February 20, 2011

Local historic community fights to preserve stone barracks

Community members hope barracks plan not set in stone


PLATTSBURGH — Members of the local historical community are sure of one thing when it comes to the proposed deal for the Old Stone Barracks: They want it stopped.

"I would prefer it if no development at all was allowed on that ground," Howard Miller said. "It's just too sacred."

About 40 people, many representing local history groups, attended a meeting Friday afternoon to discuss their concerns about the barracks.

The barracks, built in 1838, and 7.75 acres of adjoining land were offered to Montreal developer Bernard Schneider last month for $35,000.

Schneider is entertaining plans to develop two apartment buildings on the land near the barracks. He has offered a lease on the barracks to any group interested in preserving or utilizing the building. Schneider has until early April to finalize a deal on the property with the Plattsburgh Airbase Redevelopment Corp.

He will be holding a meeting March 1 at the Plattsburgh/North Country Chamber of Commerce to discuss his plans with anyone who is interested.

Because the barracks is on the national Historic Register, there are strict guidelines as to what can and cannot be done with the building.

Estimates for restoring the structure have been as high as $2 million.

The Battle of Plattsburgh Association had been negotiating with PARC the past few years to make a deal on the building, but had to withdraw last September when they could not secure funding.

BOPA had a multi-use plan for the building that included a museum, visitor's information center, small cafe and office space.

Keith Herkalo, BOPA's head, said a multi-use plan was the only way the building would be able to sustain itself.

When local history groups heard of the pending sale to Schneider, they erupted in fury. Many were concerned that a Canadian citizen would be owning a piece of American history, and many were concerned about what they perceived to be a very low price.

"It's frustrating to see it go at white-elephant prices because we don't see it as a white elephant," Miller said at Friday's meeting.

During the nearly two-hour meeting, which was organized by Clinton County Historian Anastasia Pratt, many said concerned groups need to band together to stop the deal.

"Preservation of that building should be the goal, not development," said Ron Allen, Town of Peru historian.

"That is one of our most historic buildings and to lose it to a Canadian developer is absolutely tragic."

Steven Engelhart, executive director of Adirondack Architectural Heritage, said Schneider should have come to the community first to ask for ideas before putting together a preliminary plan for apartments.

"He should done it the other way around and asked us first, before hiring an architect," Engelhart said.

Ann Cousins of Richmond, Vt., said the barracks is more than just a local treasure.

"This building has national significance and that is why I am here," Cousins said.

There were brief moments of tension during the meeting as blame for the pending sale was pointed at several parties.

"It's OK if this gets emotional because that means that people care about it," Engelhart said.

Pratt said communication is the key.

"As a historical community who cares about history and culture we need to talk to each other better," she said.

Pratt and Engelhart will compile the group's concerns and distribute them to local planning and zoning boards, the State Office of Historic Preservation, Department of Environmental Conservation and to any other concerned parties.

"All we can do now is stop the project," Engelhart said.

"We need to use every venue we can to speak up about this and let people know."

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