Petition request up to city

Published 2:45 pm Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Austin City Council will determine whether an environmental assessment worksheet (EAW) is necessary on the so-called “Robbins” building in the block by the same name.

The Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (EQB) received a petition bearing 25 signatures requesting an EAW.

Gregg Downing, environmental review coordinator for the state agency, informed Austin city administrator Jim Hurm it would be the city’s decision whether or not to conduct an EAW.

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“The Environmental Quality Board has received a petition requesting that an EAW be prepared on the project and has determined that the City of Austin is the appropriate governmental unit to decide the need for an EAW,” Downing wrote in his letter to Hurm.

The Austin City Council will consider the request when it meets Monday.

The Robbins block, First to Second Street and First to Second Avenue Northeast, is being sought by Mower County.

Two weeks ago, the county announced it has reached agreement with Richard Huffman, owner of the Thoroughbred Carpet/George’s Pizza real estate.

Despite indications agreements with two other owners of property in the square block area —Michael Robbins, president of Robbins Furniture and Design Gallery, and the Sherman family, owners of property on the northeast corner of the block — now both sides say they are “far apart,” said Craig Oscarson, county coordinator.

Austin attorney Paul Sween is representing the county in the negotiations.

Fate sealed

Obtaining money to acquire the Robbins block was the deciding factor in Mower County agreeing to locate its jail and justice center in downtown Austin.

On the day the commissioners vote 3-2 to do that, Ray Tucker, 2nd District county commissioner, announced the city agreed to pay the county $1.5 million.

While the grant from the city was not made expressly to acquire the Robbins block, the county is using the monies to do that.

While the city continues to negotiate with private property owners for the necessary real estate in a two-block area — Second Avenue north to Fourth Avenue between First and Second Streets Northeast — the county has not wavered from its plans to acquire the Robbins block.

Regardless whether the Austin City Council decides to request an EAW on the Robbins block, Oscarson said it won’t change the commissions’ collective minds.

“No, I don’t believe it will,” he said. “It could delay things a bit, but it won’t stop it.”

According to Oscarson, the county has “seriously considered” the impact of its proposed actions regarding the Robbins block property.

“We contacted the Mower County Historical Society and other sources to determine what the impact would be if the Robbins building were demolished and we found it would be nil,” he said. “Or at least no more than other buildings in Austin which have been torn down.”

Oscarson said the county’s purpose in acquiring the property remains the same from the day the commissioners narrowing approved putting the jail and justice center downtown.

“They want it for parking, geothermal and a lay-down area for building materials for the new jail and justice center,” he said.

While the city continues to attempt to acquire property for the new jail and justice center, the county’s construction manger and architects are looking at a scenario that would have the county acquire the block, demolish the building and start construction for a parking lot, plus geothermal cabling, next spring.

“No,” Oscarson said, “There are no plans to put any buildings there. If we did, we couldn’t get at the geothermal piping and wells like we can with only a parking lot.”

Saving building

The petition-signers are serious about their intentions to have the Robbins property assessed before the building is demolished after an initial attempt to request an EAW was aborted for “lack of sufficient evidence supporting the request.”

A second petition filing satisfied the EQB and set in motion the letter to Hurm requesting the city’s attention.

The Austin Main Street Project has attempted to convince county and city officials the Robbins building is worth saving.

At times, development of the three-story, 27,000 square-foot building has been falsely rumored as a potential site for the Salvation Army Austin Corps, now fighting cramped space for its Family Thrift Store, as well as the Austin Daily Herald, now occupying only a portion of the original Marigold Dairy building since moving pressroom and pre-press operations to Albert Lea.

The Austin Main Street Project plans for the Robbins building included retail shops, offices and apartments.

The idea has never attracted wide support beyond the Austin Main Street Project faithful.

Even Oscarson says it is more of an “emotional” issue than anything else.

Austin mayoral candidate Mark Nagel has touted the need to look at downtown redevelopment in terms of a “vibrant mass” requiring specific attention.

He held a press conference at his new South Central Athlete store location — one Austin Main Street Project — to call attention to the possibilities that exist in developing the Robbins building rather than tearing it down.

That was last spring and now it is summer and the building still stands — unchanged and still vulnerable to the plans to demolish it.

Nagel declined comment on its future, saying, “I’m going to wait and see what the city council does.”

That could happen Monday night.