A City, If You Can Keep It: The process is dead, long live the process

The renovations on the Grand Prince Odeum building began after it was purchased in December 2020. (Jeffrey Rawlinson/Winters Express)

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A Winters Express opinion column

By Richard Casavecchia
Special to the Express

How should we handle a parcel in Winters that has never been used in the manner for which it was zoned?

The building at 201 Main St., now referred to as “The Grand Prince Odeum,” is a former church built on a parcel of land zoned for single-family homes, a zone dubbed “R1.” No home ever existed there, and, as near as I can tell, no one has ever claimed 201 as their residence in its 108 years. Like a number of parcels downtown, it has never been used in accordance with its zoning.

Let’s be blunt: to convert 201 Main St. to a residence would likely require a complete teardown and rebuild or extensive remodeling. It’s unlikely that the cost to bring that building up to residential standards, and create a desirable livable home out of what is essentially an auditorium, would be worth the final value of the home.

No one is going to demolish that building or remodel it and convert it into a home. The owner would be financially underwater before a foundation is poured. Anyone who could afford to lose that much money is likely not looking to take on that project in Winters. We may be a desirable community to live in, but we aren’t million-dollar renovation desirable. At least not yet.

The article in the Dec. 8 Express (“Grand Prince Odeum facing opening challenges with City processes”), which detailed the trouble The Grand Prince Odeum has had in being able to open its doors, left me wondering: what is the real issue? It appears to be bureaucratic nonsense.

Yes, we should follow the rules we have set forth on how our city should operate; however, it seems in this case the right answer is to change the rules entirely.

This is a problem of the City’s making, albeit long ago. At some point in the past 108 years, previous city leaders allowed this building to be built in a residential zone, or zoned the parcel residential knowing what was on the lot. The City was incorporated in 1898 and the building was erected in 1913.

Today, 201 Main St. is now just across the street from the zoning it needs. If 201 Main St. was 50 feet to the east this wouldn’t be an issue. If the parcel was in the middle of the block entirely surrounded by residential zoning, there would be no argument for change.

But, given the history of the parcel, the realities of the building and the cost of making it into something it will never be, the right answer seems to be to rezone the parcel to reflect how the building has been used since its construction more than a century ago.

We claim we want to encourage growth downtown, in theory. In the parlance of land development jargon, that is “infill.” But now we have someone who has invested considerable time and real money to bring a new feature to our city, and we’re preventing that with zoning which has never matched its actual use and likely never will.

What are we doing?

This is not a case of discrimination, nor prejudice against newcomers that we all know exists at times within Winters, nor corruption, nor graft, nor self-serving interest on the part of any city employee. This is the banality of bureaucracy in all its glory: process searching for a path forward when reality doesn’t match regulation or form-based code.

The intrepid imagination of entrepreneurs does not always fit neatly into pre-planned codes. Our city employees are likely doing their best to work within the confines of existing rules.

This year-long bureaucratic process is 11 months too long for a town our size. If ever there was a time to do the logical thing, this is it. We want to cut grand opening ribbons, not roll out red tape.

City Council should rezone 201 Main St. to conform to its historical use, match the 100 block of Main Street, and let one of the few new businesses in town, willing to take a risk during the pandemic, open. Not just for the business, but for the parcel and any future business or church that may occupy that building.

If we do not change the process, and blindly follow it instead, then we risk sending the message to prospective future local entrepreneurs that we are complacent miring their vision with inflexibility simply because their doorway is 50 feet too far west.

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