By Joshua Maloni
Much to the surprise of Frontier House President Alan Hastings and business consultant Stacey Sheehan, the Village of Lewiston's Historic Preservation Commission tabled an application to subdivide the property at 460 Center St., and declined to offer a necessary certificate of appropriateness.
In rendering their decision on Monday, HPC members ultimately cited a lack of information in the subdivide drawing.
Sheehan disagreed. She said it was designed according to the guidelines she received from the Village of Lewiston, and that she had double-checked with a handful of municipal officers prior to the meeting to ensure the information was sufficient.
Hastings Lewiston Inc. had requested separating the Frontier House from about three-quarters of the one-acre parking lot to create greater opportunity for development and restoration of the building, a subsequent reduction in the Frontier House's asking price, and the potential for future development along Center Street.
"If you deny the request, it's leaving me at a very large disadvantage," Sheehan said. "The price of the building is going to remain high (presently at $1.495 million). It is going to be a lot more difficult to sell. And it is likely to sit there longer."
The Frontier House has been closed to the public since a lease with McDonald's restaurant expired in December 2004. In the years that followed, owner Richard Hastings and partners unsuccessfully proposed building a hotel or condominiums in the parking lot around the building. In recent years, Alan Hastings and Sheehan have rigorously searched for funding to rehab and reopen the Frontier House, but to no avail.
The idea to subdivide came about as a means to sell the Frontier House, while still allowing Hastings Niagara to earn a fair compensation for the property.
The Frontier House
HPC Seeks Answers
At the beginning of the meeting, HPC Chairman Harry Wright asked for a motion on the subdivision. Vice Chairman Ken Slaugenhoupt presented a motion to deny. At that point, HPC member Lee Simonson asked for board discussion.
Slaugenhoupt proceeded to ask Sheehan who was authorized to execute real estate deals. He asked, "Is Richard Hastings still an owner?"
She replied, "Yes, he is still there."
Slaugenhoupt explained he had bumped into Hastings over the weekend and, though they have an amicable relationship, the developer "offered right aloud a rather vociferous opinion that left no question in my mind that he intends to tear that building down."
"In light of that," Slaugenhoupt continued, "I am very hesitant to be cooperative for any change in this property at this time."
Sheehan said, "Alan is the president of Hastings Lewiston, which is the ownership of the building."
He was with family in Georgia and couldn't attend the HPC meeting.
"(Alan) is the person who has the decision-making capabilities at this point," Sheehan said.
She later asked, "What would be the point in subdividing it, if it was just going to be demolished? It would make more sense for them to maintain the whole property, and have this wonderful, lucrative blank slate to work with in the heart of Center Street. Why would it be in their best interest to subdivide and then take the building down?"
The Frontier House, built in 1824, is on the National Register for Historic Places. It's unclear if that would prevent it from being demolished - especially if the building is determined to be dangerous. Despite years of rumors "the building will collapse," no such official ruling has been rendered by any local or state government entity.
Sheehan explained, "Part of the reason the building still sits as it is, is because, up until now, emotional decisions, emotional roadblocks, have been preventing anything from going forward. So we are here appealing to you to help us make a sound, logical business decision that would allow pathways to seeing the building restored."
She noted, "I don't think it's right, fair or just for decisions to be made, or prevent decisions from being made, based on commentary" that was made off the cuff. "I'd like to move forward doing this with logic and with facts and good business heads. ... So we can just get this done, and do something positive with it."
"I'm an advocate for the building," Slaugenhoupt said. "I want to work with the owners going forward. We've said that from day one. I want to see progress made on this. But I also don't want to go down a blind alley."
Sheehan said, "I believe there's a way that we can do this, and have everyone be happy. But we're going to have to make a collective decision to put away the narratives and the comments. ... And we're going to have to move forward in a very professional, serious capacity if we want to see anything get done with this building."
Slaugenhoupt said, "I agree."
The HPC wants an easement on the northeast side of the Frontier House headed toward Ridge Street.
Drawing Problems and New Requests
The HPC took issue with the Hastings' land survey subdivision markers. In particular, both Wright and Slaugenhoupt asked why the boundary cut into the west-facing basement staircase.
They also expressed concern the drawing did not show a permanent easement on the east side to Ridge Street (site of the former McDonald's drive-thru lane). No pathway currently exists there, but, the HPC said, such a transportation route would be necessary if the property is divided into an east-west split.
