Danville officials hope Bresee Tower's 'endangered' status will attract developer
DANVILLE — The nation's Endangered Species Act has about a 99 percent success rate in protecting plants and animals vulnerable to extinction.
Local officials hope Illinois' Top 10 Most Endangered Historic Places list has the same success rate for the 95-year-old Bresee Tower, which made that list this year.
Though endangered, the slender office building is not hard to spot in its natural environment.
Most structures in downtown Danville hardly reach the halfway point of Bresee's terra cotta facade, which garnered lots of attention in 2007, when chunks of its stone exterior began to break away, falling onto the sidewalks that are 12 stories below Bresee's roof line.
"At this point, it's definitely stable," said Dana Schaumburg, executive director of Downtown Danville Inc., the association of downtown property owners that has targeted Bresee as a building that can't become extinct. DDI and government officials see the possibilities for redevelopment into a combination of downtown office and living space and possibly a first-floor cafe. But no developers have seized the opportunity, and local government officials fear the building will continue to deteriorate and become a further burden on the taxpayers.
An example of Classical Revival architecture, Bresee was built in 1917 by First National Bank, which occupied the marble-laden first floor for many years. The building was designed by the Chicago firm of Mundie and Jensen, a successor to the firm founded by William LeBaron Jenney, the father of the skyscraper, according to the Illinois Landmarks website. Mundie and Jensen had already built other Classical Revival buildings in downtown Danville, including the Baum Building and the Temple Building, both of which made Illinois' Ten Most Endangered List of 2001. But both were eventually demolished by the city at the expense of taxpayers.
It's a story Danville residents have watched play out numerous times as historic and architecturally significant buildings lose their usefulness, deteriorate and eventually become abandoned by their owners, leaving local taxpayers to cover the tab when demolition becomes the only alternative.
It's not the ending local officials want for the last Classical Revival, Mundie and Jensen building in Danville.
Redevelopment of Bresee is one of the priorities of Downtown Danville Inc., which has an agreement with the building owners that gives DDI the right of first refusal if another entity were ready to accept Bresee as a donation.
"This gives us a little control, so we are involved in the process if they wanted to hand the building over to someone," Schaumburg said. "They very much would like to have someone else take over the building. They're definitely interested in a tax credit."
DDI does not want Bresee donated to an entity that does not have the financial ability to rehabilitate the building, which Schaumburg said is structurally sound but needs electrical and plumbing upgrades among other improvements.
No major improvements or upgrades have been done to the building in many years and there's been little maintenance by the current owners.
Schaumburg said another owner would need a definite plan, financing and productive use for the building before taking on such a challenge.
Renovating historic buildings can be very challenging. Even with financial assistance from the city of Urbana, the owner of the historic Lincoln Hotel in downtown Urbana has run into complications renovating that structure - roof work, elevator work, entrance upgrades and electrical improvements, many of the same upgrades that would be necessary in Bresee Tower.
Owners want to donate
The owner of the Bresee is the Land Corp. of Danville, a limited liability corporation whose only asset is Bresee. According to the Landmarks Illinois website's profile of Bresee, the current owners cannot finance a renovation.
But the Land Corp. of Danville is a subsidiary of the Kentucky-based Forcht Group, which employs more than 2,000 people, mostly in Kentucky, and is a group of 95 different companies in the areas of banking, insurance, broadcasting, publishing, retail, construction and real estate. Its banking division alone has assets of more than $1 billion, according to its website. In 2010, Forcht group founder Terry Forcht donated $250,000 toward a historical renovation project at the Kentucky state capitol.
The Forcht Group, formerly known as First Corbin, ended up with Bresee in 1993 when it purchased the radio station, WIAI, which was housed in the tower then. The company later sold the radio station, and in 2006 informed the office tenants that they were closing down the building. The corporation still leases the roof for antenna space.
Anthony Grubb, a Forcht Group executive and president of the Land Corp. of Danville, would not disclose who leases space on the roof for antennas but said the leases bring in several thousand dollars a month and that income would go with the building if it were sold or donated.
Grubb said the corporation has no viable use for Bresee and would not be interested in financing rehabilitation because of where Forcht is based. Forcht's corporate office is in Corbin, Ky., and most of its businesses are in that state as well.
"It's strictly a business decision," he said.
In 2007, the city of Danville and Vermilion County had to step in when chunks of Bresee's facade were falling onto the sidewalks. The corporation was taking no action. Some aldermen and county board members felt it was the sole responsibility of the owners, but in the interest of safety, the city and county each paid $15,000 and convinced the owners, through legal channels, to spend $30,000 of its own money to hire a crew that made temporary repairs to the facade.
If other serious maintenance issues were to arise, Grubb would not say whether the corporation would take responsibility. "We will have to address that at that time," he said.
Grubb said the corporation is ready, at any point, to donate the building to DDI.
The DDI board has discussed taking the deed to Bresee but doesn't have the money to maintain or redevelop it.
Schaumburg said the hope is that the building's inclusion on the endangered-buildings list could lead to its being redeveloped. Being on that list generates interest from people who have developed similar buildings in the past, she said.
A Bresee planning committee, which includes officials with DDI, the city, the county and Vermilion Advantage, meets at least quarterly, Schaumburg said, and sometimes more often to discuss Bresee. All the members are committed to saving Bresee, she added.
"We want to see it restored," she said. "We think it could have a good use in the community."
Grubb said the corporation would be willing to extend the agreement with DDI, which ends in June 2013, if no developer is found by then.
"We've been doing this for a number of years now. We've given a lot. We want to work with them as best we can, and we will continue to do so," said Grubb, who visited the property in the spring and toured downtown with Schaumburg and other local officials.
Grubb said the corporation hopes that DDI will take it as a project.
"We hope someone would step forward and take control of it," he said.
Local officials also hope someone steps forward to take Bresee, but only if new ownership has the means to rehabilitate the tower.
The city has had to step in and take down other deteriorated buildings that were donated to owners who could not execute or finance rehabilitation plans. The most recent was the former AT&T building, which was purchased in a tax sale and eventually was demolished by the city for more than $250,000, money that's not been recouped after the owner declared bankruptcy.
Rehabbing Bresee would be expensive, but the alternative could also be a very expensive ending, possibly for the taxpayers of Danville and Vermilion County. The size of Bresee and its proximity to other structures would make it a difficult and expensive demolition. The Vermilion County Courthouse Annex building, which houses numerous county offices, literally wraps around and is connected to Breese.
Vermilion County Board Chairman Jim McMahon said there's no way the building could be demolished without affecting the county's building. In fact, Bresee already affected the annex when county officials moved the annex's public entrance to the north side of the building away from the Bresee, fearing liability if someone were injured by falling debris. For the same reason, the city installed a protective walkway on the city's sidewalk on the south side of Bresee and blocked off the rest of the public sidewalk on the east side.
Schaumburg said the Bresee planning committee met earlier this month and has brought in some community members who have expertise in other large building renovations or in property values. The Bresee is on the National Register of Historic Places, so federal rehabilitation tax credits could be used as part of a redevelopment.
It's also in the local enterprise zone, but downtown Danville does not have a Tax Increment Finance district, which is the mechanism being used to provide funding for the Lincoln Hotel in Urbana.
Schaumburg said the committee is trying to get as much information as it can about possible uses for the building and possible financing options.
"That way, whatever the next step is, we have already done that research," she said. "It's just a really unique building, and we are going to continue to pursue it."