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Historic Zoning Commission denies request to demolish Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity house

Zach Vance • Updated Oct 24, 2017 at 11:37 PM

The Historic Zoning Commission denied a request from White Castle Properties Inc. on Tuesday for permission to demolish the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity house at 719 W. Maple St.

After lengthy discussion of the house’s history, architecture, current use and future viability, commissioners determined the request should be denied because it didn’t meet any of the reasons outlined in the Tree Streets Design Guidelines that define when a demolition is appropriate.

Six commissioners voted in favor of the motion, while Commissioner Tom Mozen abstained from the vote, stating he felt split on demolishing the house.

According to the guidelines, demolition is appropriate only if a Tree Streets house has lost its architectural and historical integrity and importance; if the house does not contribute to the historical or architectural character and importance of the district; if the Commission determines economic hardship for demolition based on financing; or if the demolition is required by a court order.

It was discussed that if the fraternity proves it faces financial burden in maintaining the house and completes due diligence in trying to sell the house, the Commission might revisit the demolition request in the future.

Robert Van de Vurrst, legal counsel for the alumni corporation that owns the house, said the request was very preliminary, as Sigma Phi Epsilon currently explores the possibility of selling the house or land and begins the transition to East Tennessee State University’s campus.

For years, ETSU has discussed moving its fraternities and sororities on campus, although a stable timeline has yet to be established.

“There have been many discussions with ETSU personnel over the years about creating an on-campus Greek housing network, and SigEp has always supported the idea of moving all fraternities to campus housing,” Van de Vurrst said in an email.

“It hasn’t happened yet, of course, but we hope to see that come to fruition soon. In the meantime, though, the alumni corporation here at ETSU, and the active chapter, have continued to struggle with continuing to house the fraternity in a structure that is well over 100 years old and constantly demands expensive maintenance and upkeep.”

According to its agenda, a neighbor of the fraternity, the Hoovers, has expressed interest in purchasing the house for the land and creating “green space” if the house was approved to be demolished.

Currently, less than a dozen fraternity brothers are living in the house, according to alumnus Brandon Potter, who spoke on behalf of White Castle Properties Inc.

“Adding to (the upkeep costs) is the fact that the influx of new, and very nice dormitories and off-campus housing has reduced the number of active brothers that want to live in the fraternity house,” Van de Vuurst said.

“In a nutshell, we have begun to explore the possibility of selling the fraternity house and moving the active chapter elsewhere, whether that be to an on-campus facility or somewhere else.”

Van de Vuurst said there is currently no signed contract to purchase the house, although the fraternity has received preliminary inquiries from a “few individuals who are interested in buying the property for the lot only and turning it into green space.”

Built sometime in the early 1900s, the city planning staff also asked the Commission deny the request because the house is unique. Planner Matthew Young called it the “unicorn” of Tree Streets houses, although its singularity could make it a tough sell on the market.

The fraternity chapter’s website says the house can hold 17 men per semester in 14 bedrooms. Covering more than 7,000 square feet, the “White Castle” house boasts a trophy room, a dance room, a DJ booth and bathrooms on each of its three floors.

“This structure is a one-of-a-kind for the Historic District and appears to be in good structural shape. That being said, the building’s contention for the South Side Neighborhood for several years,” the staff’s recommendation stated.

“There is an opinion within the neighborhood that multi-family structures should be excluded from what otherwise appears to be a single-family neighborhood. The increased number of units on this lot increase parking, traffic and noice for the surrounding area.”

The house’s use as a fraternity house is grandfathered, meaning if it was demolished only a single-family home could be built in its place.

Email Zach Vance at zvance@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow Zach Vance on Twitter at @ZachVanceJCP. Like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/ZachVanceJCP.

 

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