Preservation concerns dog Whitney Hotel conversion

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June 27, 2005 // UPDATED 1:55 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

To make a vacant, historic building marketable, are balconies and bigger windows OK?

Historic preservation is butting up against marketing at the old Whitney Hotel, 150 Portland Ave., one of Downtown's latest planned condo conversions.

The Whitney Partners' redevelopment proposal includes projecting balconies and enlarged window openings on the river-facing north side of the 123-year-old mill building. The plan met with a flurry of questions - and apparent opposition - from the city's Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) June 14.

The Commission deferred action until its Tuesday, June 28 meeting. If the June 14 meeting was any indication, compromise will be difficult.

Michael Roess of Coldwell Banker Burnet, a conversion veteran and marketing partner, said the building has stood vacant for 18 months. It has had water leaks and at least one break-in. Roess co-owns the Whitney with Swervo Development.

"We are trying to stabilize the building," he said in an interview. "Buyers want to have balconies on the river side."

Several Commission members said the changes would ruin the historic integrity of the Standard Mill Building (the hotel's predecessor). Further, the proposal had missing information, they said. They asked for material samples, cornice details, specifics regarding the main 2nd Street entrance and more.

In an added wrinkle, the developers have proposed building a 43-stall parking deck on the current plaza between the hotel and the river. They would then rebuild the plaza atop the parking deck.

Developers are ready to start work as soon as they get the needed HPC permit, Roess said. Most of the 50 units would sell between $350,000 and $550,000, a few penthouse units would sell for between $2 million and $3 million. "People could be living there next spring," he said.

A testy exchange

HPC staff Amy Lucas said the new plaza would be 11 feet higher than the existing plaza. (Architect Kenneth Piper of Tanek said bedrock prohibited the developers from lowering the parking deck further.)

Lucas said the parking deck would obscure the ground floor units along the building's north side. Commissioners were concerned that the change would reduce pedestrian access to the plaza.

Michael Norton, Whitney Partners' attorney, objected to any vote delay. Norton, a former assistant city attorney, broke with decorum and twice interrupted HPC Chair Phillip Koski after the public comment period closed and Commission members were debating motions.

Norton first challenged the HPC's authority to delay its vote based on its parking deck concerns. The deck is not "a contributing element" to the historic district, he said.

Lucas told the Commissioners they had the authority to review the parking deck and any other changes in an historic district, regardless of whether a particular structure was historic. For instance, it could review a building's shingle colors, she said.

Norton again interrupted the HPC's deliberations to oppose a motion to delay. He said his clients had heard the Commission members' concerns and respected their concerns. "We just don't agree with them," he said.

Norton asked for an up or down vote that night. The Commission did not oblige, citing the need for more details.

Roess said after the meeting that the HPC did not follow its usual procedure. It typically allows the development team to make a presentation prior to the public hearing. This time, they spoke during the public hearing and under time restrictions.

"That caught us off guard," Roess said. "We were there to work with the HPC, and reach consensus. It felt odd to us to not follow the procedure that we are used to. I think that upset Mike Norton because he is used to that procedure as well."

Koski declined to comment. Lucas said the Commission followed normal procedures.

Roess said if the HPC denies the application June 28, he would appeal to the City Council.

Since the meeting, Piper has reviewed the parking deck information presented to the HPC and said it was inaccurate. At most, the new plaza would be 7 feet higher than the current plaza, and lower in other areas.

Previous approval

On Aug. 12, 2003, the HPC approved a different conversion plan. It gave a Certificate of Appropriateness to convert the 96-unit Whitney Hotel into 34 condominiums. The newest proposal has 50 condo units.

Piper had a chart showing how the new proposal compared to the 2003 plan. The new plan had:

- 30 projecting 6-by-8-foot balconies (26 more than in the 2003 plan);

- 69 enlarged windows - 6-by-11.3 feet, instead of the existing 3-by-7-foot window. There are 25 more than in the 2003 proposal.

- At least 50 new parking spots, compared to none in the 2003 plan.

Comparisons to the earlier plans did not sway Koski, who said during the meeting he had been uncomfortable approving the 2003 design. "This goes well beyond that," he said.

Commission member Tracy Nordstrom said she is sympathetic with the marketing issues, but they needed to be balanced with historic preservation.

Pat Smith, who works in investment real estate with Roess, told the HPC the developers are concerned with the condo market getting saturated.

"Now is the time to make this change," he said.