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Community Center, Pioneer Hall bare-bones restoration proceeds

Photo by Allayana Darrow | The Winburn Way Community Center, constructed in 1922, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989 and closed in 2019 due to structural integrity concerns.

ASHLAND — By a tie-breaking vote, Ashland City Council approved recommendations supplied by a citizen ad-hoc committee to rehabilitate the Winburn Way Community Center and Pioneer Log Cabin to degrees the committee considers safe for public use.

A motion passed Sept. 21 to open both buildings immediately and issue a request for proposal via the Public Works department for recommended actions outlined in the ad-hoc committee’s final report, though some officials retain concerns about a lack of building code compliance, public engagement and consideration of historic value in the restoration project proposal.

The Community Center, constructed in 1922, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989 and closed in 2019 due to structural integrity concerns. The Log Cabin, constructed in 1921, is typically occupied, but closes during snow events and with the COVID-19 situation.

The city issued a request for proposals in fall of 2020 to address structural vulnerability in the roofing and floors. At the April 20 meeting, the City Council elected not to approve a contract with engineering firm Marquess & Associates Inc., and councilors put forward the idea of forming an ad-hoc committee tasked with “developing recommendations for the least cost option for the timely repair and reopening of each building.”

The ad-hoc committee, composed of architect Chris Brown, historic preservation consultant George Kramer, developer Gil Livni, and Councilors Shaun Moran and Stefani Seffinger, met June 25, July 14 and Aug. 23, and produced a findings report to council Sept. 21.

“It was heartening to determine that both these historic structures were in better shape than anticipated after reviewing the prior studies and meeting with staff,” the report summary said.

Among needed fixes — shifting logs around a window cut into the original cabin in the 1980s need reinforcing to prevent further log movement, Kramer said at the Sept. 21 council meeting.

A 2019 seismic assessment by Marquess was fueled by interest in the structural improvements necessary to convert the building from a community center to an overnight shelter, according to an engineering report. During initial assessments, Marquess identified the north wall of the Community Center as a major area of concern.

An assessment by Snyder Engineering dated Aug. 10 provides analysis and repair recommendations on six major issues with the Community Center building: north wall and foundation asymmetry, sagging roof and ceiling over the Main Hall, improperly supported and “over-spanned” roof framing, exterior wall sheathing, and gaps between support posts and footings.

According to the ad-hoc committee, neither building requires seismic strengthening nor sprinklers because no changes to use or occupancy are presently under consideration, and structural improvements in 1985 included the installation of two metal tie-rods secured to the Community Center’s north wall plate, which remain in satisfactory condition.

The wall is as out-of-plane today as it was in 1985, Kramer said, citing engineer’s plans from the time. Side effects of wall movement one might expect to see, such as cracked plaster and windows, and notable gaps in the trim, ceiling and walls, are not present, he said.

“It doesn’t meet code, but it’s safe,” he said. “A building that is not code compliant is not necessarily an unsafe building. Very few buildings meet code. Code changes all the time.”

Public Works Director Scott Fleury said though the wall may not have moved since 1985, the roof remains vulnerable to snow overload.

The site’s building official will look for resolutions to structural issues with the foundation that appropriately offload some weight from the roof, Fleury said. Previous cost estimates to reopen both buildings were more expensive because they included full accessibility, mechanical, electrical and plumbing improvements to the facilities, he added.

“[The committee’s recommendation] does not take the rest of your structured systems up to current code,” Fleury said. “It’s not a requirement based on the use of the facility, but I think in the long term planning, that needs to be accounted for — those systems will need to be changed and upgraded at some point as well when they reach the end of life.”

Kramer said the proposed improvements would not bring the historic building up to code, but would “significantly improve the foundation” using a reasonable, least-cost approach.

Inclusion of Climate and Energy Action Plan goals was not part of the ad-hoc committee’s charge, he said.

The Community Center’s 1920s roof does not meet code for 25 pounds per square foot of snow load. Kramer said annual snowfall in Ashland over the past 70 years falls far below the amount that necessitates a rating of 25 pounds psf — about 18 inches of dry snow or 12 inches of wet snow.

Marquess recommended replacing the roof with new trusses to meet code for snow load, which Kramer dubbed “an expensive and invasive solution.”

So-called “eccentric roofs” do not lend themselves to reconstruction, the exterior appearance of the building may be altered through the process and internal structures could be impacted, tacking on further repair needs, he said.

The ad-hoc committee initially proposed installing a “moment frame” — a drywall-wrapped steel frame inside the building’s auditorium with columns connected to new footings at grade that support existing roof trusses, which would bear 25 pounds psf, Kramer said.

Alternatively, another snow code-compliant recommendation uses a rolled beam that follows that curve of the ceiling, tucked out of view, creating the effect of a ribbed ceiling, he said.

