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Zoning limits spur doubts

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The city’s plan to use zoning to limit use of the city’s historic Pump House even after it’s sold has some City Council members questioning whether any developer will take the deal.

If the city can’t sell it under the zoning limitations, the council may broaden the uses to include options that Columbus Mayor Kristen Brown wants to avoid.

Last Tuesday, council members questioned whether developers will purchase a property with a zoning classification that would allow a restaurant, museum, liquor store or spa but prohibit an office building, call center, bed-and-breakfast or hotel.

Brown also wants to add historical preservation and pedestrian easements so that the exterior would have to be renovated according to historical guidelines and the People Trail could be extended across the property.

Councilman Ryan Brand cast the sole “no” vote to the zoning change, saying any businessperson looking at investing in the property wouldn’t agree to limitations on how it could be used after buying it.

The rezoning must be considered one more time by the full council for a final vote, most likely at next Tuesday’s meeting.

“We have one shot to maximize the return on the building,” Brand said. “We need to start with every option to make the sale, and then it becomes the council’s conversation about use and bids. We need to start with as many options as possible, rather than fewer.”

Built in 1901 as the city water plant, it is located along the East Fork White River near downtown. It served as the city’s senior center in the 1970s, and city officials began looking for a new use for the property when the new Mill Race Center for seniors opened in 2011.

The property, which is sometimes called the Power House, has been vacant since 2011. Local chef Daniel Orr’s plan to covert it to a restaurant never materialized.

By rezoning the property, the city hopes to find a buyer willing to invest an estimated $2.5 million to turn the property into some sort of retail or destination use that the city could promote as a tourist attraction, Brown said.

The property could become a centerpiece for the city’s riverwalk plans, where tourists could walk along the river when visiting the downtown, the mayor said.

The mayor said she wants to see it used as a “private facility that the public can enjoy.”

The city has received some inquiries from investors interested in placing a restaurant there and at least one who is considering an office building, Brown said.

The property has been appraised at $220,000 to $470,000, depending on zoning restrictions and whether the building has historic restrictions.

The city hopes to keep the exterior intact by securing a historic designation from Indiana Landmarks. Any exterior improvements would then have to meet the federal Secretary for the Interior Standards for Rehabilitation. The interior has had multiple renovations and no longer could fall under historic guidelines, Brown said.

The Pump House needs a new roof and replacement of windows; it’s unknown whether the heating or air conditioning works, according to the appraisal. Interior lighting is described as outdated and inefficient.

Council members initially were concerned that a buyer could bypass city restrictions by demolishing the Pump House and starting over. The historic landmarks designation would prohibit that, Redevelopment Commission Director Heather Pope said.

The sale price could lose about $50,000 to $60,000 because of the historic designation, City Attorney Jeff Logsdon said after Councilman Kenny Whipker asked about the effect of proposed limitations.

As council members continued to ask questions about how to maximize the structure’s selling price, Brown cautioned them that the decision comes down to whether the city wants to be the landlord.

“The alternative is that we spend the money ourselves — over $2 million — and we are back in the position of landlord; and that’s not a function of government we want,” she said. “We would be looking at ongoing maintenance, and we are struggling to do that with all our properties now.”

Councilman Frank Miller asked if conditional zoning uses could be approved, so that if the city can’t find a buyer under the more restricted zoning, the city can sell the property. Technically, it could be done, Logsdon said, but that would be handled by the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals.

Logsdon explained that the council could approve the restricted zoning now but could change the zoning back to the more expanded list of uses if the property didn’t sell.

The mayor and Pope in an earlier interview said a new owner could seek rezoning to a wider range of uses on their own by petitioning the plan commission and City Council for approval.

“I’m a little more concerned with the (historical) limitations on the facade than the zoning,” Councilman Jim Lienhoop said. “With the zoning, we can find a way to make it work. If not, it’s not a difficult fix.”

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