Commissioners push back on historic Keys Energy plant demolition
BY PRU SOWERS
KONK LIFE STAFF WRITER
Not so fast.
That was the unanimous decision made by Key West City Commissioners March 7 when they unanimously voted to hold off accepting the chief building officer’s decision to demolish three of the five buildings at the former Keys Energy diesel plant in Bahama Village.
Chief Building Officer Ron Wampler wrote a 56-page report after examining the plant, which was built in the 1880’s and ceased operations in the 1970’s. Empty and slowly crumbling since then, Keys Energy offered it for free to the city and residents approved the transfer in a 2016 ballot referendum.
Wampler said two of the large buildings and another small structure in the compound are unsafe and should be demolished. The other two buildings can be “white boxed,” he said, meaning the interior of the building would be gutted and a shell built around it until city officials decide how the structures will be used.
But fearful of losing an historic part of Bahama Village, several residents began complaining that although city regulations make public safety a priority, giving Wampler the final say on what happens to the buildings, the Key West Historic Architectural Review Commission (HARC) should be allowed to weigh in on the decision. Commissioners agreed, sending the matter to HARC for consideration.
HARC welcomed the decision. HARC Chair Bryan Green spoke before the commission, pointing out that city ordinances state if the chief building officer finds a structure to be unsafe, he or she will attempt to have the owner repair it before allowing demolition.
“The code of ordinances clearly set out a series of steps which are to exhaust the potential to save the existing structures rather than to demolish them. We seem to have just missed that completely,” Green said, adding, “All I’m simply asking you to do is what everybody else in this city has to do.”
Michael Gieda, executive director of the Key West Art and Historical Society, which is the caretaker for three historical museums including the Custom House in Key West, also spoke at the March 7 commission meeting, saying the organization is “categorically opposed” to the proposed demolition. He pointed to the estimated $600,000 demolition cost, which he said could be used as matching funds for a variety of historical preservation grants that could save the plant.
“Those funds could easily be leveraged to secure additional grant funds to start the stabilization and renovation process. The [Monroe County Tourist Development Council] currently has a capital grant open that is due on May 1. The State of Florida Department of Historical Resources Special Category grant will be open soon and due in early summer. That $600,000 could easily be turned into close to $2 million in grant funding,” Gieda said.
Key West City Manager Jim Scholl defended Wampler’s demo decision, saying people are implying the city intends to demolish all five buildings on the property. That was never the case, he said.
“The city obviously has followed our processes appropriately in evaluating the condition of the building and we’ll save as much of it as we can,” he told commissioners.
But Commissioner Sam Kaufman, who sponsored the resolution to send the matter to HARC, said that while any HARC decision is not binding and public safety supersedes everything else, having more information on the condition of the buildings and potential ways to save them would help the commission determine a possible way forward.
Commissioner Margaret Romero criticized both the city and Keys Energy for letting the historic plant fall into such disrepair. She said the city needs to preserve historic building like it did with the $18 million renovation of an old school building into the current City Hall; an apparent change of heart because Romero has repeatedly argued that a previous proposal to build a brand-new City Hall on Angela Street would have been less expensive than renovating the former Glynn Archer Elementary School.
Commissioner Jimmy Weekley agreed that preserving the city’s historic structures should be a priority if possible.
“This is our opportunity now to be able to look at those buildings and preserve them for the future generations,” he said. “Let’s not start taking the historical significance away because then I think overall, it’s going to damage the entire community.”