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Brick is great ... until it isn't

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In early December, the Randall Theatre announced that seating for its holiday show was limited in its new Fir Street space. The theater, planned for 99 seats, had been restricted to 50 until a change of occupancy permit is granted by the city of Medford.

The notice explained that the building’s original use was “retail,” and its use as a theater changed the classification to “assembly.” The change in occupancy classification for a historic building is one aspect of “adaptive reuse.” And it’s complicated.

A request to change an occupancy classification is problematic for older brick buildings such as the Randall Theatre and many other buildings in downtown Medford. As a way of retrofitting buildings to withstand an earthquake, the change in use request triggers a city- and state-mandated engineering review that includes a seismic assessment and, if necessary, seismic retrofits.

Architects use the review to develop cost projections, and in Medford, once the engineering plans are approved, the change in occupancy is granted. The city of Medford can allow up to seven years to make the required seismic modifications, which can include wall and roof supports.

“In moving to our new space in downtown Medford, we have been working with the city of Medford to comply with all zoning and code issues associated with operating a business where the public can gather,” said a communication from Randall Executive Director Robin Downward late last year.

The Randall Theatre’s new location is in the Palm Rental Building, at 20 S. Fir St., a one-story brick structure constructed in 1913 as two commercial units. The building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, was modified for Winan’s Thomasville Gallery in the late 1980s, joining the two units into one retail store. Later, a new facade was added as a decorative but not structural element.

The interior is a wide-open space and is ideal for Randall’s modular, flexible stage design. To bring the building up to code for theater use, Medford building inspectors asked for electrical upgrades, an additional bathroom and a second emergency exit in the back of the theater. That work was completed in 2018, ensuring that the theater building is safe.

“We are encouraged at the findings of the engineering firm and expect that the building occupancy classification changes and plan for seismic enhancements will be approved quickly,” Downward said, “and that Randall’s March show will open on schedule in the new Fir Street theater space.”

“This [seismic retrofit] is our biggest problem with revitalizing downtown, one of the biggest hurdles,” said Sam Barnum, building safety director for the city of Medford. “We have a lot of buildings downtown where the second floor is unoccupied, and we’d like to see more residential downtown to revitalize it, but to do that it’s a changed use.”

Not all occupancy classification changes require a seismic evaluation. The Larson’s Home Furniture building, at 213 S. Fir St., and First National Bank, at 1 E. Main St., were both converted to churches, changes in use that required occupancy reclassifications from retail to assembly. But because the two structures were built more recently, with concrete and not brick masonry, seismic evaluation and retrofits were not required.

Not all historic renovations require a seismic evaluation. Barnum says that the 1915 Medford Elk’s Lodge is not required to do a seismic upgrade as long as the proposed use is the same as was intended — a restaurant with assembly space on the third floor.

Some historic renovations will require not only a use classification change and a seismic retrofit but also parking. The upper floors of the 1939 Halley Building at Eighth Street and Central Avenue served as the Palace Hotel until it was abandoned in 1972. Bricktowne Brewing Co. is a primary tenant on the ground level. According to local Realtor Scott Henselman, the Halley Building is a prime example of downtown space that could be used as residential.

“The entire 13,000 square feet of that building hasn’t been occupied since 1972, and it would be great to bring back that historic renovation as apartments or studios,” Henselman said. “To do that we have a number of problems: one is the conversion of use with a seismic retrofit and another is parking. In resident conversions for more than two units, you have to provide parking.”

“The seismic element, because of its complexity and because of its potential expense, becomes just one more hurdle to overcome in doing adaptive rehabilitation. We have this desire to preserve historic buildings, preserve historic character,” said Harry Weiss, director of the Medford Urban Renewal Agency. “The question is, how do we do that and continue to keep these buildings economically viable, which is what historic preservation is all about, preserving buildings’ viability not only for their aesthetic and historical associations but as commodities in the real estate market. The buildings need to make sense.”

Weiss added that MURA is developing a short list of shovel-ready projects that have downtown renewal impact in anticipation of a funding pool to help with seismic assessments and, potentially, renovation.

“When Medford extended MURA’s lifespan and authorized additional funding, they earmarked $2 million for seismic retrofitting,” Weiss said. “There are two phases. One is to identify projects where redevelopment will trigger seismic to help get the engineering study done and figure out what it’s going to cost to implement the seismic retrofit. Once we quantify what that nut is, then we can look at what makes sense with any funding that’s available to help close the gap to make these projects feasible.”

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

Executive Director Robin Downward hopes seismic improvements can happen quickly -- until then, he's limited to 50 seats. Photo by Maureen Flanagan Battistella