Robbins back on agenda

Published 10:39 am Thursday, December 11, 2008

Austinites will learn Tuesday the future of the Robbins block buildings.

That’s when the Mower County Board of Commissioners is scheduled to review the information collected during an Environmental Assessment Worksheet comment period that ended Dec. 3.

Five agencies responded.

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The Preservation Alliance of Minnesota recommended re-evaluating the historical significance of the building.

The Minnesota State Historical Society said it did not feel there was adequate investigation into the historical or other significance of the building.

The Austin Main Street Project said “requisite facts” were not considered. Nor was the impact of the proposed demolition of the building assessed.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation said it found no impact to roadways.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency said determining the main end use for the property was a parking lot made it difficult to comment on the significance of the property.

Angie Knish, county environmental services director, will report to the county commissioners Tuesday on the EAW findings and responses.

The Mower County commissioners are away to an Association of Minnesota Counties convention and so is county board spokesman, Craig Oscarson, county coordinator. All Knish can say is that she is preparing for the commissioners’ review of the Robbins block issue Tuesday morning, when they meet in regular session.

Mower County is attempting to acquire all privately-held properties in the block located across First Street Northeast east of the county government center and courthouse.

Already, the county owns Robbins Furniture and Design Gallery, Thoroughbred Carpet and George’s Pizza businesses all housed in the Robbins building or attached buildings.

The Austin Housing and Redevelopment Authority has refused to sell or give up a parking lot in the southeast corner of the city block. Negotiations are continuing for a northeast corner parking lot owned by Tom Sherman.

When the County obtained a $1.5 million grant from the city of Austin, it paved the way for county commissioner Ray Tucker, 2nd District, to vote for locating the proposed new 128-bed jail and justice center in downtown Austin.

Tucker announced the city’s grant money would be used to acquire the Robbins block, which the county coveted for development of a) a geothermal field to heat the new jail and justice center; b) a parking lot for county employees and the public doing business at county facilities in downtown Austin; and c) future expansion of county offices, such as the health and human services department.

The city, using a $2.7 million grant from Mower County, is finalizing its efforts to acquire a total of nine privately-owned properties in a two-block area bordered by Fourth Avenue Northeast on the north and Second Avenue Northeast on the south.

Already, one of the blocks has largely been cleared of all buildings (except Steve’s Pizza) and soil corrections are being made to make the block pad-ready (no basement) for a new jail and justice center building.

The one-block area is a stark contrast to the once building- and business-occupied block.

Soon a second city block (Third Avenue Northeast to Fourth Avenue Northeast) will also be cleared of all buildings and turned into a barren landscape.

And then: The Robbins building.

At three-stories tall and more than 72,000 square feet, it is the largest building of its kind. The building dominated the downtown cityscape for seven decades; exceeded in height only by the courthouse dome (now removed from its perch across the street).

The Austin Hotel’s three stories on the north end of the building/block was a busy place in Austin’s bygone days. So, too, was the Alcove piano bar in the lower level of the building.

Tommie’s Supper Club was a popular restaurant, and the Tower teen center attracted youths in the sixties.

The Eli Robbins family (son Lee and daughter-in-law, Donna, plus their son, Michael) conducted a thriving furniture business that served customers nationwide for decades the longest of any of the businesses in the block. George’s Pizza was a popular destination for diners and Thoroughbred Carpet carved a niche in the floor covering business more recently.

Now, the Robbins furniture business is closed for good, Thoroughbred Carpet has moved to the Jim’s Super Valu strip mall on the city’s east side and George’s Pizza plans to move to a new location on South Main Street.

Then, the entire building will come down … or will it?

Two decades

of demolition

The Austin Main Street Project reacted with outrage when the county formally announced plans to demolish the building last Spring.

However, the “save the Robbins building” effort came too late and Mower County pushed forward with its plans.

Mark Nagle, an Austin businessman and unsuccessful candidate for mayor was the first to bring an official request to the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board that an EAW be conducted on the building.

The city of Austin said the EAW was not its responsibility and forwarded the request to Mower County.

Using its own sources, the Mower County Historical Society among others, the County responded that demolishing the Robbins building should not be delayed.

The Minnesota EQB opened a comment period and the five responses were received.

According to Knish, the Minnesota State Historical Society’s was answering the historical significance question. “They did not feel there was adequate investigation,” Knish said.

A survey was done of historical properties in Austin in the 1980s, but, Knish noted, “They felt it ‘dismisses these buildings,’ because they were not recommended in that survey for placement on the National Register of Historic Places.”

And there is Austin’s version of an urban legend: Are there human remains buried beneath the building?, that the MSHS noted.

Craig Byram, AMSP board member, and Sarah Douty, AMSP coordinator, signed the organization’s own response filling three pages.

“Lack of an adequate plan” to replace two of the largest single structures in the Robbins block will “forever diminish the future economic health of the downtown,” Byram and Douty argued.

Their conclusion, “Austin Main Street Project, Inc. does not believe that the EAW in a fashion that adequately considered the requisite facts and impact of the proposed demolition.”

The Minnesota Department of Transpiration, a required agency to consult for every EAW, said demolishing the building has no “direct impact” on roadways.

The MPCA expressed curiosity that the county’s EAW was not clear on the end uses of the property.

Also, the MPCA identified a site, the former location of the Austin Gas Manufacturing business, in the block that could have the potential for future soil and water contamination.

Finally, the fifth EAW responded, the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, detailed its concerns in a two-page summary.

According to Knish, it is the Alliance’s purpose to be concerned about the potential loss of historical resources of all kinds across greater Minnesota.”

“I have reviewed the EAW,” wrote Bonnie McDonald, the organization’s executive director, “and believe that it fails to acknowledge the potential historical value of the three early-20th century buildings on the block.”

“The EAW does not present alternatives to demolition or propose measures to mitigate potential adverse effects resulting from the removal of the buildings,” McDonald argued.

The Robbins Furniture and Design Gallery building is a combination 1910-1925-vintage building, according to Mower County’s EAW research. George’s Pizza and Thoroughbred Carpet were housed in a 1900-vintage building.

McDonald’s scathing observation included the admonition, “During the past two decades, a number of historic buildings in downtown Austin have been demolished or irreversibly altered, potentially increasing the significance of those that, like the three buildings on the Robbins block, remain standing,” McDonald said.

Also Tuesday, the county board is slated to decide whether Kevin Soiney, owner of George’s Pizza, can remain in business at the Robbins block location for two more weeks through Dec. 30.

Among the reasons given county staff for remaining beyond the Dec. 15 deadline he was given to vacate the block was the popularity of the restaurant for the potential Christmas shopping crowd in downtown Austin.

Another example of how important “Location, location, location” is in the retail word.