The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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March 3, 2013

Mount Hope historic district high school demo plans on hold

MOUNT HOPE — In February, the City of Mount Hope announced that its plans to raze a historic brick school building in downtown were a go, but state preservationists say not so fast. They have not yet signed off on the plan and want to hear more about alternatives to demolition.

The city is in the throes of a federally funded project that will bring down dozens of blighted structures — some of which are located in the town’s historic district — to make way for new development.

Built circa 1925 and damaged by fire in 2006, a two-story brick school built by the town’s Masonic order and owned by Mount Hope United Methodist Church is one of those buildings.

Though it has been condemned, the West Virginia State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) has deemed it a “contributing resource” to the historic district.

Mayor Michael Martin says all the floors have fallen through on the side of the building that was engulfed in flames. The other side sustained significant water damage.

But the Preservation Office is asking for more information and says it has reviewed numerous proposed demolitions of “contributing resources” in the district in recent months.

“In the broader picture, if the City of Mount Hope chooses to demolish the building, it could eventually affect whether or not Mount Hope can retain eligibility as a historic district,” said Shirley Stewart Burns, a review and compliance officer for SHPO.

“That’s not just because of this particular building, but numerous buildings have been demolished recently.”

The same sentiment was expressed in a Nov. 16 letter from the agency’s deputy preservation officer, Susan Pierce, to the Region 4 Planning and Development Council.

Region 4 is working closely with Mount Hope and acting as the “pass-through” agent for a $1.5 million Neighborhood Stabilization Program (NSP) grant the town received to rid its streets of crumbling structures.

“I do not want something to cause the historic district to go away, but ... our district, which runs the length of Main Street, has about 100 contributing structures. I think within those 100, we’ve got several that are already lost to us,” says Martin.

“What is the wisdom of leaving them to stand to be somebody else’s problem in another seven years when they’ve fallen into worse disrepair because, pure and simple, no one is willing to invest the money to put them back on their feet?”

In its letter to Region 4, SHPO writes that grants are available for feasibility studies and stabilization efforts or, if the properties are privately owned, tax credits are available for rehab.

But Martin says he doesn’t think it’s realistic to think that the town or the property owners could pick up the kind of money necessary to make the buildings usable.

The town is behind on the NSP demolition project and is under some pressure from the Development Office to hurry up and spend the money. The mayor said obtaining environmental and historic clearances has been challenging and slowed progress.

If a project receives federal funds, it must undertake a Section 106 review process to assess its effect on historic properties.

SHPO cannot approve or disapprove a particular project, but the project’s lead agency is supposed to take its comments under advisement.

The town alerted SHPO back in October. In November, the agency responded, saying it believed the demo would have an adverse effect on the historic district.

They asked whether alternatives to demolition had been explored. They requested a cost analysis documenting the price of demolition versus the price of rehabilitation. If the town moves forward, SHPO wants a memorandum of understanding outlining how the city will mitigate the negative historical impact.

“They are mandated to look at alternatives for demolition and ways to avoid and mitigate it,” says Burns.

“At first we always encourage avoiding demolition. Sometimes ... we will suggest things like shoring it up — especially if its structurally sound — so that maybe in the future, if there’s money to rehabilitate it, you still have a building.”

SHPO is still waiting to hear from the town, but Martin says consultants are preparing a response.

One possible mitigation plan being explored is retaining the building’s cornerstone as the center of an informative display.

The mayor said it’s not clear whether it’s safe to send someone into the building, and that it would cost many millions to rehab.

Before the fire, he says he explored the idea of an educational use for the building with two area universities, but the discussions never went anywhere.

After the fire, the town took the building’s previous owners, the Board of Education, to court, asking that it bring the building up to code, said Martin. The court asked both sides’ attorneys to reach an agreement, but the board never followed through on sealing the windows and cleaning up debris, according to Martin.

Once plans were afoot to tear down the building with the grant money, the town’s Housing Commission provided the Methodist Church with a public hearing to hear from engineers and attorneys. The commission decided that the building was a threat to the health and welfare of citizens and that it should be demolished.

“Sometimes old buildings are historic and sometimes old buildings are old buildings,” said Martin. “There are some houses that need to be torn down that are within the historic district but beyond being put back into livable condition.”

“I don’t like to see the history go any more than anybody else, but I think in order to preserve what we do have that some of what is historic needs to meet the wrecking ball, just for the sake of making the whole town look more presentable,” says Martin.

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