Story & photos by BOB DORAN
BATTLE SIMMERING IN EUREKA PITS MEMBERS OF THE EUREKA Heritage Society, a group dedicated to the preservation of historic buildings,  an unlikely foe. They are ready to do battle with Kurt Kramer, a developer whose restoration of the Vance Hotel is a considered by many to be a model for Eureka's preservation movement.
And the buildings the Heritage Society wants to protect seem equally unlikely -- a solid quarter block on the corner of Fifth and F streets anchored by the derelict Hefe's night club and extending up Fifth to the vacant Trimble's shoe store. Kramer, who is refurbishing the historic red brick Professional Building across the street from Hefe's, plans on demolishing the quarter block to make room for a parking lot.
[Top photo shows Fifth and F buildings today. Historic photo of same buildings at right courtesy of 10 Window Williams, Eureka]
Mary Ann McCullouch, the Heritage Society's president [photo below left], says the fight is not personal. In fact, the society has honored Kramer in the past for his historic sensitivity and restoration efforts.
"But we have to draw the line somewhere," she says.
Kramer thinks they are drawing the line in the wrong place.
"The problem I see is the Heritage Society is having a difficult time determining what is historic and what is old. There's a difference. We're in a new era now," he said.
McCullouch has a passion for history and, in particular, historic buildings. She sees them as an essential part of the fabric of the community.
"Every structure -- no matter what its condition -- tells a story. As long as the building stands the story continues. Once that structure is gone, the story ends and is often forgotten."
McCullough has been in the Heritage Society for many years. Late last year when she was asked to take over as president, she said she was prepared to become "more political" than some of its previous leaders.
She got her chance right away. Her first action as president was to speak to the Eureka City Council regarding a request by a developer who wanted to have a building at Ninth and O streets removed from the Historic Register, a listing that prohibits significant alteration or demolition of structures deemed "historic." Eureka City Councilman Chris Kerrigan recalls that night when developer Don Grace came before the council. It was Kerrigan's first meeting after his election to office and his first taste of city politics.
"It was an appeal brought to the council. Grace had been denied a request to take his building off the historic registry so he could demolish it and develop the property. It was unanimously denied by the Historic Preservation Committee -- twice. He appealed it. It was denied again. Then he appealed it to the City Council."
McCullough spoke for the Heritage Society.
"We said, `What are we doing here? You're advertising Eureka as a `Victorian Seaport.' We have millions of tourist dollars coming in from people coming to see the Victorian architecture and settlement architecture.' That's one of the things we have going for us. With fishing and timber on the way out, tourism is one of our biggest resources."
Kerrigan had reviewed the Preservation Committee's minutes and -- noting that Grace had offered no new evidence at the hearings and that city staff agreed with the denial -- voted to maintain the historic designation.
"The council went 3-2 [favoring] the Grace appeal," said Kerrigan.
Kerrigan felt the outcome was particularly unfortunate because the committee had offered Grace other options.
"There were things he could have done. They were willing to work with him on a proposal that would have preserved the historic façade or a percentage of the building."
Within weeks the Greek Revival house built in 1870 at 1414 9th St. was burned to the ground by the Eureka Fire Department as a practice exercise.
"It was a wakeup call for the society -- and shame on us for not doing our job," McCullouch said.
at Fifth and F streets as seen
Established in 1973, the Eureka Heritage Society's first job was a massive undertaking, preparing a street-by-street survey that involved photographing 10,000 structures and evaluating them for architectural and historical significance.
Ted Loring Jr., Dolores Vellutini, Sally Christensen and Muriel Dinsmore were among those directing the efforts of a staff of architectural historians. More than 1,000 volunteers worked on the 12-year project. In the end 1,600 buildings deemed historically significant were documented for a publication, Eureka: An Architectural View, also known as The Green Book.
From the beginning the survey was seen as a tool for advocacy. Loring, who was the society's president at the time, put it in simple words in his introduction: "The ultimate threat to historic preservation is demolition," he wrote.
"We did the survey many years ago. That's why the Heritage Society was started," McCullouch said. "The future depends on keeping our past, preserving our past. I'm not saying every single building, but you have to have a plan, one that looks at how Eureka is going to look 50 years from now.
"I don't think Eureka's ever had that plan. Maybe `plan' is not the word. `Vision' is what I'm talking about."
McCullough decided that to plan for the future required another look at the past. She began a reassessment of the structures listed in The Green Book. Starting in Old Town, she walked the streets with the 1985 survey in hand.
"I found that a significant portion of the buildings have been altered or they are gone. I was surprised," she said.
On a late summer afternoon McCullough returned to Old Town with me and retraced her steps, pointing out missing jewels, empty lots and buildings altered beyond recognition. Walking down Second Street and back up First along the waterfront, she pointed to a handful of buildings remaining. Our path returned to Second Street past the newly restored Vance Hotel and ended at a large empty lot down the way from the Carson Mansion -- an entire block of historic homes now gone, victims of "demolition by neglect."
