Church’s request to raze building draws criticism

Hollidaysburg planing mill deemed a historic structure

HOLLIDAYSBURG — A board tasked with protecting the integrity of Hollidaysburg Borough’s historic district voted Thursday to deny a local church’s request to recommend demolition of a former planing mill.

At a public meeting, representatives of the First United Methodist Church of Hollidaysburg — positioned at the intersection of Allegheny and Jones streets — petitioned the board to let them raze the historical planing mill on the 800 block of Walnut Street.

Thomas “Tim” Boland, a member of the church’s expansion committee, addressed members of the Historical Architecture Review Board and Historic Preservation Committee, asking to demolish the building, which was constructed about 1905.

Members of the HARB are tasked with hearing requests about building changes in the protected historic district before making recommendations to Borough Council about whether or not to approve them.

Borough Council is not required to vote in line with those recommendations.

Members of the HPC do not vote on recommendations but are “responsible for preserving the inventory of historic structures and carrying out other historic preservation activities,” according to the borough website.

The church, which has been a fixture in the community for decades, now owns a number of lots that house the planing mill, as well as smaller historical buildings, Boland said.

“I think it’s pretty obvious that the church provides many benefits to the community,” Boland said before presenting plans to expand the church’s footprint to the planing mill site — a move that would require the demolition of the historical building.

The building has sat unused for nearly a decade and has fallen into disrepair, Boland said.

“The existing buildings, particularly, the main building is far beyond repair, and the church couldn’t adapt it for any of their programs,” he said, citing the opinions of several experts, including architects and structural engineers.

One of those experts was architect Dave Macharola, who spoke Thursday about the problems with the existing, barn-like planing mill.

“It is a dangerous structure,” he said.

Macharola also conducted a needs analysis and building feasibility study at the site.

The involvement of Boland and Macharola in the church’s planning process received criticism Thursday evening.

Both men are members of the HPC. Macharola is a voting HARB member and chairman of the HPC.

Borough resident Louis Mollica was the first to speak out on their involvement.

“I’m not here tonight to speak for or against the church project … if it does not violate local ordinance,” he said. “I’m here to speak of the possible appearance of influence peddling by the church. … This gives the appearance of a powerful private entity compromising or influencing individuals within borough government.”

Richard Latker, an HPC member, expressed similar concerns.

“It was completely inappropriate for the church to hire the chairman of this committee as its consulting architect,” he said. “If we were to agree to this now, it would be fatal to the credibility of this committee.”

Andy Haines, HARB’s chairman, disagreed, explaining conflicting interests are a part of small-town government.

Haines said Boland is simply a member of the church and Macharola is performing the contracted duties of his job.

Both Boland and Macharola recused themselves from any discussion or vote related to a decision on the church’s request. They also both denied any “influence peddling” after the meeting.

In place of the existing structures, church officials hope to construct a building and adjacent parking lot along Walnut Street.

Conceptual plans displayed at the meeting included a 12,300-square-foot community center building along Walnut Street and an adjacent 41-space parking lot near Bell Street.

Church leaders have contacted neighboring property owners, and Boland admitted many opposed the proposed demolition.

“We understand most neighbors that attended (a meeting) were not in favor of any proposed changes,” he said.

That being said, Boland also made it clear that church officials would pursue as many appeals as possible if their request to raze the structure was denied.

Borough resident Regis Nale was among demolition opponents at the Thursday meeting.

“I enjoy driving past the mill and dreaming how it might have looked years ago,” he said. “The historic structures in Hollidaysburg definitely have influenced my decision to live here, and I’ve always hoped that somebody would find a use for the mill … and preserve the structure.”

Joel Koss, a member of both the HARB and HPC, agreed that the demolition of the historical buildings would be a detriment to the borough.

“It’s in rough shape, but there are other people interested to keep that building for a residence. I mean, I’m against the project 100 percent,” he said. “It’s not good for the historic district; it’s against what historic Hollidaysburg stands for.”

Demolition of the structure had been denied in the past, borough officials said.

Still, Boland claimed that the structure could not be saved despite others’ interests. He also maintained that the building is dangerous.

That sparked comments from Josh Patt, an HPC member, who questioned why church officials, if the building is dangerous, are not taking steps to secure the structure beyond posting signs and locking its entryways.

“This is where the church is not a good neighbor,” Patt said.

In order to carry out their plans, church leaders also will have to secure a number of special exceptions from local planning commissions and the borough’s Zoning Hearing Board, said Patrick Rabits, the borough’s zoning officer and a member of both the HARB and HPC.

Those special exceptions may be difficult to receive, Haines said, explaining that fact made him reluctant to grant a recommendation to demolish the old planing mill.

“You face a lot of opposition for this proposed reuse, and I don’t see it as a slam dunk,” Haines said, addressing Boland.

Haines went on to explain the adverse effects a premature demolition would have on the borough if zoning and planning exemptions are not granted.

“Now, we’ve lost the building, and we have a vacant lot in the historic district,” he said.

Ultimately, HARB members voted to deny a recommendation to council that the building should be razed.

HARB member Sondra Kranich gave the only vote in favor of demolition.

Now, church and borough officials will have 90 days to seek a compromise before the issue is presented to Borough Council members, who can vote to adhere to or go against HARB’s decision.

The church’s final plan also would include the demolition of its former parsonage, which is not considered a historical building.

Mirror Staff Writer Sean Sauro is at 946-7535.