City HRA pushes for demolition of historic homes, amid resistance

The Gotthielf Christoff House at 737 Plum St., constructed in 1882, could soon be demolished. The city-owned home, which sits in the Dayton’s Bluff historic district is found to have a decent foundation, but rotting floor joists and other issues. (Patrick Larkin/Review)
The Gotthielf Christoff House at 737 Plum St., constructed in 1882, could soon be demolished. The city-owned home, which sits in the Dayton’s Bluff historic district is found to have a decent foundation, but rotting floor joists and other issues. (Patrick Larkin/Review)
The Schacht Building at 208-210 Bates Ave. is a two-story commercial building that’s been approved for demolition. It was designed by architect Charles Neuhausen and constructed as a store and flats in 1885. (Patrick Larkin/Review)
The Schacht Building at 208-210 Bates Ave. is a two-story commercial building that’s been approved for demolition. It was designed by architect Charles Neuhausen and constructed as a store and flats in 1885. (Patrick Larkin/Review)
The Edward McNammee House, at 700 East Fourth Street, is a two story, Queen Anne style house built in 1879 that’s considered to be important to the Dayton’s Bluff historic district. Now owned by the city of St. Paul, the house could soon be demolished. (Patrick Larkin/Review)
The Edward McNammee House, at 700 East Fourth Street, is a two story, Queen Anne style house built in 1879 that’s considered to be important to the Dayton’s Bluff historic district. Now owned by the city of St. Paul, the house could soon be demolished. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

Historic Preservation Committee, neighbors oppose the demolitions

It may be goodbye for some roughed-up historic homes in Dayton's Bluff.

Despite pushback from the city's Heritage Preservation Commission, St. Paul's Housing and Redevelopment Authority will pursue the demolition of seven historic homes in the Dayton's Bluff Heritage Preservation District.

The HRA will pursue the demolition to shed property that it says is too far gone or requires too much subsidy to save.

The decision has some neighbors who are vested in the historic district upset. A group of about 30 says the city could be more creative in its approach, and worries the loss of the properties will strip the area of historic character.

Tom Dimond, a historic renovation professional who's worked on property in Dayton's Bluff, said the HRA's move vexes him.

"The city would be undoing the historic district," Dimond said. "On Ramsey Hill up in the historic district there...Irvine Park, or in the West Summit historic district areas, the city would never ever consider this."

$1 million

In total, the seven properties, if demolished, will have cost the city about $1 million in mostly federal funding.

Of the seven structures, the St. Paul Heritage Preservation Commission voted against the city's request to demolish five of them, a move the HRA is appealing. Christine Boulware, staff member for the HPC, said the HRA challenging the HPC is a rare occurrence.

Two properties, known as the "shock block," the row of commercial and residential structures at 208-210 and 216-218 Bates Ave., were approved for demolition by the HPC last year.

All the homes the HRA is targeting come with ample lists of required repairs and issues, sometimes including severe damage from water coming in, foundation problems, and the like.

Steve Trimble, a Dayton's Bluff resident, neighborhood historian, and member of the HPC, noted that it voted unanimously to oppose the demolition of the five properties in an early October meeting.

"Part of it was the feeling that [the HRA] had not made a real effort to find some alternative use," he explained, adding that he was concerned the neighborhood hadn't had any chance to weigh in.

"I've seen houses in way worse shape get fixed up," he said. "It is a historic district, that should stand for something."

The five properties the HPC and HRA disagree about are 716 Wilson Street, 275 Bates Ave, 700 Fourth St. E., 767 Fourth St. E., and 737 Plum St. All were built prior to 1900, and four of the five are rated by the HPC to be important to the historic character of the neighborhood.

The homes are in varying states of disrepair. About half were acquired by the HRA during the housing downturn, around 2009. As such, the city bought some of them for less than $20,000 a piece.

The city coughed up more, however, for the others, which were properties purchased before the recession.

All of the properties, those purchased both before and after the recession began, were bought using federal housing funds.

In total, the city paid $462,700 for the five properties, which averages out to $61,000 apiece. Throw in the estimated $80,000 required for demolition and the $435,000 the HRA spent acquiring the "shock block," and they'll have spent a little shy of $1 million on acquiring the properties they plan to demolish.

Not economically viable

According to Joe Musolf, project manager from the city's Planning and Economic Development department, the seven buildings were purchased with a variety of outcomes in mind: find a way to get them rehabilitated; hold on to the properties until the market changes; convert the buildings back to single-family housing from duplexes; or demolish them to create space for future development.

