Residents weigh in on town structures

STRASBURG – A few residents weighed in Tuesday on a plan to raze two vacant, downtown buildings to make way for public open space.

Town Council held a public hearing on the proposal to demolish 206 and 216 E. King St., referred to as the former Brill grocery store and the taxi stand. The town proposes to raze the structures as part of its plans to use grant money to turn the properties into urban green space and an area for vendors. Council needed to hold the formal hearing to receive comments on the proposal because the structures lie in a designated historic district.

Town Manager Ryan Spitzer noted that Strasburg is offering the taxi stand to anyone who wants to remove the structure. Spitzer said the town has heard from a couple of people who expressed interest in taking the taxi stand.

Maggie Malone cited an idea brought up in community meetings and suggested that the town preserve the facade of the building and use it as the entrance to the proposed park. Brenda James also spoke of the importance of the two buildings.

Linda Wheeler said she realized the demolition likely would occur but she wanted to make one more plea to council to try and preserve part of the buildings.

“It really distresses me that they’re being dismissed so easily,” Wheeler said. “They’re part of the fabric of this town. They’ve witnessed history here for more than a century. The Brill building is still handsome, the solid brick. The other one is, of course, the unusual one.”

“What’s always concerned me, the property owner of these two buildings has allowed them to deteriorate seriously,” Wheeler added, later noting the town and taxpayers own the properties.

The town has a responsibility to maintain the two buildings it purchased, said Wheeler, who also serves on the Architectural Review Board. Wheeler told council she recently decided to restore part of her historic home rather than remove it, a step she called “the right thing to do.” Wheeler said the town should also consider taking similar steps with the buildings it owns.

Council did not take action on the proposal at its regular meeting.

Shenandoah County Historical Society’s President Barbara Adamson voiced concern about the likely demolition in a June 28 letter to Amanda Lee, of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources Division of Review and Compliance.

“We realize, however, that local ordinances intended to prevent the demolition of historic buildings offer limited protection,” Adamson states in the letter.

Adamson notes that Strasburg bought the buildings for rehabilitation and adaptive reuse to serve the community. A structural assessment revealed that the buildings are “unsound, with no apparent solution available at a reasonable and affordable cost.”

“SCHS wishes that demolition were not the final determination but recognizes the right of the property owner to proceed, and offers no further objection,” the letter states.

Roger W. Kirchen, director of the state agency’s Review and Compliance Division, states in a June 21 letter to Spitzer that the department reviewed the town’s request for a review of the demolition from Craig Wilson, of Community Planning Partners Inc. Both buildings serve as contributing buildings to the Strasburg Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“As you are aware, demolition of contributing buildings in a National Register historic district is considered to have an adverse affect on the district,” Kirchen states. “(W)hen a finding of adverse affect is made, the Town shall solicit public comment regarding the undertaking’s effects on historic properties and the proposed mitigation measures and shall provide copies of those comments to the (State Historic Preservation Office).”

The Shenandoah County Historical Society and the Strasburg Heritage Association serve as consulting parties to the programmatic agreement between the town and the Virginia State Historical Preservation Office.

The former Brill grocery building and structure known locally as the taxi stand lie in the town’s National Register historic district. The National Historic Preservation Act and the Programmatic Agreement between the town and the Department of Historic Resources require that Strasburg hold a public hearing to collect input from residents on the matter.

Strasburg bought both properties years ago with the intention of possibly rehabilitating and reusing the structures for public purposes.

Strasburg received a grant from the Department of Housing and Community Development in 2013 as a means to start working with residents to determine what they wanted in terms of downtown revitalization. The town then received a $700,000 community development block grant for revitalization with $300,000 matched by Strasburg.

The town used the planning grant to design green space, a trail and improvements to the public parking lot off Washington Street. The initial designs for the project called for the Brill building to serve as an indoor, walk-through market and the taxi stand as bathrooms and a place to pick up brochures.

The grant allocates $165,800 for work on the Brill building with $138,200 of the money covering construction and $32,100 for the taxi stand.

A structural engineer hired by the town provided several options for the town: demolish the Brill building and rebuilt it for almost $550,000; refurbish the Brill building for about $600,000; raze both structures at a total cost of about $60,000. Town officials then asked the Department of Housing and Community Development if Strasburg could amend the planning grant to allow for the demolition of the two buildings and change the design of the spaces to keep the intended outcome of the award. The Department of Housing and Community Development said it would permit these changes if the Department of Historic Resources allows the town to raze the buildings.

If the town stays with the original design, Strasburg would need to pay the difference of what it allocated in the budget and the cost to bring both structures in compliances with state and federal building codes. The town also could tell the Department of Housing and Community Development that Strasburg does not want to take action regarding the buildings, which would mean refunding the money allocated for the project. This could potentially affect the town’s ability to receive state grants in the future.

Council agreed at a work session in December to demolish both structures and incorporate the brick and sign from the Brill building into the design of the new space. The town could use the date stone from the Brill building in the design or give it to the Strasburg Museum.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com