LODI — The smell of decaying plants drifts out from under overgrown weeds near the entrance of the former Lodi primary school, while an exterior light buzzes loudly despite the daylight.
In contrast to its abandoned feel, the building is the subject of many discussions and city meetings as officials grapple with rezoning requests from its new owner. Top of Lodi, of which Duane Steinhauer is a member, purchased the property from the school district for about $1,000 in March.
“It’s very frustrating,” Steinhauer, of Dane County, said of the rezoning process. He said discussions started in December with officials who gave Top of Lodi certain options. “We agreed to go with their options, and then we’ve been to three different sets of meetings, and they say, ‘OK, here’s what we’ll do for you if you’ll do this,’ and so we agreed to do what they want and then at the next meeting, they change their mind.”
The issue has bounced back and forth between the city Plan Commission and the Common Council since February. At the request of the school district, the commission first recommended the council approve rezoning the three parcels of land that comprise 103 Pleasant St. from R-1 — single-family residential — to C-3, which would allow for commercial business uses, on Feb. 12. But once the matter made it to the council in March, four out of six members voted to deny the change.
Since then, Steinhauer submitted another application with additional information requested by the city. The commission again forwarded the modified proposal, but the council tabled the rezone May 21, asking for further input from committees.
City meeting minutes from February through May indicate one of the sticking points is the third parcel on the property, a larger tract to the former school’s east which had been a city park at one time. Plan Commission members Ken Detmer and Adele Van Ness have both expressed a desire to turn it back into a park.
A local family deeded the property to the school district in the 1960s with restrictions requiring it to be used for educational or environmental purposes, said District Administrator Charles Pursel. Those restrictions can only be changed by the city, so they remain in place even though Top of Lodi now owns the parcel.
Steinhauer attended a commission meeting April 9 to discuss his plans for the property. According to the minutes, he said he doesn’t have plans for that particular parcel, except to remove old play equipment.
He plans to use the former school as a commercial building with multiple tenants, similar to other repurposed buildings he owns in Madison and surrounding communities. Example tenants include a book seller, offices or a warehouse, though he noted he doesn’t know what kinds of businesses would be interested in renting the space until he can advertise it.
“Our primary goal is not residential,” he said. “The zoning that the city proposed for us would allow residential on second floor, and everybody keeps talking about residential — that is not our focus.”
The council approved one of Steinhauer’s requests after he changed its original parameters. He originally proposed consolidating the three parcels, but came back with a request to combine only two, leaving the third as a separate outlot at the commission’s suggestion.
If rezoning goes through, some renovations may be made “if we need to,” Steinhauer said.
His original plans were to have tenants in the building by early summer. Due to the delays, he’s concerned the space will remain vacant over the winter.
Steinhauer said he still wants to work with city officials and residents, who have expressed their own concerns at meetings about having the property become commercial, though he said some officials — or the process — “might be dysfunctional.”
“Our plan is still the same as it always was, to try to put the building into use and make it an asset for the city of Lodi, and find good tenants who want to be upstanding citizens and go from there. That’s our goal, and we’re ready to start on it today” if the city makes it possible, he said.
The Economic Development Committee and other city staff planned to approach the school district this week to “explore options regarding the redevelopment” of the property, according to a summary of the plans provided by City Clerk Dawn Collins.
Before advertising the former school for sale, the district asked city officials if they would want the building or site for possible city use. They turned it down, a move that some Lodi Plan Commission members regret, according to May 14 meeting minutes.
School district hampered
Selling the property, which has been vacant since May 2018, has brought some controversy. Charles Pursell, Lodi school district administrator, said district leaders had thought they could use a $500,000 referendum contingency fund to demolish the building if they couldn’t sell it.
“It was always our intention to sell it, but as we found out, older school buildings are not something that readily are salable,” he said. Three potential buyers toured the building, but only Steinhauer made an offer.
Pursell said he later learned from the district’s attorney that paying for demolition would be an unauthorized use of the funds, because the $22 million referendum — passed in 2016 — was meant to pay for a new primary school and make building improvements.
Instead, the district will use the money to pay for other projects that were originally part of the referendum but were set aside during the other work, including redoing a middle school lab and putting in a new greenhouse at the high school. Pursell said the school board prioritized the projects that will benefit the most students, so far allocating almost $400,000.
This story has been corrected from an earlier version to add the first name and title for Charles Pursell.
Follow Susan Endres on Twitter @EndresSusan or call her at 745-3506.
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