply don’t have time to play with folks of (their) intensity,” he said. “We have to move along on this project — every phase has to move as close to schedule as possible.”

Elyria City Council agreed to lop every property out of the historic district except for one — the Washington Building.

Landmarks Commission member Bill Byrd said the Washington Building is a key part of the city’s historic makeup, and any changes — cleanings, modifications and the like — should involve the city arm that was created to guide such matters.

“The school is not bypassing design-review, building permits and inspections, or the city’s Planning Commission,” Byrd said. “Any of those things, if they’re not handled in a timely fashion, could result in delays. We’re just one piece of the pie.

“It’s very important that citizens understand that our part, even though it’s a small one, is important,” Byrd said. “If we’re looked upon as a hoop that can be sidestepped, then we’re saying historic preservation is not important.”

Will there be delays?

Landmarks Commission members say they won’t delay the Washington Building’s renovation and add that Elyria Schools officials have no basis to worry about the commission’s performance.

Landmarks Commission Chairman Tom Aden said the commission is in place to keep the school district itself from damaging the building or compromising its historic elements. He offered this example: “Let’s take the Washington Building — a sandstone-quarry building — and lets do absurd things to it. We’re going to vinyl-side those babies, put some jealousy windows in there and just tar the roof.”

Rigda scoffed at the notion that dramatic change would come to the Washington Building and said it’s standing today only because school officials have maintained it.

“Who has owned that building and taken care of it for the last 113 years?” Rigda said. “All of a sudden, when we went to the community again to get it renovated and the public said yes — who still owns it?”

Rigda said city officials’ decision to allow the Landmarks Commission to participate in the project will not only result in more delays, it also shows a lack of trust.

“It gets to be very irritating when someone from the outside suggests we’re going to abuse it or misuse it when we’ve been solely responsible for it being the icon that it has been for the last 100 years,” Rigda said. “And we’re proposing to make it last another 100 years.”

Ultimately, it comes down to saving taxpayers money, Rigda said.

“We are trying to renovate it as close to its era as we can, given the dollar amount we have,” Rigda said. “The community is concerned with two things: Taking too long and cost overruns.”

But the school district’s recent levy campaign proved the school didn’t take care of the Washington Building for the past century, Aden said.

“(School officials) were trying to say how terrible it was,” Aden said of the Washington Building. “They said, ‘You can’t go here, can’t go there.’ I don’t know if that’s saying they took that great care of it. I think, personally, that building was built like a fortress, and it took a lot of abuse.”

Past disputes

Rigda said the house at 507 West Ave. is a prime example of how the Landmarks Commission handles the school district’s projects.

At an August 2006 Landmarks Commission meeting, Elyria Schools Business Manager Rich Nielsen asked commission members to allow the school district to tear down the mammoth house on the property, which the district owns and is located next to the high school’s West Avenue parking lot.

The commission rejected Nielsen’s request, saying school officials had no reason to do so.
Apart from rejecting the school’s application, the commission also hammered Nielsen on the ills of having a high school in the West Avenue Historic District.

During the meeting, commission member Marci Yingling, an Elyria Schools teacher, compared the high school to a prison or garbage dump: “Everybody knows we need one, but no one wants it in their neighborhood. It’s not a good neighbor.”

Yingling and commission members Clint Rohrbacher and John Davidson also informed Nielsen about how it is to live with high school students in the neighborhood: junk cars, litter and cigarette butts, loitering and vagrancy.

Rohrbacher, recalling that meeting, said commission members’ sentiments were simply a spillover from previous community meetings where they’d hashed out concerns about the new high school.

“If there was a meeting and emotions were high … find a single organization and meeting in this city where that doesn’t happen from time to time,” Rohrbacher said. “We’re not obstructionists. I don’t have the energy to be an obstructionist.”

Rohrbacher said school officials weren’t “particularly polite” during that meeting.

“It wasn’t so much a discussion as it was, ‘This is a formality,’ ” Rohrbacher said of school officials’ attitude. “It made some people angry — we’re not used to being dictated to. We’re used to talking like adults and seeing how we can help you.”

Until this past month, the school district couldn’t get the commission’s permission to demolish the home. Only after City Council agreed to remove the home and 22 other properties from the historic district was the school able to move ahead with the plans.

“Yeah, they move fast,” Nielsen said about the Landmarks Commission at Wednesday’s school board meeting. “It’s been what, a year?”

Aden said the commission gets blamed for things that are beyond its control.

Years ago, school officials asked the Landmarks Commission to approve the installation of handrails in the Washington Building, and the commission reviewed the school’s application. School officials never got the answer, however, because they never returned for it, Aden said.

“The truth of the matter is, Landmarks wasn’t holding anything up,” Aden said. “We’re being blamed for stuff that wasn’t really holding anybody up.”

Aden said the school district often has overstepped its authority in past projects, such as installing a wire safety fence on the south side of the high school last year without consulting the Landmarks Commission.

At the August 2006 meeting, Landmarks Commission members asked Nielsen why he was showing up after the fact — the fence already was installed.

“We said this is one of those life-safety things that we can’t fool around with,” Rigda said. “We didn’t put up the cheapest fence you could buy — we tried to make it fit in like a fence could fit in.

“We said we have a permit for the fence, and they said you met the city’s requirements, but you didn’t ask us,” Rigda said of Landmarks Commission. “What did we get for that? Admonishment.”

Because the fence was installed to keep students from walking where crumbling concrete was falling from a building, the commission gave its belated OK.

Mixed feelings

Residents in the West Avenue Historical District say they have mixed feelings on the Landmarks Commission, though the commission’s records show that most applications for modifications to historic properties are approved within a few days.

