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Saturday, June 23, 2007

Mishkas Cafe Project: Evaluating Historic Preservation with Commercial Development

The latest project that appears once again to threaten the historic nature of our downtown is the proposed redevelopment of a City-owned parcel at 604 Second Street between the historic Dresbach-Hunt-Boyer Mansion and the Varsity Theater. Currently, the site contains the Tank House and orange trees that contribute to the historic resources of the mansion.

The Mansion was built in 1874 and the Tank House was constructed sometime between 1874 and 1888. It was built to provide water to the Mansion and the grounds. It was originally located behind the house but was moved to its present location in 1979 to accommodate the construction of commercial development south of the mansion.

The Mishkas Cafe project would seek to demolish the Tank house, remove ten of the orange trees and then construct a three-story commercial building with the new Mishkas Cafe on the ground floor and two stories of office space above.

According to the Draft Environmental Impact report, the Mishkas Cafe project features competing goals and objectives. On one hand, the city is committed to commercial revitalization of the Downtown Commercial Core through the work of the Redevelopment Agency. On the other hand, the site being proposed contributes to the historic setting on the Hunt-Boyer Mansion.

The question here is whether one can achieve the proper balance between economic and commercial redevelopment and historic preservation.

The project proposal would have a number of significant and unavoidable impacts. First it would significantly impact the immediate visual context of the location. Second the removal of the 10 organge trees which are eligible for listing as Landmark trees represents a significant impact.

Third, "The Proposed Project would demolish the Tank House and 10 historic orange trees, contributing resources to the listed Dresbach-Hunt-Boyer Mansion, and would trench for foundation and utilities for a new three-story building. This would be a significant impact."

Fourth, the demolition of the Tank House would remove a listed contributing structure to a National Register property, again a significant impact. Also fifth, the height of the building would reduce the open space around the Mansion and again be a significant impact on the historic setting. Sixth, the trenching for the foundation and utilities for a three-story building would have a significant impact on loss of cultural resources.

While the project proposal contains a number of significant and unavoidable impacts, there are six project alternatives. These range from no project, to reducing the height to two stories to moving and rehabilitating rather than demolishing the Tank House.

According to the EIR, the sixth alternative which involves disassemble/ reassemble and rehabilitating the Tank House in its present location for commercial or public use--such as as a visitor or public information kiosk. There would be no significant environmental issues associated with this alternative. However, while it would meet historic preservation goals, it would not meet Downtown Core Commercial goals and policies including the creation of an economically viable project that generates direct fiscal benefit to the city.

According to one source, a two story building would be acceptable to the developer. As mentioned above, the tank house was originally moved from behind the mansion to the east side of the property. Moving the pump house to the west side of the property would be preserve it and be viable in terms of historic preservation. In fact, it would give it more visibility as it would move it closer to the street rather than between the Mansion and the Varsity Theater.

There is great concern about the downtown area's economic viability. We have recently lost or are losing a number of long-time businesses. Running an independent coffee shop is the type of economic activity I would like to encourage in the downtown area rather than discourage as long as key aspects of historic preservation can be maintained. Moreover, having a coffee shop next to the theater seems like a good use of coordinate commerce.

Therefore, so long as the pump house is in some way preserved, I would like to see an alternative aspect of this project go forward.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting