Mobile’s Architectural Review Board (ARB) approved an emergency permit Friday morning for the historic Key Loan building at 522 Dauphin St., where a crack that developed in the building’s western wall is threatening the integrity of the structure. According to a spokesperson for the owner, the permit allows for the “deconstruction and reconstruction” of the building, rather than its “demolition.”
Allegedly, the ARB held an emergency meeting due to imminent “life and safety concerns” at the 19th century building on the corner of Dauphin and Cedar streets. The spokesperson, who wished to remain anonymous, said the section of Dauphin Street in front of the building was closed off out of an abundance of caution, and work will begin tomorrow morning to dismantle and stabilize the wall. If further deconstruction on the building is necessary, “we’re prepared to do that,” the spokesperson said.
“Demolition is a wrecking ball,” he said. “Instead, the material will be carefully deconstructed, cleaned and repaired, and the building will be rebuilt … to the exact appearance it has now.”
But David Newell, president of the Historic Mobile Preservation Society, said that terminology is misleading, because there is no way a historic building can be “reconstructed” to meet modern building codes.
“They cannot meet new code requirements by taking the building apart brick by brick and putting it back together with same joists and rafters and so on and so forth,” Newell said. “There are new foundation requirements and new hurricane wind load and projectile requirements … the windows are a new material. So what you’re really left with is a cinderblock structure that may have the same dimensions and facade, but it’s a completely new structure within … it’s no longer a historic structure.”
The HMPS was among several organizations that rallied for the stabilization and restoration of the building since the crack developed late last year, but the spokesperson for the owner claimed it is beyond repair.
“I can tell you this is pretty standard practice with buildings that reach a point of no longer being structurally sound,” he said. “The mortar had deteriorated. There is termite damage.”
Major League Baseball pitcher Jake Peavy, a native Mobilian who has recently been investing in real estate and businesses around downtown, is part owner of the Key Loan building and others attached to it on the same block. The spokesperson said the entire block will eventually be rehabilitated as part commercial, part residential space adding it would be “something everyone can be proud of.”
But attorney Jarrod White, who represents an unnamed client interested in preserving the original building, said he feels the owner’s plans and ARB’s actions set a bad precedent. Further, White said the building’s owners have been complicit in allowing it to deteriorate while ignoring a collective effort to stabilize it, while the ARB and urban development department skirted its own rules and regulations in both holding the emergency meeting and issuing permits for the project.
“My understanding is that it was done under the life/safety emergency, because the building is about to fall,” White said. “But the Architectural Review Board’s own rules and regulations don’t [clarify] that. First of all, it’s been an ongoing issue for six months, so this is not a sudden emergency … but the standards of the [ARB] also have to be met. They say if a building can be saved, it should be saved. And if it structurally unique, in order to get demolition, you have to have plans on file about what you’re going to do on that site afterward. None of those things have happened.”
Early last month, preservationists held a rally to preserve the building. Together the nonprofits Downtown Mobile Alliance and Restore Mobile also hired an independent engineer who determined the building could indeed be saved.
Tilmon Brown, president of Restore Mobile, said “our position is historic structures should be maintained and restored if at all possible. If [the owners] would have acted two months ago when all this started happening they could have stabilized the structure and fixed the problem, but instead they let it go.”
Similarly, Elizabeth Stevens of the Downtown Mobile Alliance expressed displeasure with how the situation had been handled.
“We felt like it could be saved,” she said, citing the independent engineer’s report. “Based on their experience and everything they’ve seen, this should not be a death knell.”
Stevens said the spirit of the planned reconstruction may fall within form-based code recently passed for downtown developments, but according to a community meeting she attended last week for the Map for Mobile, around 80 percent of respondents to a survey cited “loss of character” as the greatest threat to Mobile’s community identity.
“So it’s kind of sad day,” she said.
The city did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but the spokesman for the developer said it was their intention to stabilize the building and reopen Dauphin Street to vehicular traffic “as soon as possible.” Reconstruction on the building should be complete by early next year, he said, when the rest of the block will be evaluated for redevelopment.
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