In addition to the minimum structural reinforcement necessary to reopen the building, the ad-hoc committee proposed optional upgrades, including an ADA-compliant unisex restroom, replacing the attic stairwell with folding stairs, and replacing deteriorating rear-entry steps.

The committee’s proposed project cost, including functional repairs necessary to reopen the buildings, core improvements and fire hazard mitigation actions, totals $215,500-$278,500, depending on materials and labor costs.

Vegetative debris behind both buildings “is the single most dangerous condition” at both sites, according to Kramer.

The ad-hoc committee report says banked debris against the wood foundations traps moisture, provides access for vermin and represents a significant fire hazard — all worsened by unauthorized access to the rear building areas.

“We’re one tossed cigarette away from a disaster with these buildings,” Kramer said.

The report emphasized a recommendation to excavate the sloped area behind the buildings and construct a concrete retaining wall three feet from the foundation, with a walkway that drains away from the building’s base and new security gates at the northwest and southwest corners.

Trees in close proximity to the buildings and proposed retaining wall will likely come down in the excavation, Kramer said.

Historic Commissioner Dale Shostrom said the ad-hoc committee’s proposal could safely reopen the buildings, but the group’s “charge to develop a least cost recommendation falls short aesthetically and impedes the opportunity for historic restoration.”

“The ad-hoc committee’s structural solution is comprised of a series of asymmetrically spaced steel beams, headers and posts wrapped in drywall that will completely overpower and interrupt the historic openness, simplicity and detailing of this beautifully vaulted auditorium,” he said.

The proposed “utilitarian retrofit support system” could “severely restrict or preclude” future repairs to the roof and foundation, Shostrom said.

Compared to the general consensus that the building needs a new wood-trussed roof, Shostrom said the steel moment frame was an unacceptable option.

He advocated for a design solution that incorporated safety, longevity, preservation of historic features, budget reality, public input, needs analysis and the ad-hoc committee’s findings to simplify the preliminary engineering phase.

Councilor Shaun Moran made a motion to move forward with recommendations outlined in the ad-hoc committee’s report and open the buildings at the earliest possible date.

Moran said formation of the ad-hoc committee represented a step in the right direction, and its findings were a “pleasant surprise.”

“I’m believing that the work we’re going to do will make it safe,” said Councilor Stefani Seffinger, who seconded the motion.

“We have multiple reports,” cautioned Councilor Paula Hyatt during the council meeting. “If something were to happen and we went with the least cost option, yet we had these other reports in hand that said we should've taken extra steps that we did not do, I’m concerned about the liability to the city given the breadth and depth of the information that we have received.”

Hyatt proposed an amendment to Moran’s motion stipulating further action on the project would pend legal review and assessment of liability. The motion to amend failed 4-3, with Mayor Julie Akins casting the tie-breaking nay vote. Jensen, Hyatt and Seffinger voted in favor.

“The report says that it’s not an unsafe building and we know the city has decided that Pioneer Hall is not unsafe because it’s open,” said Akins, explaining the motivation behind her vote.

Councilor Tonya Graham said the restoration project necessitates detailed feedback from the historic commission and an assessment of legal ramifications, as well as public engagement surrounding planned uses for the buildings, for which specific repairs may be well suited to the current project.

“I would like to see them open as quickly as possible, but I don’t see the reason why we would immediately choose to make this decision without hearing from our legal counsel and without hearing from our historic commission,” Graham said.

The motion to accept and proceed with the ad-hoc committee’s recommendations passed 4-3, with Akins casting the tie-breaking vote in favor. Graham, Hyatt and Jensen voted against.

“Understanding that there were multiple reports, I wanted to make sure that if we went with the low-cost treatment, that we were doing right by citizens and we were legally protected as a city because we didn’t choose one of the other structural options,” Hyatt said Tuesday regarding her motion to obtain a liability assessment and legal review prior to action on the project, which was voted down, influencing her final vote, she said.

“I wanted to make sure from our staff that we were OK to proceed with contracting that option, and I did not have that assurance,” she continued. “Staff is taking the right steps in consulting the building officials before moving forward.”

Fleury said Tuesday legal staff are in the process of determining whether the building official must deem the Community Center safe to reoccupy, and assessing the city’s liability in this project.

“Public Works is currently working with administration to determine the best mechanism to move the ad-hoc committee’s recommendations forward, and that could potentially involve directly awarding some engineering work and/or soliciting for some or all of the work,” Fleury said in an email Tuesday. “The first priority of the ad-hoc was to design and install the retaining wall along the backside of both structures and we are trying to facilitate that first and foremost.”

Any proposed contract over $100,000 will require City Council approval.