City to possibly dump ‘museum of bad decisions’

Walders house might be back on the market

Jill Schramm/MDN The city-owned house on Walders Street could be going to a new owner.

The city-owned house on Walders Street appears headed for the auction block.

City council members, acting as a committee of the whole, decided 6-1 Tuesday to recommend the council authorize the auction of the house at 338 Walders St. for relocation. The city purchased the property that included the house in 2015 for $245,000 to create a gateway to a river greenway and a museum/visitor’s center, now referred to by one council member as a “museum of bad decisions.”

According to the city, the idea for visitor’s center with parking, and funding for greenway improvements had been included in the National Disaster Resilience Competition application. However, after acquiring the house, the city learned from the Department of Housing and Urban Development that its $74.3 million award in the competition would require reductions from the $180 million the city had budgeted. As a result, the greenway improvements were removed.

“Because there is no foreseeable funding source for greenway improvements which would make the house potentially viable as a visitor center, and because continued ownership will require costs related to maintenance and upkeep, the most prudent course of action is to auction the house for relocation,” Resilience Program Manager John Zakian advised the council in a memo.

Council members questioned the feasibility of the originally proposed use for the house. Council member Josh Wolsky also cited a number of problems with the way the property was acquired.

“The first thing that jumps out at me is we have been acquiring property after property after property down there in the flood zone with appraisals and reviewals and here we have an example that seems to have skipped that entire process. Looking back on this I am very troubled by that,” he said.

Wolsky said he could not support auctioning the house, though.

“I think we made a hasty decision two years ago and I am not inclined to make one again today,” he said. “Over the last couple of years, there’s been a lot of, I would say, turnover, change, political reform taking place in town, and I think, frankly, it’s due to some of these decisions in our past that people have become frustrated by. Now here we are two years later looking at very likely taking a significant loss on this one.”

His own frustration caused him to remark, “I think we can attract some people into that location if we set it up as a museum of bad decisions and illustrate a number of these examples that I think point to ways we can do better.”

Finance Director David Lakefield said the city likely would not auction the house right away but could wait a couple of years or more. In the meantime, the house could be rented, for instance to contractors on the flood protection project, he said. The city would retain the land even if the house is sold.

Money from any sale would go back to the highway debt service fund. The purchase money came from excess funds in that account.

Council member Stephan Podrygula said he would like to see charitable groups have an opportunity to acquire the house, which might have usefulness as a homeless shelter.

“I think we made a mistake on this house,” Podrygula said of the purchase. “Maybe next time we will be a little more careful what we purchase.”

The property is being used to house AmeriCorps VISTA workers rent-free. That resilience program will end in March. In 2017, the city has spent $1,156 on utilities through mid-December.

The house stands just east of the northern foot of the Broadway Bridge. A second year of construction to replace the bridge is planned next year, and the area will see more future construction with erection of a flood wall.

As far as the greenway, the National Disaster Resilience budget includes $356,000 for an ecological restoration study and plan development. The city’s consultant, CDM Smith, will be preparing a scope of work, budget and timeline to begin early this year.