The Michigan City Historic Review Board usually meets in a conference room, large enough for the board members to sit around a table and discuss agenda items, with maybe a couple members of the public and other interested parties to squeeze in if they choose.
That room wasn't going to suffice this past Monday as residents, stakeholders and board members packed the Emergency Operations Center at City Hall for this latest meeting.
The hot topic? A pair of buildings in the 700 block of Franklin Street. The Redevelopment Commission purchased these dilapidated properties last year with plans to demolish them and build a central plaza, a key component to both the Lake Michigan Gateway Implementation Strategy and Roger Brooks' branding plan.
On the surface, this didn't seem like a topic that would stir up too much controversy. But, in Michigan City, things rarely come easy. In this case, as it turns out, that's OK.
See, these buildings are deemed as contributing structures in the historic district downtown. Based on that, local preservationists wanted the buildings to be saved.
I can appreciate that. I'm not a staunch preservationist, per se, but if it makes sense to preserve things — that is, can it be done so in a reasonable amount of time with a reasonable cost — then I'm down.
In this case, though, I couldn't get there. Not with the buildings at 701-705 Franklin Street.
I've lived here my whole life, and I can't ever remember anything of consequence being there. A Woolworth's was once housed here, but that hardly seems like a reason to leave an empty, mold-filled building standing. Not when there is somethign cool planned for that space.
That's the other part of this. It's not as though the buildings are being leveled to make room for a parking lot. This central plaza has an opportunity to make a real difference in Michigan City's evolving downtown. Anybody that's spent any time in Valparaiso's downtown could attest how cool their central plaza is, and surrounding business owners would tell you it made quite a difference for them, as well.
Fact is, those buildings were on the market for a long time with very little interest shown in them. According to at least one estimate, the cost to rehab them was $3.6 million, which didn't even include the cost of mold remediation, which would be extensive, according to reports.
So, people filled City Hall's EOC on Monday and had their voices heard. The meeting took the better part of three hours to complete, but in a way, it was kind of beautiful. I love seeing people take an interest in their community, whether their viewpoint syncs up with mine or not.
Many spoke out in favor of demolition, and a few strong voices spoke out against. In the end, the vote was close, but the motion to demolish passed, 5-3. Michigan City will get a central plaza in its downtown.
It was a great moment for Michigan City in a couple ways. One, the transformative nature of a central plaza — when done right — is undeniable. Building it is one thing, keeping consistent programming there will be another. But, the sky is the limit.
On the other hand, there was an issue on the table, many people came together to debate its merits and a vote was had. As far as I could tell, there weren't many hard feelings afterward. Everybody who wanted to be heard, was heard. That's how these things should work.
Michigan City is moving forward. There have been a lot of victories around here lately. I fully expect this will be another added to that list.
Contact Managing Editor Adam Parkhouse at email@example.com or 219-214-4170.