By D.E. Smoot
Phoenix Staff Writer
A second building in Muskogee’s downtown historical district will soon be a relic relegated to the city’s collective memory.
Historic preservation commissioners reluctantly approved on Tuesday an application that will allow property owners to demolish the building that once housed the Bully Good Saddle Shop.
Before a demolition permit is issued for structures with some historical significance or located within certain areas, the Historic Preservation Commission must issue a certificate of appropriateness. In addition to a structure’s historical significance and its location, commissioners now consider the economic feasibility of saving a building subject to prior approval.
Jack Bethany, a city building inspector, told commissioners a cursory inspection of the former Bully Good building revealed extensive deterioration. The downtown building, located on the northwest corner of Okmulgee Avenue and Main Street, showed signs of water leaks and falling bricks from interior walls.
“The west wall is deteriorated badly and structurally unsound,” Bethany said. “I don’t think it would be economically feasible to repair.”
Mark A. Grober, who represents the Seibold Co., a real estate investment firm that owns the building, echoed Bethany’s concerns. Grober said tearing down the Bully Good building will make the adjacent building more marketable.
“It just doesn’t make economic sense to try and restore this building,” Grober said. “We believe it is necessary to demolish the corner structure” to make the structure to the north a more viable investment.
In addition to Bethany’s assessment, testimony included lay opinions and comments from a contractor who stands to benefit financially from the building’s demolition.
After considering the evidence presented Commissioner Patty George reluctantly moved to approve the application.
Jonita Mullins, executive director of Downtown Muskogee Inc., cast the lone dissenting vote among the four commissioners present. George later said her motion was one of expediency.
“This was just to save some time,” George said, explaining the motion to her colleagues. “Our decision would have been overridden otherwise.”
The application considered Tuesday was the first presented to the Historic Preservation Commission since it denied in October a certificate of appropriateness needed to demolish the former S.H. Kress Building. City councilors overturned the commissioners’ decision on appeal, saying commissioners failed to consider the economic feasibility of saving the structure.
The decision to overturn the commission’s earlier decision, which allowed demolition of the Kress Building to move forward, sparked a debate about evidentiary concerns. Most city councilors said economic feasibility of restoration should trump historical preservation.
The debate resulted with the drafting of an ordinance that would authorize historic preservation commissioners to consider economic feasibility as a factor. That element was not allowed to be considered under present guidelines.
Besides requiring commissioners to include economic feasibility in its equation for certifying the appropriateness of an application for restoration or demolition, the amended ordinance would impose new burdens for property owners. City councilors rejected language proposed by commissioners that would have required property owners to hire qualified professionals to prove restoration would be economically infeasible.
City Attorney Roy Tucker, who drafted the ordinance, brought the issue back to commissioners Tuesday for further revisions. Commissioners approved less stringent language that would “strongly encourage” the production of a professional report for future consideration but not make it mandatory.
Commissioners also rejected Ward III Councilor Randy Howard’s recommendation that city councilors be allowed to hear new evidence when the commission’s decision is appealed. The proposed rule that would bar new evidence during an appeals hearing is standard in most judicial proceedings. Commissioners recommended an applicant who plans to present new evidence be sent back for further review by the panel.
George said allowing city councilors to hear new evidence during an appeals hearing “denies the validity of the Historic Preservation Commission.” Assistant City Planner Tish Callahan described councilors’ decision to hear new evidence about the economic feasibility of saving the Kress Building as “an embarrassment” and made the commission “look bad.”
Tucker is expected to present the commission’s recommended changes to the proposed ordinance to the City Council when it meets Jan. 28.
Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or firstname.lastname@example.org.