The decision to demolish the buildings comes out of several failed attempts to get them rehabilitated through city processes, where the HRA requested proposals for the rehabilitation of properties, offering subsidies to make the projects work.

The properties were offered via request for proposal processes on three separate occasions. Though bids came in to restore the buildings, they required too much subsidy, Musolf said, while other homes offered through those processes were successfully rehabilitated.

For one home slotted for demolition, a proposal came in that required a subsidy of nearly more than twice it's expected resale price.

The one and one half story Victorian home at 767 Plum St. with water damage, broken windows, a decent foundation and less-than historic cement shingle siding was pitched for rehabilitation by a developer at a cost of $470,500 — the projected sale price would have been $165,500, and the difference would have been subsidized to the tune of $305,000. However, that pitch was deemed to be too expensive by the city. Many of the other properties slotted for demolition saw similarly expensive proposals, some requiring closer to $400,000 in subsidies.

More creative?

Cliff Carey, one of the owners of the Stutzman building along East Seventh Street near Metropolitan State University where Swede Hollow Cafe is located, ponders whether the city couldn't find a way to let the properties be fixed up in the private market.

"I understand that the city has to go through certain procedures with whoever they're going to have look at these properties," he said. "But isn't there some point where you can drop the level of requirements to get them out of your hands?"

Musolf noted that most of the properties, since they were purchased with federal funds, are limited in how they can be sold — they can't simply be put on the open market.

Regardless, Carey lamented that in total, the city would end up spending about $1 million on acquiring and eventually demolishing the seven historic properties, with only vacant lots to show for it.

"It's not a good use of taxpayers' money."

That said, he did admit that it was possible the properties could fall into the category of ones that can't be saved. But, he doesn't think that's been fully examined.

"Isn't it worth giving them a chance and maybe seeing if the private sector can come up with a solution for them?" he wondered.

He noted the Stutzman building was once in shambles, and a reasonable candidate for demolition. Yet, a Dayton's Bluff block club bought the building, and now it's a landmark on East Seventh Street.

Though they're pursuing demolition of seven homes, HRA staff notes they've made significant efforts to maintain others in the neighborhood.

"We know that trying to preserve houses in the district is important, which is why we've been doing it," remarked Patty Lilledahl, director of housing for the city's Planning and Economic Development department — she pointed out 16 properties that have been rehabilitated through city efforts in the Dayton's Bluff historic district, which make up 23 housing units.

The city is also working on the historic renovation of Euclid Flats, a 12-unit historic apartment building in the Dayton's Bluff historic district.

City's not willy-nilly

Jim Erchul, director of Dayton's Bluff Neighborhood Housing Services, said he figures the city's done its homework on the properties slotted for demolition — it doesn't pick demolition as an option willy-nilly.

"There is a limitation on resources versus how many vacant houses we still have," he said. "You drive all over the East Side, you still see plenty of houses tagged. Certainly hard choices have to be made."

Offering an example, he noted that the DBNHS's revolving loan fund is for only $325,000, so one of the rehabilitations proposed for the historic properties would eat the organization's whole budget. To a similar end, he figures the city has to pick how to spend a limited pool of money to best improve the housing situation.

Nonetheless, Erchul said he could see where neighbors are coming from — "They're looking at the context of the historic district."

Historic status

The HPC rated all the properties in question, and found most of them to be of historical significance.

The exceptions are 216-218 Bates Avenue, known as the Schornstein Garage, and 716 Wilson Ave. Both are categorized as "Non-Contributing" to the historic district. 716 Wilson's open porch has been closed up and it's covered in vinyl siding.

Three of the homes are listed as "Contributing" to the historic district, while the mixed use building at 208-210 Bates and the house at 275 Bates are said to be "Pivotal" to the historic district. Built in 1884, 275 Bates is a two-story house adorned with noteworthy architectural features.

"The simple massing of the structure and presence of two front entryways make this a unique visual example of late nineteenth century live-work construction within the Dayton's Bluff Heritage Preservation District," a report from the HPC reads.

A report attached to the HPC document states "repairs are possible, but it would likely be very costly."

Boulware, of the city's heritage preservation commission, said those historic designations come from a consideration of the condition of the building, its historical significance, its integrity to its original state, and the impact of the loss to surrounding historic properties. The detailed reports dig up the buildings' histories, lay out the floorplans and features, and assess all the needed repairs. Before historically significant properties are demolished, they're thoroughly documented.

The HRA has no particular plan for the plots after demolition, but any new construction would have to be vetted by the HPC.

New construction in historic districts is required to be compatible with surroundings, including cosidering the massing and scale of buildings, setbacks, detailing, and materials.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.

 

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