Industrial Arts Building under federal review

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Photo by Jared Hanner, News Net Nebraska
The industrial arts building has stood on the former state fair grounds for 97 and has been the subject of much controversy since the University of Nebraska stated they would demolish it.

Story by Jared Hanner, News Net Nebraska

The University of Nebraska continues to tout its plans for innovation campus, a research park located on the old state fair grounds. But its plans have hit a snag over the last few months as more people are stepping forward to protest the planned demolition of one of the few remaining buildings on the fair grounds.

The Industrial Arts Building was one of the buildings on the state fair grounds that at first was to be preserved as a part of UNL’s innovation campus. But in November 2009 the University shifted gears, arguing the building would be too expensive and wouldn’t mesh with the campus’ modern theme. “It doesn’t fit into the vision,” said William J. Nunez, a top aide to Chancellor Harvey Perlman.

To preservationists, however, the 97-year-old exhibition hall is the perfect link between Nebraska’s past technological achievements and those yet to come.

“It shows that we did not spring from nowhere, it’s this wonderful segue from the innovation of the past to our future innovation on that campus,” said Diane Walkowiak, a leader in the “Save the IAB” campaign. “And since agricultural research is going to be taking place on that campus and this has such a strong tie to our roots, that’s a real connection to be maintained.”

The revelation that the industrial arts building was going to be torn down kicked off a campaign to save the building and force the University to stick with its initial plan. Backers of the building argue that it meets the criteria required to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places and so must be reviewed by the federal Department of the Interior. The process, called a section 106 review, requires that institutions that receive federal funding show that the demolition of historic buildings will not create adverse effects.

“Demolition, which is being proposed, would be the ultimate adverse effect,” said L. Robert Puschendorf, Deputy State Historic Preservation Officer at the Nebraska State Historical Society. The society submitted the application to have the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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Photo by Jared Hanner, News Net Nebraska
The Industrial Arts Building is currently up for nomination for the National Register of Historic Places.

Preservationists hope that the review will push the university to come up with ways to save the structure. J.L. Schmidt, executive director of Heritage Nebraska, said the review could require the University to “go back to square one” and look for other developers to refurbish the building.

Despite the university administration’s initial support for rehabbing the building, school officials now are pressing for demolition because of the limited amount of land that can be developed soon on the site. The Industrial Arts Building sits on a plot of land that is part of a 50-acre tract that can be developed readily. Some 199 other acres of land suitable for building sit in a floodplain, and developers need to make special efforts to build there.

“The problem is the location is an area that can be developed quickly,” Nunez said. “If there was land outside the floodplain we may not be having this conversation.”
One developer, the Alexander Company of Madison, Wisconsin, had submitted a proposal to rehabilitate the building but that plan was rejected by the university.

Cost was the main reason. Nunez, the Chancellor’s aide, said the Alexander plan would have been limited to the restoration of the building and did not envision any immediate tenants. That meant the university would have been responsible for all the lease payments on the building.
Now, with the review process under way, demolishing the Industrial Arts Building could mean more than losing a historic piece of architecture. Millions of dollars in federal funding would be at stake if the university knocks the building down and is found to not have fulfilled its obligations under the section 106 review.
Walkowiak says that the amount of money at stake is hard to judge but that there is the potential to lose at least $60 million from the USDA and potentially hundreds of millions more.

“You have a 10- to 25-year build-out on that research park. Who knows what federal entities would be interested in that time period?,” Walkowiak said.
Puschendorf said that the Industrial Arts Building was nominated for a spot on the National Register of Historic Places just last week, and that he expects the process of adding the building to take another month. During that time, the review process will continue.

The review process does not dictate the fate of the building. In the end, Puschendorf warned, the building may be demolished. “The federal agency (helping with the review) can disagree with our determination that something is eligible,” he said.

The preservationists hope the Department of Interior ultimately will rule in favor of keeping the building standing, and listing on the National Register is just a first step.

“The listing for eligibility for the national register is only the baseline,” Puschendorf said. “The second step is the 106 review, to determine ways to avoid, minimize, and mitigate the effects on historic properties.”

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Photo by Jared Hanner, News Net Nebraska

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