Fate of cottages still uncertain

Three workers' cottages on South Dubuque Street are slated for demolition unless they can be given historic landmark status. -- photo by Adam Burke
Three workers’ cottages on South Dubuque Street are slated for demolition unless they can be given historic landmark status. — photo by Adam Burke

The Iowa City Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) voted unanimously last week to recommend giving the three workers’ cottages on South Dubuque Street historic landmark status.

The vote comes after the HPC reviewed a petition submitted by the Friends of the Historic Preservation, which calls for the city to rezone the block from a commercial zone to a historic landmark zone.

The push to rezone the block as a historic landmark zone is being opposed by the owner of the cottages, Ted Pacha of Theo Resources, LLC and will require a super-majority vote by the city council as a result. Before the city votes, however, a similar motion must be passed by the Planning and Zoning Commission (PZC).

The recommendation by the HPC comes despite a special early morning Iowa City Council meeting on Dec. 9 when a request for a public hearing was voted down 4-3. The hearing would have stayed demolition for 60 days.

On the day before the HPC meeting, three demolition permits were issued by the city. The permits have a 180-day window for completion.

At the former Kung Fu Academy, 614 South Dubuque, utility lines were cut, the business sign removed and a construction fence was placed around the building last week. Friends of Historic Preservation held a memorial service for the structure on Saturday morning.

The conflict over the buildings hinges on a pair of conflicting inspection reports.

A one-page report from Jim Jacob of VJ Engineering found all three properties in a state of structural disrepair that could not be abated or overcome.

The second report, by Shanna Duggan of Morning Star Studio in Cedar Rapids, ran 20 pages and was funded and undertaken independently by the Friends of Historic Preservation. Duggan’s report found that the cottages were in need of masonry work but not beyond repair.

The city, meanwhile, has filed three municipal infractions against Theo Resources for maintaining dangerous buildings in violation of the city code.

City attorney Eleanor Dilkes wrote in a letter dated Dec. 3 to the city council outlining the city’s actions that only the owner of the property must answer for maintaining the dangerous buildings. Pacha will make an initial appearance (pleading guilty or not) before the district court on Jan. 8, 2015.

The cottage tenants have enlisted the services of Rockne Cole, Iowa City attorney, and Dilkes said the tenants may step in and act as interveners in the case against Pacha.

The intervention, if the court allows it, gives Cole an opportunity to make a case for the validity of the second report.

The city maintains that the decision for structural assessment is in the property owner’s hands.

If Pacha has neglected his buildings to a state of disrepair, as the initial inspection report suggests, he’ll be held responsible for the dangerous conditions he allowed to develop and then he may decide to demolish them. If Pacha had accepted the conclusion of the second report, which showed the buildings to be repairable, he might avoid some fines, but would have to make repairs on the cottages.

Pacha could be forced to pay fines, civil penalties and court costs but faces no jail time.

A letter dated Dec. 11 from Cole to City Manager Tom Markus, asks for a hearing “to resolve those conflicting reports, and to assess whether the condition [of the cottages] can reasonably be abated through repair.”

The hearing request was referenced in Dilkes’ letter to city councilors, but not granted; instead Cole was given permission from the city to intervene in the court action.

In Dilkes’ letter, she reiterated the city’s position that it must take a “conservative” approach in enforcing building codes. She noted that the city could not make assessments between structural engineer reports but that the property owner could make that determination.

Cole said he believes that the tenants’ interests should be of “primary concern,” not the landlord’s. He cited legal precedent for tenants’ rights who are subject to a notice of violation against their landlords.

“They should take all measures to ensure that the buildings should be saved,” he said.

The HPC heard comments from Pacha, his son, Kelsey Pacha, renter Will Ingles, Iowa City Friends of Historic Preservation director Alicia Trimble and other community members on the historic value of the properties.

The issue goes before PZC on Thursday, Dec. 18 and, if passed, will come to a vote by the City Council. Because Pacha opposes rezoning to landmark status, a three-fourths majority vote is required by the City Council to give them historic landmark status.

If landmark status is given, the buildings will be their owner’s to keep and maintain in perpetuity.

For his part, Pacha promised to donate $25,000 towards the cost of relocating each cottage plus the structures themselves. However, one estimate puts the cost to move the buildings at $300,000-500,000 and Pacha has since retracted his offer.

Pacha did not return Little Village’s request for comment.

The Planning and Zoning Committee will weigh the issue of landmark status at their meeting on Dec. 18 at 7 p.m.

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