An eyesore no more

Written by Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer October 31, 2012 01:17 pm

Work this summer of the IOOF/State Theater Building included repair of broken-out windows on upper floors facing Adams Avenue, and work on the brick parapet. CHRIS BAXTER - The Observer
Work this summer of the IOOF/State Theater Building included repair of broken-out windows on upper floors facing Adams Avenue, and work on the brick parapet. CHRIS BAXTER - The Observer

Rehab project makes rundown building in La Grande marketable 

Historic structure that once housed the Tropidera awaits buyer 

A historically significant but time-ravaged building in downtown La Grande has been returned to marketable condition, thanks to efforts by the city’s Urban Renewal Agency and big financial help from the Oregon Brownfields program. 

Intensive hazardous materials abatement and other work was recently completed on the IOOF/State Theater building at 1106 Adams Ave., just a few doors east of City Hall. Known informally in recent times as the Renegade building, the structure previously was a blight on a downtown area hoping to improve itself.

“The building was just a mess,” said La Grande Community and Economic Development Director Charlie Mitchell of the aged structure. “As soon as you opened the door, you smelled the mold and mildew.”

The vacant property actually includes two joined brick and wood buildings. The former IOOF building on the west was built in 1892, with its third floor added sometime between 1910 and 1923. Another building on the east, a two-story structure known variously back in the day as the Sherry and the State theater, went up in 1910. There is also a small, one-story addition to the rear.

The conjoined buildings have been used for many purposes over the years. In the early 1900s, for instance, the Oddfellows building was home to the La Grande Post Office. 

At some point, the second floor of the old Oddfellows Hall was divided into apartments. Business operations on the ground floor have come and gone. About 1961, a night spot called the Tropidera took up residence on the ground floor and stayed till the 1990s. For a short time after the Tropidera closed, the Elkhorn Steakhouse did business in the same
space.

Early this century, a bar called the Renegade moved in. The Renegade was short-lived and turned out to be the property’s last occupant. After it closed, deterioration continued throughout at a rapid pace.

“The roofs leaked and the upper windows were broken out. Water streamed down, and pigeons got in through the windows,” Mitchell said. 

He said that by the time the rehabilitation project began, floors inside were covered with dung and dead birds. Asbestos and lead-based paint in the building posed additional environmental hazards.

By 2011, the building had many liens on it, and the lien-holders did not have the funds they needed to do a clean-up. And the Urban Renewal Agency, on a push to make downtown a vibrant place, found itself in a difficult position.  Agency money was being spent in the downtown district for facade improvements, sidewalk reconstruction and more, but there in the heart of it all stood an eyesore.

“The question was, how could we let something like this sit there at a time when we’re doing all these other things to make downtown better?” Mitchell said.

As private citizens, the building’s owners could not access public money to fix the problems, but a government entity could. Faced with a choice of either correcting the blight or demolishing an historic structure, the Urban Renewal Agency took action.

For starters, it entered into negotiations to acquire the property. The talks were lengthy and complicated, but the owners eventually signed the building over with the understanding they’d have the option to buy it back once the improvements were made. 

Mitchell said the city got the property at no cost, except for $22,000 owed in back taxes. If the lien-holders buy the property back, then sell it, they will split proceeds with the city.

“We’re not interested in owning the building long term. The goal here was to stop the deterioration,” Mitchell said.

The Urban Renewal Agency also applied for and received a $200,000 grant from the Oregon Coalition Brownfields Fund to put the building back into marketable shape. With the property acquired and the grant money in hand, the next step was to issue a request for proposals for a clean-up.

AMEC, a Portland consulting firm, was hired to manage the project, and IRS Environmental of Portland provided the labor. Local subcontractors, including Palmer Roofing of Pendleton, Mike Becker Contractor of La Grande, and Rod Muilenberg Masonry of La Grande, and All Phase Electric of La Grande also did work. Blue Eagle Engineering of Summerville did an on-site structural evaluation.

Mitchell said the project included abatement of the hazardous materials, new roofs and new windows, and an exterior paint job. Inside, the building was stripped down to its studs and left ready for remodeling by some future owner.

“It’s like a shell in there. Whoever goes in next has a clean slate to work with,” Mitchell said.

He said the project is complete now except for some minor work. The next step is to find a buyer.

“The big question people ask is, ‘What’s going to go in there?’ The answer is, we don’t know,” he said. “Really, that responsibility rests with the broker. Our goal was to stop the decay and remove the eyesore.”