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His Lincoln elevator is officially worthless, but owner won’t let go
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His Lincoln elevator is officially worthless, but owner won’t let go

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He’s had trouble at the top of the grain elevator before.

Last month, it was fresh graffiti -- more than 80 feet up, numbers and letters spray-painted so tall, broad and bright they could be seen from several blocks away.

But more than 40 years ago, when James Woolsoncroft bought the elevator on the edge of the Haymarket, it was the roof itself. The previous owner had let it fail, and rainwater had seeped into the silos, ruining the corn.

Woolsoncroft knew the property needed work. But he also considered it the Cadillac of grain elevators: A dozen concrete bins on the north side, 80 feet tall and 24 feet across with 7-inch steel-reinforced walls; and six smaller bins to the south.

It took him a year to clean out the old corn, he said. Then he replaced the roof and spent $120,000 installing a new rail scale.

Within a couple of years, he was loading up to seven train cars a day. The Lincoln elevator was helping support his father’s operation in Princeton, where they struggled to fill enough loads.

“We needed more railroad cars, so we bought this one here so we could ship more grain. The quicker you turn it, the better.”

The help didn’t last long. Five years after Woolsoncroft bought the elevator, he said, the railroad pulled up its tracks.

Woolsoncroft turns 79 next month. He splits his time between his home in east Lincoln, his farm in northern Kansas and, when there’s trouble, at his elevator on the corner of Sixth and G.

In the decades since he stopped taking in grain, vandals stripped all of the elevator’s copper wiring, leaving it without electricity.

City inspectors have fielded three complaints in the past three years.

“The windows are broken out, it’s covered in graffiti, and it’s right across the street from Park Middle School,” a citizen complaint said in 2019. “It’s a safety hazard and is an open invitation for gang activity.”

Another, from the year before: “There are kids getting inside this property in the evenings. LPD has had kids climbing up the towers.”

Lincoln police have fielded at least five trespassing or disturbance calls in the past five years. And the city’s graffiti prevention coordinator has asked Woolsoncroft to clean or cover graffiti 11 times in the past 12 years -- most recently, last month, when someone tagged the very top of the building again.

“It’s been a fight,” he said last week. “I’ve just patched and patched and patched to keep them out.”

As the elevator grew older, much of its neighbors grew up, with the redevelopment of the Haymarket on the horizon and slowly marching south.

Some of the nearby brick warehouses across J Street are now brick office buildings, and the city is planning a $9 million South Haymarket Park project a couple of blocks away. To the west, TMCO has expanded and improved its close-cropped campus. The ice distributor immediately to the north recently got new life -- and bold new paint -- as a self-storage center. Across the street to the south, Park Middle School and Cooper Park are undergoing renovations.

But last year, when the county assessor’s office increased the value of the land beneath the elevator nearly triple-fold -- to $184,500 -- Woolsoncroft protested.

It would cost more to demolish the elevator than the land is worth, he testified. He asked the valuation be reduced to zero.

The Lancaster Board of Equalization ultimately agreed, and now Woolsoncroft owns what could be the county’s only officially worthless commercial property and building.

Which means he doesn’t pay property taxes on it. But he also doesn’t plan to part with it anytime soon -- because he has a dream.

“Everybody wants to knock it down,” he said. “I say, as long as I’m alive, it won’t come down.”

'Continues to be dangerous'

The latest graffiti report was lodged on the city’s complaint app on June 7.

The elevator had been peppered with graffiti, some of it legible -- “Dillons Mom,” “Smoke Weed” -- and some not. But the clearest message was at the top, yellow and orange letters against a purple backdrop, more than 80 feet up.

It’s not clear if that tag, which includes the letters KEK, is an alt-right reference, as suggested by the Southern Poverty Law Center, or simply the vandal’s handle.

It didn’t matter to the city, which has a statute to enforce: Property owners have 15 days to remove graffiti or face the possibility of “special intervention options.”

Graffiti prevention coordinator William Carver takes an educational approach, explaining -- in a letter and often in person -- the negative impacts of graffiti and encouraging its removal within a day or two.

And it’s worked. He’s fielded more than 260 cases since Sept. 1, and he’s closed them in an average of six days. Only once since 2009 has the city had to clean up the graffiti itself, he said.

Carver is familiar with Woolsoncroft and the old elevator. After the latest complaint, they met on South Sixth Street, where Woolsoncroft was already painting over as much graffiti as he could reach.

But that message at the very top had to wait a couple of weeks, Woolsoncroft said, until he felt strong enough to climb the ladder himself. He did in early July, hauling up 10 gallons of paint to cover the 8-foot letters.

Carver was OK with the delay. His office is willing to work with property owners who show a good faith effort in resolving complaints quickly, he said. And Woolsoncroft has always been responsive and compliant, and has tried to make the property more secure.

For example, he added covered windows and doorways with steel bars and grates, Carver said.

