Bloomington city council: Yes on historic designation for hospital building, No on restaurant

The Kohr Administration Center at IU Health’s hospital, at 1st and South Rogers streets, was given historic designation by Bloomington’s city council on Wednesday night.

The vote about the Kohr building by the nine-member city council was unanimous.

Also unanimous was the council’s decision at the same meeting to deny historic designation to the building on South Walnut Street that was most recently home to the Player’s Pub.

The thumbs-up from the city council on the Kohr building means it will join the parking garage as one of the buildings on the hospital site that IU Health will not demolish before it hands over the facility to the city of Bloomington in a $6.5 million real estate deal.

The handover will come after IU Health leaves the 2nd Street complex around the end of 2021, to occupy its new location on the SR-46 bypass.

According to the city’s historic preservation program manager, Conor Herterich, the historical significance of the Kohr building is rooted in the architectural noteworthiness of its restrained, late Art Deco style. Another factor that helped make the case for historic designation of the building, according to Herterich, is the building’s place in the history of medicine and healthcare in the city.

Emerging at last week’s council committee meeting was a historical fact that is only tangentially related to the building’s connection to the history of medicine in Bloomington. About the possibility that the city would eventually have to seek demolition of the building, director of the city’s economic and sustainable development Alex Crowley said, “That is not something that we’re eager to do, particularly because my boss, the mayor was born in that building!”

A key factor that helped to convince city councilmembers that the building deserves historic designation is the good current condition of the building. Former councilmember Chris Sturbaum, who serves on the historic preservation commission, which recommended historic designation of the building, put it this way during public commentary: “And I’ll tell you, it’s solid as a rock—you know, that building really deserves reuse.”

In contrast, it was the dilapidated condition of the former Player’s Pub building that helped councilmembers decide against its designation as a historic building. The statements from three different contractors  provided by the building’s current owner, Josh Alley, attested to various structural deficiencies.

Councilmembers like Dave Rollo added their own personal experience inside the building to buttress the idea of its poor condition. Rollo said, “I have no reason to doubt that the structure is fundamentally unsound, having been in the structure before and being worried about the foundation of it while I was standing there with maybe 50 or 100 people.”

Rollo and other councilmembers recalled having watched their council colleague, Susan Sandberg, perform in the Player’s Pub with her ukulele band The UkeTones.

It was not the council’s ukulele connection that made the building worthy of consideration for historic designation.

According to Herterich, two criteria are satisfied, which make the building eligible for local historic designation. One criterion is that the building be associated with a person who played a significant role in local history. In the case of the former Player’s Pub building, the person is Henry Boxman, according to Herterich.

Boxman is described in the report written by Herterich as having operated a successful and highly popular restaurant business out of the building for almost four decades, with a connection to Colonel Harlan Sanders, the storied purveyor of fried chicken across the globe.

The other eligibility criterion is that the building be the work of a builder whose individual work has significantly influenced the development of community. In the case of the former Player’s Pub building, it is the association to the Mitchell brothers, Stanley and Ira, according to Herterich. The brothers built a handful of brick commercial block buildings along South Walnut in the 1920s.

The possible connection of Boxman’s establishment to segregationist policies among Bloomington restaurants of the 1950s and earlier was a specter that floated over the council’s deliberations.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Herterich said, “I couldn’t find any hard evidence supporting those allegations. But, you know, I can certainly see that there is a chance that Mr. Boxman did participate in that.”

The newspaper clippings from 1950, which document the saga of the desegregation of Bloomington’s restaurants, led by Indiana University president Herman B Wells, are circumspect about the identity of the owners and names of the restaurants, which preferred to shut down rather than serve Black patrons.

On Wednesday, city council president Jim Sims talked about the lack of hard evidence: “There’s been some comments that: We’ve looked historically and we couldn’t find it. Guess what else we don’t teach our school kids? Black history. What else can we not find in many cases in the Hoosier room at the library? Black history.”

Sims continued, “So that does not surprise me that we’re not going to find those details, because that history does not positively reflect on the power brokers of the day.”

For Sims, the possible segregationist policies of Boxman’s restaurant were an educational opportunity, but not the specific question the council was called on to decide. “In my estimation, what we’re talking about with historic preservation has to do with the architectural value and importance of that building.” The question of segregationist policies was another conversation, but Sims said, “We’ve kind of joined these conversations, which can be helpful.”

With historic designation off the table, owner Josh Alley will now be able to demolish the structure and develop it—as what, he’s not yet certain. Asked about his plans by councilmember Steve Volan, Alley said, “If you had asked me, if I had to do something tomorrow, what we’re going to do is demo the building, plant grass seed, and sit and wait beyond the pandemic and see what happens.”

The historic designation of the Kohr building means that director of economic and sustainable development Alex Crowley will now launch himself into the task of trying to find an affordable housing developer, or possibly some other developer, to undertake an adaptive reuse project for the building.

It’s hoped that low-income housing tax credits (LIHTC) or historic preservation tax credits could help finance the development of the Kohr building. That was one factor that counted as an argument for historic designation by the city council.

That adaptive reuse project comes in the connection with Bloomington’s planned redevelopment of the whole hospital site after the handover from IU Health.

Bloomington’s redevelopment commission (RDC) based its recommended preservation of the Kohr building, at least for now, on a recent review of the building by three affordable housing developers—Strategic Capital Partners, Brinshore, and RealAmerica—who concluded the structure has adaptive reuse potential as residential or office space.

A pre-pandemic pro forma conducted by FC Tucker’s Chris Cockerham had concluded that the construction of a new building is the highest and best use of the site.

Under the terms of the real estate deal with IU Health, the health care company has to demolish the buildings on the site, unless Bloomington relieves IU Health of that responsibility for specific structures.

The risk that Bloomington would be accepting by not having IU Health demolish the Kohr building under the terms of the real estate deal is that the city would have to pay for demolition itself—an estimated $600,000 cost—if the building eventually had to be torn down. That’s a scenario that could unfold if no developer can be found for the building.

Demolition now, after the council’s Wednesday vote, could mean going through the statutory process to remove historic designation.

About the city’s approach, Crowley said at last week’s council committee meeting, “It is our intention to go to the market aggressively on this building.” He added, “We’ve gotten anecdotal and verbal information back and some detailed information back from people we just asked in the affordable housing development community that have expressed an interest so we’re confident that we can at least get their attention.”

Crowley said he hopes to have a letter of intent from a developer by the end of the year.

If the Kohr building is developed as residential property—likely through an addition to the west side of the building—it would contribute to the eventual 870 total units of housing that the city hopes to see developed on the hospital site.

The density for planned housing—as a part of the master plan for the site—increases from south to north starting with single-family houses through multi-family housing units.

In terms of zoning, the proposed housing development on the hospital site would progress from R4 (residential urban) on the southern end to MN (mixed-use neighborhood scale) and MM (mixed-use medium scale) on the northern end.

Those proposed changes from the current medical use are a part of the zoning map revision that planning staff are putting together to put in front of the city plan commission possibly in the second half of February, but maybe not until March.