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Council debates fate of city’s oldest building

The historic Gitchell Building on First Street, built in the late 1800s and owned by the city, may have to be torn down. The building has been deemed structurally unsound and could collapse even in a relatively minor seismic event.

The historic Gitchell Building on First Street, built in the late 1800s and owned by the city, may have to be torn down. The building has been deemed structurally unsound and could collapse even in a relatively minor seismic event. Photo by Jesse Burkhardt.

The historic Gitchell Building on First Street in The Dalles may be down to the last of its nine lives. The structure, built in either 1859 or 1867 depending on the source, is a potential liability for the city, and the costs to remove that liability appear to be well beyond what city officials are willing to spend.

The aging structure is already considered unstable, enough so that no one is allowed into the building. This restriction stems from the fact that “the first-floor joists are not attached to the wall ... several joist ends, in particular over the east entrance, have substantially deteriorated over time,” according to an excerpt from a 2009 structural evaluation of the building.

“The city is aware the building has some structural deficiencies that make it unsafe for persons to enter the building, so we have secured the building and adopted a policy of not allowing anyone to enter,” explained Gene Parker, city attorney.

There is also concern about the consequences if the building were to collapse.

“The potential for real liability is there, regardless of which way it falls,” said Russ Brown of The Dalles City Council. “It’s a 40-foot building, 20 feet from the Union Pacific Railroad right of way and 20 feet from a public park.”

Brown suggested a building collapse would be a recipe for disaster, because it could send debris onto the tracks, possibly resulting in a train derailment.

On May 8, Matthew Klebes, assistant to the city manager of The Dalles, prepared a staff report concerning the building, and recommended four possible alternatives for the city council to consider. Among the proposals were to determine costs to preserve the building as a city landmark only, with no use of the building’s interior; preserving and rehabilitating the building for potential public or private use; or seeking to raze the building by obtaining cost quotes and a demolition permit from the Historic Land Commission.

In the end, the preferred alternative called for the city to issue a “request for qualifications” (RFQ) “to allow private, nonprofit, and other entities the opportunity to address the concerns regarding the building condition, liability, and historic nature. At a minimum, respondents must eliminate the liability issue related to the building.”

“I’m in agreement with the staff recommendation,” said Councilor Timothy McGlothlin. “I want to see options. The last option is demolition. We need to pursue every option and find out what possibilities are out there. That building goes back to the beginning of The Dalles.”

If after six months to a year no suitable entity steps up to rehabilitate the structure, razing the building would move to the top of the city’s option list.

“If the RFQ has no adequate responses the council has exhausted all public, private, and nonprofit options and can seek a demolition permit for the building if desired,” read a portion of the staff report from Klebes.

However, even demolition comes with a hefty price tag. The estimate to tear down the structure ranged from $30,000 to $55,000, but the closeness of the railroad mainline was likely to push the costs significantly higher.

“The building’s south end currently has a concrete wall (foundation) below the rail grade,” the report explained. “Removing the building could destabilize that wall. In addition, UP will want assurances in the removal plan that any debris is contained or preserved from interfering with rail traffic or damage to the tracks.”

The building is steeped in history. The Oregon Inventory of Historic Properties and the National Register note that the building has been used as the Waldron Drug Building, a post office, Mason Lodge, apartments, newspaper office, feed store, and paint store, among others. In 2002, the city purchased the property for $7,357, but little has come of the investment, and the building’s problems are increasing as the years go by. The 2009 structural evaluation, by Peter Meijer Architect, PC, painted a dire picture. The evaluation determined that the building’s deficiencies could result in partial or total collapse in a seismic event.

Mayor Steve Lawrence pointed out that the city had invested enough, and it made no sense to put up more money.

“The city has spent $316,000 maintaining it, reinforcing it, stabilizing it, etc.,” Lawrence said. “It’s now estimated it would cost another $653,000 to fix it, and there is still the issue of the right of way, and I certainly don’t support the city spending that money to stabilize the building. The city doesn’t have the money, and Urban Renewal doesn’t either.”

“It would be irresponsible to invest millions in that building. There are so many strikes against it,” Brown added.

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