The Casper City Council officially signed off this week on a land swap, securing the land needed for part of the downtown plaza.
The deal will also allow owners of the historic fire station on David Street to uncover and renovate a recently discovered extension of the 1920s structure, currently hidden within the former Plains Furniture store.
“I’m not going to worry about the details too much because I think it’s pulling together a whole bunch of things downtown,” said Mayor Kenyne Humphrey.
But not everyone was a fan of the transaction.
Questions over parking
Jesse Morgan voted against part of the swap, concerned that a long-term lease of 14 parking spaces on public land might inhibit the city’s future plans.
“What I don’t like is the the city can’t at some point say, ‘This isn’t working for us,’” Morgan said.
Councilman Dallas Laird also voiced concern over the parking lease, noting that fire station owner Phil Schmidt could terminate the 20-year lease with 30 days’ notice, whereas the city is locked in for two decades.
The swap affects almost all of a downtown block that has become something of linchpin for managing growth in the city core.
The Downtown Development Authority originally approached Schmidt about acquiring the parking lot on the fire station’s northern side, which is needed to build part of the David Street Station downtown plaza.
Schmidt agreed to trade the one parking lot for another located behind the building.
Then Casper bought the Plains Furniture building, which is on the other side of the fire station and takes up much of the block.
DDA director Kevin Hawley said he remembered the day in early 2016 that then-City Manager V.H. McDonald called to say the city had purchased the building. He said downtown aficionados had inklings that an extension of the historic fire station was housed within part of the Plains building and the city’s acquisition was largely met with excitement.
“— except for the city saying, ‘Oh boy, that opens a big can of worms,’” Hawley said.
The former Plains Furniture store in downtown Casper is hiding a piece of local history.
Schmidt’s deal with the DDA quickly became more, well, wriggly.
Once he knew the city owned a piece of the historic building he had painstakingly renovated, Schmidt wanted to amend the trade. So last fall he offered the parking lot next to his building for the portion of the Plains building containing the fire station extension.
Officially a municipal garage, the extension’s facade matches the fire station with arches and brickwork.
The Plains building had been built over the extension, but an inspection revealed that the municipal garage remained largely intact behind the store walls.
City Council was open to allowing Schmidt to renovate the garage and unify his building. But then-Mayor Daniel Sandoval repeatedly described the question of how to get there as a Gordian knot.
Vice Mayor Ray Pacheco pointed out that a Gordian knot was literally one that was impossible to pull apart.
“Is that what you meant?” Pacheco asked to laughter.
Though perhaps not truly Gordian in nature, the knot proved difficult to untangle.
A struggle to untangle
First, the city needed to figure out how to give Schmidt the land. Usually sales of public land require an open bidding process that would potentially allow a third party to swoon in and buy a chunk of the Plains building.
That issue was solved by categorizing the transaction as a trade — parking lot for garage extension — with Schmidt throwing in about $15,000 to make up for the difference in value.
But even with that out of the way, the garage still sat inside the Plains building, owned by the city. The question of whether to somehow demolish only a portion of the building to allow the historic garage to be extracted or to tear down the entire Plains structure was complicated by the fact that City Council didn’t have a plan in mind when it bought the building.
Earlier this year, Council decided to tear down the entire structure to avoid an unsightly, half-demolished building in the heart of downtown.
When Casper City Council decided to buy the Plains Furniture store about 18 months ago, memb…
The empty lot could be used for parking, several Council members proposed.
In the meantime, though, Schmidt still needed to replace the spaces in the parking lot that he was losing in the trade. While the plan is to convert the municipal garage into parking, it won’t have enough spaces for the fire station’s tenants, and construction — complete with asbestos abatement — will take time.
To solve that problem, the city agreed to lease Schmidt parking spaces on public land behind his building for a 20-year term.
Morgan chafed at what he saw as the contradiction between the city looking to convert the Plains furniture building into parking while simultaneously granting Schmidt an irrevocable lease on land — and an easement on an alley running through the middle of the block — that might be needed to build a public parking lot or garage.
But as local businessman Pat Sweeney pointed out, Schmidt is giving up his parking lot for the construction of David Street Station.
“He obviously didn’t say it but I’ll say it: He has something you need, he’s willing to trade,” Sweeney told Council. “I think you’re getting a heck of a deal.”
Morgan backed the land swap itself but cast the sole vote against the lease.
Councilman Charlie Powell, who was involved in the decision to purchase the Plains building, viewed completion of the deal as vindication of what was a controversial decision to spend $3 million on a building with no clear purpose and during an economic downturn.
“The fact we are going to preserve that garage reinforces the importance of taking action and sometimes taking risk,” Powell said. “It’s going to be a beautiful combination of historic structures, plaza and well-designed parking.”
Most of the land on the block in question, bound by David and Ash streets and Midwest Avenue and Yellowstone Highway, is publicly owned. The David Street Station, on the north end of the block, will partially open in August around the same time as the nearby Wonder Bar and the new Galloway-backed bar across Ash Street.
The Lyric civic auditorium site is north of Yellowstone Highway and the Old Yellowstone Garage is expected to open a bar and grill in the coming months.
All that will put a strain on available parking downtown. Adding to the uncertainty is the state’s pending decision on whether to continue allowing parking on the empty lot immediately south of Midwest Avenue.
A recent spat over whether to allow the Cercy family to eliminate five parking spots in front of the Wonder Bar on Center Street has highlighted the increasingly controversial nature of parking — or lack thereof — downtown, and added some heat to the fire station transaction.
But Humphrey attributed part of her relaxed attitude to the fact that the deal made possible the downtown plaza and the historic garage renovation, while only possibly imperiling the construction of a public parking garage on the block — a more remote possibility given the city’s current economic climate.
“I’m going to assume in five years we’re not going to have the money to build a parking garage,” Humphrey said.