A contractor who did stone-repair work on the Fifth Third Bank building on Broad Street — in the downtown historic district — said the commission approved his work within days.

A Sixth Street homeowner said she had no problems with commission members, other than their suggestion to install an old-style gutter backfired because it ended up leaking.

But some who live or work in Elyria’s historic districts are less receptive to the Landmarks Commission’s role.

Jeanine Donaldson, director of the Elyria YWCA on Fourth Street, shuddered at the mention of the Landmarks Commission.

“I just question their relevance, for lack of a better word,” Donaldson said. “I don’t think they’ve been very reasonable. A lot of times the materials they require us to use — or the way they want us to do something — are cost-prohibitive.”

Aden said the YWCA, like some homeowners in the historic district, has sometimes done repairs without consulting the Landmarks Commission.

Donaldson admitted she was at fault when she didn’t consult the Landmarks Commission for some repairs, but she still questioned the commission’s relevance.

“Replacing rails on porches, you can’t just put up a rail,” Donaldson said. “It has to be a rail that’s consistent with the original structure. We certainly want to respect the neighborhood and don’t want to bring it down, but we’re on a limited budget, and we try to be good stewards of our money.”

Donaldson said the Elyria YWCA owns a main building on Fourth Street and three other homes in the West Avenue Historic District, all of which the commission has forced restrictions on in the name of preservation: wood windows instead of aluminum, paint instead of siding, or certain types of wood for a porch.

On porches, for instance, the Landmarks Commission requires planks of wood to be tongue-and-groove planks where the edges fit together like knuckles. But some contractors have used straight-edged planks of wood to upgrade porches — only to find themselves answering to the Landmarks Commission.

Donaldson, Elyria YWCA director since 1980, said her compliance with the commission is ongoing.

“We have a porch where we haven’t been able to agree on what kind of railing to put in,” Donaldson said. “There’s been a time when they wanted us to go to Amish country to look at woodwork that was done there.”

Landmarks Commission’s preservation guidelines prompted homeowners in a former historic district in Elyria — the Washington Avenue area — to opt out, Donaldson said.

Elyria Assistant Safety Service Director Jerry Klein said the Washington Avenue historic district ended because of conflicting interests and personality clashes among all involved. Donaldson said that sounded about right.

“They found the regulations fairly restrictive, and they were able to get out,” she said. “The (Landmarks Commission) didn’t pick another wealthy neighborhood that could pick the impositions that were put on it.

“The point is, look around the (West Avenue) neighborhood at the people who own their homes versus who lives here,” Donaldson said. “Not just the (YWCA) doesn’t have the resources — I don’t think the people in the neighborhood have the resources.”

Klein, however, defended the commission’s role, saying it helps bring property owners into compliance in an area where most are landlords, not residents.

Either way, Rigda said the stringent regulations imposed by the Landmarks Commission are exactly what he’s afraid of. He doesn’t want the commission to require the district to retain old roofing and other elements that aren’t energy efficient and will prove costly in the long run.

He said he’s also worried about the personal grudges commission members may have against the high school.

Aden himself led the charge in 2003 to oppose a similar school levy that would have built a new high school on the current site. The levy failed, but Aden made his mark, using his nonprofit Elyria organization, West by the River, as a bullhorn to oppose the new school.

“I think the community isn’t on the same page as these folks,” Rigda said of the commission. “I understand what the preservationists are trying to accomplish, but they don’t understand the burden they’re creating on someone who has to make those kinds of repairs.”

Working together 

Landmarks Commission members say they’re more than able to set aside their personal opinions on Elyria High School to make an educated and informed decision on the restoration of the Washington Building.

Aden said the commission sometimes loses track of its purpose, but the preservationists ultimately focus on historic preservation using the U.S. Department of Interior’s historic restoration guidelines to steer preservation decisions.

“I’m really proud of the commission,” Aden said. “Do I wish sometimes that we’d be more focused? Yes. But are they all good people on the commission and are they all passionate? Yes — it’s a democracy here. On the whole, I’m very proud of them.”
He also said the school district needs to stop dodging the Landmarks Commission.

“We haven’t been asked about their projects in all these years,” Aden said. “I guess I don’t know why. Rigda’s saying we’re slowing them all down — if he had some ideas on the Washington Building, why not bring ’em now?”

Rigda says he isn’t buying the “let’s work together” message.

“What we hear is, ‘We don’t want this school here — just go somewhere else,’” Rigda said. “Because of that and other reasons, I get upset. They get upset because they say we didn’t include them. How realistic is that?”

Byrd, a commission member, said he’s hopeful the district retains a qualified architect to work on the Washington Building.

“The school mentioned things like changing windows on the Washington Building, changing the roof, the gutters, cleaning the stone,” Byrd said. “These are the types of things that Landmarks would have input on. We’re very hopeful the architectural consultants are well versed in historic buildings and that they intend to follow the U.S. Secretary of Interior’s standards.”

Regency Construction and Architectural Vision Group are the two companies leading the school’s construction project. Regency project executive Bob Teitenberg said his company has plenty of experience in historic preservation, including several restoration projects for Lakewood Schools.

Byrd also pointed out that any decision made by the Landmarks Commission can be appealed to the Elyria City Council.

City Council and Mayor Bill Grace, however, may find themselves mediating if the school district asks them to overrule the commission.

“I’m very confident that things will work out smoothly,” Grace said. “To hear everybody’s perspectives going in — the Landmarks Commission’s and the schools’ — they all seem to be on the same page.”

Contact Shawn Foucher at 653-6255 or sfoucher@chroniclet.com.