Tearing down to build back up is viewed as the best path proposal for Albany regarding the vacant, city-owned Wells Fargo building and property downtown.
The Albany Revitalization Agency, which consists of City Council members in a different governmental role, voted unanimously Wednesday, June 15 to investigate the cost and timeline of demolition, which would make the site shovel-ready for developers.
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Councilors Dick Olsen and Matilda Novak voted in favor of the loan. Other members said they wanted to stick to the plan and move forward with revitalization projects still earmarked for nearly $20 million: the Waterfront Improvement Project, which is allocated $16 million; the St. Francis Hotel, which has $1.5 million reserved; and the Wells Fargo building and property, which has $2.5 million allocated.
Wells Fargo building
The decision to consider razing the Wells Fargo building by the Albany Revitalization Agency followed a 9-1 vote on the matter earlier that night by the Central Albany Revitalization Area board, an advisory group consisting of city councilors and appointed members.
Councilor Ray Kopczynski was the lone “no” vote, as he wanted to proceed with demolition. CARA board member Camron Settlemier abstained, as he didn’t want to decide one way or the other without knowing if historic aspects could be salvaged from under the building’s Brutalist cladding, which was added about 50 years ago.
Seth Sherry, Albany economic development manager, said he could have demolition details next month.
City councilors and CARA board members showed no love for the minimalist, concrete Wells Fargo building.
“It’s ugly. Super ugly,” Novak said.
Sherry led a discussion on the future of the building during the meeting, presenting the CARA board with two options: look for a buyer to reuse the property as-is, or, if higher density downtown was a priority, leveling the structure and rebuilding from the ground up.
Adding stories to the existing building is technically challenging, making demolition and starting new less expensive with more possibilities, he said.
“Tearing it down and having a clean slate of land is probably the best option,” Sherry advised. He added that developers have expressed interest in the property, if the building was leveled.
CARA board member Bill Ryals, an architect, said there were plenty of unknowns and risks for developers with the building, and removing them would optimize the value of the land.
Sherry reminded the CARA board that a parking structure could be part of a public-private partnership for the Wells Fargo property.
The Wells Fargo building has been vacant since 2018.The Albany Revitalization Agency purchased the building and lot at 300 W. First St. for $1.5 million in February 2019. Plans to redevelop the structure have stalled amid ballooning costs.
Sybaris Bistro, with Ryals advising, was once involved in a partnership to renovate and move the restaurant into the Wells Fargo building, but its owners withdrew from the plan in 2020. That plan would have sited Sybaris on the first floor and apartments on second and third floors.
Sybaris’ owners have purchased the Oregon Electric Railroad Station, 133 Fifth Ave. SE, and plan to move the acclaimed restaurant into that 1912 building.
In May, owner Matt Bennett and Ryals came before the Albany Revitalization Agency and asked for a low-interest loan of $800,000 or more.
On June 10, Bennett and his wife Janel Bennett made a new loan request, asking for only $545,000.
But the Albany Revitalization Agency rebuffed those request, even while officials expressed support for the business and the Bennetts.
Appointed CARA board members in attendance were split on the idea of redistributing money to Sybaris.
CARA board Chairperson Mark Spence said there was no “wow” factor for the waterfront project. “If there’s no ‘wow’ factor, what’s the point?” he asked, and suggested that money be diverted to Sybaris, which now possessed one of the best historic structures in town.
Settlemier said he was more interested in scaling back the waterfront and reopening CARA to small projects.
Russ Allen and Cye Larson wanted to stay the course and keep the door closed, however. Larson said all residents would be able to use the revitalized riverfront, and brought up Corvallis’ Willamette River frontage and the popular Corvallis Farmers’ Market held there every Saturday.
“There are people in Albany who are leaving to go to the Corvallis waterfront,” she added.
During the Albany Revitalization Agency meeting, Olsen said that Sybaris’ proposals was one of the best that the city had seen for a long time.
Councilor Bessie Johnson, the agency chair, disagreed with changing plans made in 2018.
“This would be going against what we already decided. Other people came forward (requesting funding), but they were turned down for this reason,” she said.
“You take this, you’re taking money away from something you’ve already dedicated funding to,” Johnson added.
Councilors Marilyn Smith and Ray Kopczynski and Mayor Alex Johnson II said Albany’s waterfront would be an attraction when finished, and it was hard to picture how much the atmosphere would improve by looking at the drawings.
Waterfront improvement efforts were initially opposed in Corvallis and Independence, Mayor Johnson said, and Albany was the only city of its size on the Willamette River that hasn’t capitalized on its river frontage.
“We have to have vision … We’re sitting on a goldmine,” he said.
Sherry stressed that developers are interested in Albany’s waterfront because of the revitalization plans.
Some councilors and CARA board members expressed interest in having leftover funding, if that materializes, be allocated to Sybaris.
“If we open it back up, we have to be willing to accept public bids for those dollars,” Johnson said. “Other projects will come in. We have to be willing to consider all of them.”
Kyle Odegard can be contacted at 541-812-6077 or Kyle.Odegard@lee.net Follow him on Twitter via @KyleOdegard.