A $100,000 state grant given to Ventura for preservation of the historic Peirano building must be returned now that the building is facing demolition, a state agency has told the city.
But city officials, who have ordered that the crumbling, aging market be razed to expose a Spanish laundry underneath, say they believe that they may have a right to keep the money to use in restoring the laundry and two walls that are not scheduled for demolition.
Notification that the state wants its money back came in a May 9 letter to Mayor Tom Buford from the State Office of Historic Preservation, which gave Ventura the grant.
"This office cannot support a proposal that calls for demolition of a significant historic resource such as the Peirano Market purchased with state grant funds," reads the letter signed by Cherilyn E. Widell, a state historic preservation officer.
Buford said City Council members knew that the historic preservation office might make such a demand. "We had hoped that wasn't going to be the case, but the council understood it might be a problem," he said.
City staff members, however, added that this might not be the end of the issue. "This is not our understanding of what the legislation said," Pat Richardson, a city planner, said of the state office's claim that laws dictate that Ventura return the money.
Built in 1877, the Main Street landmark was once a neighborhood grocery and still sports cheery murals on its west wall, advertising Borax laundry detergent and Ghirardelli's chocolate.
The City Council voted in March to sell the building to Ventura Realty for $75,000 to $100,000 rather than spend about $430,000 in city funds to restore it to current seismic standards.
Ventura Realty plans to keep the front and west side of the city's oldest brick building while knocking down the rest. The Spanish lavanderia would also remain, restored and surrounded by restaurants, shops and offices.
The developer is still in negotiations with the city on the property and has yet to destroy the building.
The proposal to raze the historic structure angered local artists and preservationists, and about 80 people jammed City Hall the night that the council voted on the building's demolition. They asked council members to consider another developer's proposal because it would save the market and convert an adjoining photography studio to a municipal art gallery.
Preservationists submitted petitions signed by 2,000 residents, imploring the council to save the building.
Some of those residents hailed the state's letter as reaffirmation of their local struggle against the City Council.
"This should give (the city) second thoughts," said Miriam Mack, a Ventura resident and the city's former redevelopment administrator. "The state has come out clearly, in black and white, and I think demolishing Peirano's now will jeopardize the city's reputation in the future with the state, in terms of preservation."
The state's May 9 letter emphatically reaffirms the agency's commitment to preserving the structure.
"Short of a submission of a preponderance of evidence to the contrary," the letter states, "the State Office of Historic Preservation has no reason to believe that the property is any less significant now than it was at the time it was designated by the State Historical Resources Commission."
The city purchased the Peirano building from Nick Peirano in 1987 for $185,000. Of that amount, $100,000 came from the state grant for the purpose of preserving the structure.
Originally, city officials thought that they would lease the old grocery to a restaurant or some other type of business. They soon discovered, however, that almost no one--including the city itself--wanted to allocate the massive funds required to seismically retrofit the aging structure.
Ventura Realty's proposal seemed to council members the best way to get rid of the once-prized property.
Now, Richardson says, city officials must continue to try to persuade state preservation officers that the lavanderia buried underneath the building is as important or more important to preserve than the former market.
"Based on the way we read the stipulations that come with the grant, we could potentially avoid refunding the grant if we use the money on other historic preservation within the project area," he said.
That would include restoring portions of the Peirano facade scheduled to remain standing, or excavating and restoring the lavanderia to a condition where it can be on public display, he said.
The state historic preservation office also wrote in the letter that demolition of the Peirano building may require a formal environmental review. But Richardson said city staff had expected that some sort of review would be necessary to assess the impact on area archeology.