HPC member Jim Fittante said, "I think (the drawing) is lacking information. Because right now, as it's shown, what's left for the Frontier House, I mean, our job as a board is the preservation of that building. Right now, the only thing that remains is a one-way-out driveway, and there's no other access in. And within that one way, side parking that's left, there's only nine spaces that would be available. I don't think that would be enough to maintain that building."
Wright said, "The parking, according to code, would (need to) be at least 32 spaces. And the exit going in the back, the west property line would have to allow the person to buy the house to put an elevator on that side. And even Alan mentioned that would be the only place you could put an elevator."
The idea of adding an elevator is something that hasn't been discussed in past meetings. Accordingly, Sheehan asked, "Why would an elevator be a requirement?"
Wright said, "In case somebody wants to put (one in). You put the property line right through the steps going into the basement of this building. It has to be at least west of that."
Sheehan said, "This is not an immovable, concrete divide. If you wanted to make an offer on the building today, it's not this or nothing. This is the basic (information) that Ken (Slaugenhoupt) advised that we needed to include in the preliminary drawing.
"We don't have a buyer in mind. We don't have a project in mind. I don't know that an elevator would be necessary - or historically appropriate, for that matter. But I do know that, after several discussions with Alan, he is more than willing to modify this in a way that suits a particular project that would complement Center Street."
Wright said, "We could tell you what we want, and what was needed, in order to separate this house from the rest of the property and still have a viable lot to sell - according to code."
Sheehan said, "I thought that's what we've already accomplished (with the drawing)? That's what led me to sit here today."
Wright, again, said the lot needed 32 spaces. He, Fittante, and Village of Lewiston Building Inspector Ken Candella all concurred, based on past and projected use of the 3.5-story building. They postulated first floor retail, and second and third floor offices or apartments.
Both Wright and Slaugenhoupt said they didn't want the property to face a list of variance requirements from the Planning Commission or Zoning Board of Appeals. Moreover, Slaugenhoupt said he envisioned the property needing a second subdivide if the current drawing was accepted as-is.
Sheehan said it was premature to customize the plan to a particular project or person's whims when no new owner has been selected. Moreover, she said it should be up to the buyer to establish parking spaces and access points.
"I know that there's a few individuals in town who do have ideas for the property, but we're not at a point where we can negotiate things like this with them, or prices with them, because, obviously, we haven't even obtained our certificate of appropriateness."
Simonson said the subdivide line "relegates the Frontier House to a private residence. It would have no commercial value, unless there were easements that were given. ... I don't think this board wants to see perpetual easements involving any number of owners over the next 200 years, going back and forth trying to make a property viable commercially."
Both Wright and Simonson said it would be easier to issue a certificate of appropriateness if Hastings Lewiston had a specific buyer with a detailed plan.
Sheehan again disagreed, and added, "We don't want to put the cart before the horse and get into these complex negotiations ... on a piece of property we may not even be able to sell them as they would prefer it."
She offered to have the drawing modified to suit the HPC's needs. Sheehan said, "I would need your cooperation to let me know, specifically, what the requirements are, so that I could alter that drawing to do that."
Each board member said a list of necessary adjustments would be provided. As of Thursday, Sheehan said she had not received any correspondence.
"I am 100 percent in favor of subdividing the property for a number of reasons, not the least of which involves making it easier for a buyer to get that property and do something with it," Simonson said. "Subdividing the property allows the Hastings to unload what they probably consider an albatross right now, and allows them to keep a valued parking spot, or whatever else they want to do with it. And it's kind of the best of both worlds. It lowers the price. It creates more of an opportunity. It enhances the chances we have of getting that property into the hands of somebody who will do something with it.
"That being the case, I am looking forward to seeing what we can do to save the Frontier House."
Village of Lewiston documents indicate Richard Hastings purchased the Frontier House for $270,000 in 2000. In 2006, Girasole Appraisal Company Inc. valued the property at $700,000. Nine years later, GAR Associates Inc. appraised the property at $750,000.
After Sheehan left the Morgan Lewis Village Boardroom, the HPC voted to ask Hastings Lewiston to initiate efforts to bolster the Frontier House's exterior, or potentially face a daily fine.
The Frontier House lot.