McCullouch explained that the initial reason for the re-survey was to gather ammunition for a battle that was cut short by a mysterious late-night blaze. It too, was a battle against Kurt Kramer, restorer of the Vance Hotel. [photo below left]
Kramer began his career building and selling single-family homes and later moved into management of multi-family properties. Building renovation was not his specialty as a builder. "But it certainly has become that," he said, as we sat in the lobby of the Vance.
"I was doing very successful projects for my company, but not like this. This is kind of a high profile project, probably one of the highest profile projects in Eureka."
Kramer joined forces with an already high profile Eureka businessman, Rob Arkley, forming A and K Investments, to buy the Vance at a tax sale in 1998.
"Rob and I have been friends for years. I contacted him and said, `Is this a project you want to partner on?' and he said, `If you want to do it I'm behind you 100 percent.'"
The purchase was fraught with complications. Owner Sam Stanson had been warring with city officials for years, which resulted in the building being boarded up as being unfit for occupancy. There were tax liens and other claims.
Kramer said it was a little intimidating when he went to court and saw Stanson armed with a video camera to record the proceedings and "threatening to sue everybody."
With assurance from Arkley that Stanson did not have a case, they went forward with the purchase.
"Rob said, `Let's show the community what we can do and start renovating it.' If Rob had not been involved, we wouldn't have gone as fast and we wouldn't be where we are today."
In fact, Kramer added, "On my own, I probably wouldn't have gone forward."
Kramer had some experience in renovation -- he had rehabilitated a large, run-down Victorian boarding house in Field's Landing, turning it into apartments --nothing the scope of the Vance.
"The project I did in Field's Landing was 8,000 square feet. The Vance is 50,000. You walked through this building and you found that there wasn't one thing that was complete. It was completely run down. You wander through the hallways wondering, `Where do I start?'"
The Vance renovation is nearly complete. The day we spoke, a carpenter was making measurements in the lobby in preparation for a meeting with Wallace and Hinz, an Arcata company that is building a bar for the lobby. Kramer offered a tour, showing off the offices upstairs and the spa on the north side that is nearly done. Kramer estimates the cost at $2.5 million-$3 million.
Kramer said the historic preservation community has been supportive and most are happy with the project.
"A lot of people would rather see this place operate as a hotel. We tried running the numbers on the idea, but it wasn't going to work," Kramer said.
"The thing with buildings this size is figuring out what you're going to do with them. In reality it's up to the person who's doing the development. It's their money. It's their vision. If somebody else has a different vision -- and they have the money -- they can take the project and move forward."
The buildings at Second and
H streets in Old Town Eureka from the rear [top photo] and the
front [bottom photo].
Below, a construction worker at one of the buildings .
When it comes to preservation, Kramer is pragmatic.
"I have definitely built up interest in historic preservation, but I have to do it from an economic base. I'm looking at these buildings and asking myself who ultimately is going to pay for the multiple millions of dollars that go into these large buildings. Who is going to make the payments?"
Which brings up the P-word -- parking.
"Tenants will come in and tell you, `We like the building. Where are we going to park?"
At first the lack of parking for the Vance seemed like an insurmountable obstacle. Kramer lost one potential tenant, the District Attorney Support Division, because of it. A current tenant, the Regional Center, ended up leasing half the building but only after the city leased it dedicated spaces in an existing city lot. To provide additional parking, Kramer bought three dilapidated buildings one block down at Second and H streets.
"My intent was to take them down and put a parking lot in," Kramer said, but his plans raised a flag of concern with the Heritage Society. Those buildings were run down, but they were also on the historic register.
"I came back and looked at some options and realized I could save the front facades, do a nice restoration and put the parking in the back," Kramer said. "That way you don't have the tooth missing as you walk up the street. I thought it was a good plan."
The Heritage Society thought otherwise.
"You can't have developers deciding which buildings stay," said McCullouch.
"I give Kramer all the kudos in the world for refurbishing and maintaining the Vance. But those buildings up on Second and H represent a whole different era of our history, the settlement era back in the 1850s. One of those buildings was our first post office," McCullough said.
Heritage Society members began preparing to challenge Kramer's plan, but as it turned out, the battle was over before it began. On June 8 a fire of unknown origins put an end to any possible plan for restoring the buildings in their original form. It started in the back of the building and was quickly extinguished. The building facades will be turned into more quaint Old Town storefronts with parking for Vance Hotel tenants behind.
While the fire ended that battle, McCullouch is preparing for the next one -- the parking lot proposed on the quarter block at 5th and F in the heart of the city that Kramer says is necessary to attract tenants to his next big project, the renovation of the historic Professional Building.
"You may think it's pretty silly -- a lot of people do," said McCullough. "Granted those buildings' facades were redone in the 1950s and they're pretty ugly. But if you go in the back you can actually see an old barn back there. There are buildings back there that are old, old buildings of Eureka."