But Woolsoncroft has his neighbor -- TMCO -- to thank for that. The two used to have a relationship: He’d let TMCO employees park on his property, and the manufacturing company would help keep it secure, and help keep an eye on it.

Woolsoncroft ended that deal after TMCO moved some boulders from his property, he said.

Diane Temme, CEO of TMCO, won’t say anything directly critical of the elevator across the street. But she’ll talk about her own property, and its role in the historic South Salt Creek area near Park Middle School and Cooper Park.

“It’s our responsibility to be good neighbors,” she said. “There’s pride of ownership. There’s pride in the history. So upkeep as well as safety is just a really important issue for us, and I think it’s a really important issue for the neighborhood.”

But the area still has needs, she said. Housing. Literacy. Child care. Workforce training. Imagine if the land beneath the empty elevator was put to better use, she said.

“It’s in a really cool location. It would be amazing if we would see that -- or any property around there -- be developed into a community center.”

Instead, she and her employees have a front-row seat to a building that is becoming more noticeable as the area around it loses its industrial edge.

“It’s been really unfortunate. It seems like graffiti goes up and it gets covered up and then it appears again. It’s ongoing.”

The elevator is an example of a property that has fallen through cracks in city policy, said Shawn Ryba, executive director of the South of Downtown Community Development Organization.

Commercial buildings aren’t governed by the same codes as residential properties. So city inspectors can’t take the action they could on, say, a rundown home.

“There’s no code, there’s nothing they can do,” Ryba said. “It’s still there. It continues to be dangerous. People continue to break in.”

That’s partially true, said Chad Blahak, the city’s building and safety director.

The city can declare any building -- residential or commercial -- dangerous, if the structure is found to be unsafe and unsound.

But it can’t condemn a vacant commercial property as uninhabitable, for not having plumbing or electricity, for example, as it can a residential property.

And it can’t enforce its property maintenance code on commercial buildings. So inspectors can require homeowners to replace paint, siding and windows, but it can’t make similar demands to commercial property owners.

“We have the authority. We can write a notice that you need to get this repainted so it’s compliant with paint coverage. We could not do that on a commercial building,” Blahak said.

Efforts to add those powers have failed in the past, for a couple of reasons, he said. First, it would be costly; he would need to hire more inspectors to handle the sudden increase in buildings and responsibilities.

And commercial real estate operators have traditionally, and heavily, resisted the change, he said.

Officially worthless

Last year, Woolsoncroft received a notice from the county assessor’s office.

The county had valued the elevator at zero dollars for the second year in a row; in 2018, the assessed value was $40,900. But the land beneath it was now worth more than ever: $184,500, up from $63,000 the year before.

Woolsoncroft argued the land should be deemed worthless, too. “The only value the land would have is if the concrete silos were removed,” he wrote to the property valuation referee. “It would cost more to remove them than the land is worth.”

Six weeks later, he learned the county agreed with him.

That’s rare, said Rob Ogden, the county assessor. He couldn’t think of any other commercial building-and-land combination in Lincoln with no taxable value, though he knew of a couple parking lots assessed at zero.

“That grain elevator needs to be torn down to make that land worth anything,” Ogden said. “And the cost of tearing down the concrete monster comes up to more than what the value of the land is.”

But the land clearly has some value. A similar but slightly larger lot next door was assessed at $322,000, even though its primary building, a steel shed, was valued at zero. The old ice warehouse to the north is sitting on a larger lot valued at more than $450,000.

Ogden agreed. And if his office could, it would assign a negative value to the elevator, to reflect its cost of demolition, and a positive value to the lot. Even if they canceled each other out -- even if the combined assessment still fell to zero -- it would be more accurate.

But his office’s system won’t allow that, he said.

Woolsoncroft wouldn’t even try to estimate the cost of tearing down the elevator and its 7-inch concrete walls. But any talk of demolition is misguided, he said.

“Everybody thinks I need to get rid of it and tear it down. Why? You got a structure there that’s stronger than all get out.”

Woolsoncroft can look past the steel grates, the graffiti left by others and his own spray-painted Keep Out messages, and see potential.

He asks: Have you ever heard of the hotel in Akron, Ohio, that used to be a grain elevator?

He stayed in that Hilton once, now an Akron University residence hall. It was converted from an old 36-silo Quaker Oats elevator into nearly 200 round rooms, with windows and balconies cut through its thick concrete walls.

He has a similar but smaller vision for Sixth and G: He can see his silos holding 72 condos or hotel rooms. Years ago, he even paid an architect in Minneapolis thousands of dollars to draw up the plans, he said. He talked to city officials, he said, though he recalled they kind of laughed at his plan.

He hasn’t given up on the idea. He doesn’t have the millions it would cost to convert the building, or to buy additional nearby property he’d need, so money is a problem. But confidence isn’t.

“I’ve been thinking about this ever since I bought it.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter

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