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Group seeks to save former Janesville gas station

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Neil Johnson
August 22, 2014

JANESVILLE—Janesville city staff is pressing the city council to pull the trigger on demolition of a city-owned, former gas station, but a group of residents is scrambling to save the building.

Monday, the council will hear a city staff boil-down on options including costs of repairing or renovating the former Standard Oil service station at 101 S. Franklin St., along with a recommendation by the city to tear down the building.

The council and staff also will hear a plea by members of an emerging citizen group proposing to repair the station and make it the home of a classic auto club—and possibly an auto museum that would showcase vehicles built at Janesville's now-shuttered General Motors plant.      

The issue has the council sandwiched between a private group that council President DuWayne Severson says is proposing “some nice things” and a move by the city staff to prompt a decision on a building city officials say is “dilapidated and unsafe” and in need of at least $90,000 in repairs.

The vacant building is in the footprint of an area earmarked for future expansion of Janesville police headquarters—a project officials said is still 10 to 15 years from happening.

City Manager Mark Freitag has indicated the city should tear down the building because it would show that, as owner of the building, the city is toeing the line in removing blight near downtown. 

A city memo estimates the following costs: 

-- $35,000 to tear down the building.    

-- $18,000 to remove the building's foundation and reclaim the site if a private buyer moved it.

-- $90,500 to repair the building's membrane roof, a crumbling parapet and other brickwork that's failing and leave the building vacant.

-- $95,200 to $99,000 for repairs so the building could be used for storage, including the cost of modifying the building to “hide” storage areas. That use would require a conditional-use permit. The top-end cost would include tying the building directly to the police station next door. 

-- $246,000 for full renovation inside and out for “standalone” or “adaptive” reuse by a private party or group.

-- $99,000 to $280,000 to renovate the building for reuse as an annex, which would give additional space for the police department. Higher-cost options would include removal of walls to tie the two buildings together and to extend the police station to meet the gas station.         

City staff in the memo concluded that the police headquarters has no immediate need to expand or reuse the gas station. It's advising against renovations for that purpose and instead recommending to demolish the building.

It also recommends against using tax increment financing funds to restore a city-owned building for future private or commercial use.

The city has owned the circa 1930s gas station several years. It's long planned to tear down the building to expand the police headquarters.

It's seen a few reprieves by private groups who have tried unsuccessfully to find a reuse for it, mostly because the city will not sell the building, the groups have said.

Freitag recommended earlier this year the city tear down the gas station, but the council voted against that move, instead deciding to give private groups until mid-August to make a formal pitch for reuse of the building.

City staff said it has not seen a formal proposal, so it's recommending demolition.

Now, a new group is stepping forward, one calling itself Friends of Franklin Street Service Station.

Richard Snyder, a resident who has helped lead a group's public-private renovation of the city-owned Oak Hill Cemetery chapel, said the Friends of Franklin Street Service Station are members of an earlier group that had persuaded the city to delay tearing down the building. 

He said the group also has members who are classic auto collectors. They envision the former service station could be revamped as a clubhouse for a local auto club to work on cars, and it could also be as a museum for classic cars once built in Janesville.

“It's set up for that perfectly. It's a gas station. It's a perfect fit,” Snyder said.

Snyder said the group has launched a Facebook page, and it met Monday with members of the city council to give details on its plan to save the former gas station, along with estimates for repairs from contractors.

He said the group will give a plea and an emerging plan to the council Monday.

He said a renovation could be handled through the group fundraising, similar to the public-private effort to restore the Oak Hill Cemetery chapel.

Snyder said the chapel friends group gathered $40,000 in donations in just a few months, and it forged partnerships with contractors that shaved costs for renovations of the chapel in half. 

“We could do that with the gas station. Give us a chance to surprise people,” he said.  

Snyder said the plan would probably hinge on the city agreeing it wouldn't later tear demolish the gas station to make room for a police station expansion. That would involve an expansion of the police station in a different direction—an option the city has been lukewarm on.

Snyder says he hopes the city can slow its decision long enough for the group to find its feet.

“What's the rush? The city's owned that building for years. Can they wait another few months so that we can organize things?” Snyder said.

The city says if the building's slated to come down, it could delay demolition for 90 days to allow any interested private buyer to pay to move the building. That would be a long shot, considering it would cost about $150,000 to do so, according to city estimates.

City council President DuWayne Severson said at least four city council members met in turn with the group at Olde Towne Mall on Monday.

Severson said “the group presented some very nice things,” but he didn't offer further details.

The city needs to move toward a decision on the property one way or the other, Severson said.

“We'll get one resolution or another. Let's get some resolution, that's important,” Severson said.



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