The Professional Building, described in The Green Book as "Renaissance Revival," has been vacant for many years except for the Domino's Pizza on the ground floor.
"It was built in 1918," said Kramer. "It was a bank and had professional offices above -- doctors, dentists. It's five stories with a mezzanine. They had an old elevator that had to have an elevator operator run it.
"It's not as big as the Vance -- only 37,000 square feet -- but it's big. While the Vance is all wood, it's concrete and brick. So it has a host of other issues. We have to go in and do a seismic retrofit, which we're underway with."
Across the street from the Professional
Building, Dan Ollivier
"Since [Arkley's wife] Cherie is on the Eureka Council, she needs to be at an arm's length from these transactions," Kramer said. "I'd love to have [Rob] involved, however, because there's a lot of money involved."
The city did help with parking for the Vance, but it is more involved in Kramer's latest project. The city is providing about $300,000 in low-interest loans.
"The city needs to be involved if they want to see these buildings renovated. If they leave it to private developers to do it without any cooperation, it won't happen," Kramer said.
"The lenders aren't touching these buildings. You can't go to Wells Fargo or U.S. Bank or Humboldt Bank and get funding to do purchasing and restoration work on unreinforced masonry."
So far Kramer has put a new roof on the building and is cleaning up the interior, stripping walls and removing debris. He made a tentative start on the seismic retrofit, but the project is on hold until the parking issues is resolved.
"As a developer I'm looking at the Professional Building and going, `I don't have a tenant. I need a large tenant. I need to lease 10,000--20,000 square feet before I'm ready to go forward with the building."
"We figure we'll need close to 100 parking spaces. The building already had 33. I figured I could possibly put an elevated deck on the existing lot -- that would give me 66 spaces -- but that's going to be very expensive and it's still not enough."
That's when he purchased the Hefe's building but he is holding off on applying for a demolition permit.
"I'm not sure what I'm doing with it. What it is for me is an insurance policy to provide parking for this building when I get a tenant."
When McCullouch got wind of his plan she said she decided it was time to draw the line.
"These may not be historic buildings -- I doubt if you'll find it on anybody's list anywhere -- but we're still talking about a piece of Eureka that's going to be gone," she said.
"The only thing that's been changed on these buildings is the façades and probably the interiors. The structures remain. You can see the rooflines, you can see the back doors, you can see the wood they were built from because it's still there. I can't say it will be as big a fight as Second and H [would have been] because those buildings were intact."
The problem for McCullough and the Heritage Society is that legally there may not be a chance for her to make her case short of filing a lawsuit. That is because the three projects in this report -- all involving historic structures --very different.
In the case of the building owned by developer Don Grace, the City Council blatantly ignored its own Historic Preservation Committee, its staff and the Eureka Heritage Society.
The second case -- Kramer's buildings at Second and H streets -- would have been a logical place for the society to pick its fight and force the City Council to reexamine its commitment to historic structures. The buildings were on the historic register -- and in the Coastal Zone. The developer could have been required to prepare a full environmental impact report. But the fire ended any such potential confrontation.
As for the Professional Building, city officials say demolition of Hefe's and its neighbors is just a permit away. The buildings are not on the historic register. The block is not in the coastal zone. No public hearings are required.
Kramer and McCullough agree on one thing: They both think the city needs to take a more active role in preservation.
"Why do I put the onus on the city of Eureka?" said McCullouch. "If the city does not buy into the concept that a historic building has value, no matter what the current shape of the structure, then we are fighting a losing battle. They are the entity that issues the permits and knows about the ultimate fate of a structure long before any other organization.
"Sometimes, by the time the Eureka Heritage Society knows about a demolition or the remodel of a building, it is too late. We have to start looking at a long-range plan instead of saying, `Oops, we shouldn't have torn that one down.'"
Kramer calls himself a pragmatist. Eureka can't save all of its historic buildings. It may have to tear down some of those of less historical significance so the more significant ones can be reborn and live to see a new life. He is particularly critical of property owners who do nothing while their properties fall into disrepair. And he says it's not going to do any good if the city places additional financial burdens -- such as requiring an EIR that can cost up to $50,000 -- on developers.
"At some point you can't afford to do what is being asked, so then what happens? The buildings fall into disrepair. We're seeing that with a lot of the buildings in downtown Eureka.
"The city is very interested and excited about getting these buildings off the unreinforced masonry list. That's the hazardous list and there are half a dozen to a dozen buildings left on it -- the big ones.
"There are a bunch of guys out there who own buildings and are not taking care of them. I'm rebirthing these buildings and I need 100 percent cooperation in my position from the city -- and from the Heritage Society.
"I'm the only guy doing these large projects -- and these are capital intensive. If they don't want to see buildings like the Vance and the Professional Building restored, they just have to keep doing what they're doing.
"I can roll the tent up and move on. And I'm not unique, that's what businesses do when they meet resistance."
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