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Pump House zoning limits OK’d

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Columbus’ historic Pump House is on the market, but potential buyers will have to accept zoning limitations for its future use.

The Columbus City Council on Tuesday approved selling the structure with restricted zoning. Ryan Brand cast the sole opposing vote.

Before voting, however, council members discussed the logic of requiring a buyer to place only a restaurant, museum, liquor store or spa at the site, but not an office building, call center or bed-and-breakfast inn.

A new owner will face additional requirements in that the city also will place historic preservation and pedestrian easements on the property, Mayor Kristen Brown said.

The Indiana Historic Landmark easement is to protect the building’s facade. The pedestrian easement would allow expanding the People Trail across the property and adding a Riverwalk path.

Building with a past

Built in 1901 as the city water plant, the Pump House is located on the East Fork White River near downtown. It was the city’s senior center in the 1970s but has been vacant since 2011 when the Mill Race Center opened. Since then, local chef Daniel Orr planned to convert it into a restaurant, but the project fizzled.

City officials are looking for a buyer willing to invest an estimated $2.5 million to turn the Pump House into a tourist destination along the riverfront, the mayor said.

“It has the potential to be something truly spectacular,” said Brown, who hopes a buyer will transform the structure into a private use that the public may enjoy.

Councilman Kenny Whipker floated the idea of putting a 60-day time limit on the zoning restrictions.

Since the window to allow bids to be submitted to buy the property is 60 days, putting in such a time limit would not have an effect, City Attorney Jeff Logston said.

There is nothing that prevents the buyer from asking to have the property rezoned back to the wider uses and using it for something the city is now trying to prevent, Brand said.

Such a move, however, would include multiple steps.

The buyer would have to go back through the city plan commission to get a favorable recommendation to rezone the property, and the city council would decide whether to approve it, said Jeff Bergman, City of Columbus-Bartholomew County planning director.

“The city is set on a certain course, and it would be about how you feel about going off that course,” Bergman told the council.

Historical requirements

Council members expressed concern about how much impact the Historic Landmarks easement would have on potential buyers.

Brown said she and Logston have been working with Historic Landmarks to remove certain requirements such as landscaping limitations, so that a buyer would have more options in renovations. Any exterior structure improvements would still have to meet the federal Secretary for the Interior Standards for Rehabilitation, Brown said. Since the interior has been substantially changed over the years, renovating there would not fall under historic restrictions.

The historic designation will not be sought until the sale of the property, Logston said. The city as owner will not hold itself to the historical requirements before a sale, as it would limit options if the building doesn’t sell, Logston said. Once historical protections are in place, they can be removed only by Historic Landmarks.

The historic designation also would require any new owner to get permission from Historic Landmarks to demolish the Pump House and build a new building, something the organization is unlikely to allow, the mayor said.

The building needs a new roof and new windows, according to the building appraisal. It’s unknown whether the heating or air conditioning works, and interior lighting is outdated and inefficient.

The property has been appraised at $220,000 to $470,000, with the lower number now more likely because the council has accepted the zoning restrictions and historic designation. The higher appraisal was if the buyer had the expanded zoning options and did not have historical restrictions.

When council members appeared to waver whether they would approve the zoning restrictions, Brown pointed out that the other option was for the city to take on costs for the renovations and build-out and become a landlord for the property.

“We’ve done so well doing that,” Councilman Frank Jerome quipped, referring to renovation costs paid by the city for Commons restaurants that later were vacated.

“Being a landlord to a restaurant is certainly a challenging business for government,” the mayor said.

Councilman Jim Lienhoop said the city’s hopes for the Pump House were lofty goals, but he also wanted to make sure that any potential buyer had the financial ability to follow through on the project and complete it.

He wondered whether the building had outlived its useful life, adding that a developer would shy away from investing $10 million but might consider $2 million a reasonable investment.

If a buyer can’t make it work with the restrictions, “they’ll come back,” Lienhoop said. “This is a way to find out.”

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