Preservation architect will assess Meredith Memorial Home's condition

News-DemocratSeptember 25, 2013 

— A preservation architect soon will assess the condition of the Meredith Memorial Home, a move that will help any interested developers decide whether to rehab the building.

Aldermen voted 13-0 at a special City Council meeting Wednesday to have White & Borgognoni Architects study the former Hotel Belleville building at 16 S. Illinois St. by the end of October.

The assessment, which costs $5,250, will be paid for by a $3,675 grant from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency and an in-kind donation from White & Borgognoni. The city will pay the grant portion first and then be reimbursed by the state.

Residents interested in historic preservation largely see the condition assessment as a first step in saving the downtown structure from demolition.

Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert had ordered demolition of the building as part of an agreement with Belleville attorney Bruce Cook to establish a memorial park there for Cook's daughter.

Due to public interest in preserving the building for other uses, the council also voted unanimously Wednesday to accept proposals to redevelop the site until May 1.

Frank Butterfield, director of the nonprofit Landmarks Illinois office in Springfield, said that when he learned the city might delay demolition, he coordinated funding for the building assessment.

Butterfield, who attended Wednesday's meeting, said the Meredith Home has a preliminary determination of eligibility to the National Register of Historic Places.

And, if the Meredith Home gets on the list, then developers could get federal tax incentives up to 20 percent of project costs, Butterfield said.

Eckert said he called the special council meeting because the state grant expires Sept. 30 and he thought it was important to do the study to find "potential suitors" to develop the building.

Ward 2 Alderwoman Melinda Hult, Ward 4 Alderman Jim Davidson and Ward 5 Alderman Phil Silsby did not attend the meeting. Eckert said the special meeting was announced Friday and the aldermen absent are excused.

The council was split 8-5, however, on whether to include funds in the city's 2014-15 budget for demolition and asbestos remediation of the Meredith Home building if no developers come forward by May 1.

Ward 5 Alderman Joe Hayden said estimates for the demolition and asbestos removal already are higher than what the city budgeted for the work this year.

"We're committing money to a budget that doesn't exist," Hayden said.

Eckert said the low bid for asbestos removal is $177,000 and the low bid for the demolition is $385,000. The city would also have to pay $20,000 for air quality control because of the asbestos.

Eckert said the city must move forward with demolition to fulfill its commitment to the Cook family to build a park at the site if the building isn't developed in other ways.

Cook donated $500,000 to the city to turn the site into a park for his daughter, Susannah Marison, who died in 2010 from a brain tumor.

Including the funds to do so in next year's budget would assure the Cook family of the city's intent to build the park, warding off potential litigation, Eckert said

Ward 4 Alderman Johnnie Anthony said Wednesday's motion merely asks that a line item be placed in the future budget, which still needs to be approved by council next year.

The council was in executive session for nearly an hour Wednesday to discuss possible litigation from the Cook family.

Eckert said the Cooks are patient and willing to wait until May to see if any developers come forward.

Larry Betz, president of the Belleville Historical Society, thanked the city for the moratorium until May but he asked Wednesday to have "however long it takes" to find developers for the building.

"In Europe, this is the norm: Reuse. Do not demolish," Betz said.

Saving the building would create jobs, improve downtown and place the property back on tax rolls, Betz said.

The city should use the money budgeted for demolition and asbestos removal on economic incentives for developers instead, Betz added.

Betz also asked the city for clear standards on what has to be accomplished before May 1 so the city doesn't go forward with demolition.

And, Betz said he wanted the mayor to lift an executive order preventing people from entering the building.

Eckert said he is not lifting the executive order because of safety reasons. For now, anyone who goes into the building needs permission from the mayor's office and must sign a liability waiver.

Eckert said he will work with the architecture firm and residents such as Betz on access to the building for interested developers.

In 2010, the city purchased the Meredith Home from the Catholic Diocese of Belleville for $487,500 after a buyer expressed interest in purchasing the building to use it as a home for troubled boys.

Cook and his wife, Sandra Cook, that year paid off the city's $492,101 loan for the property granted the space be turned into urban greenspace.

Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BNDBelleville.

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