Painted Ladies in Distress

MOST OF US know the incongruous when we see it, and for those of us who regularly drive north on the stretch of I-35 that crosses Lake Street, we see it often: a few meticulously renovated Victorian houses sprinkled in among a mass of forsaken board-ups without much more than a wish and a prayer for support. At rush hour, during the five seconds or so it takes to whiz past this long block, motorists veer across two lanes of traffic for a good glimpse of these Painted Ladies. The houses themselves, against the otherwise drab neighborhood backdrop, look as if they took a wrong turn en route to the west coast and wound up here, at the end of an exit ramp.

David Piehl purchased one of these houses--3127 Third Avenue South--back in 1992. Twenty-four of the properties along this stretch had recently been added to local, state, and federal registers as part of a historic district, and what Sharon Sayles Belton called "the jewel of Central neighborhood" looked to reign high on the bragging list of urban renewal projects. These houses were the stomping ground of Minneapolis high society at the turn of the century. T.P. Healy, an architect from Nova Scotia, built over 100 of these upper-crust haunts back in the late 1800s--ornate, towering things with enough spires and balustrades to keep a fleet of craftsmen in prosperity for years. When Piehl bought his property, just over half of these Healy beauties remained, the rest sacrificed to the construction of I-35 that chopped through the district in the 1960s, long after the Hudsons and the Smiths had repaired to Kenwood.

What he and many of his rehab-happy new neighbors were promised, says Piehl, was help from the city in the form of seed money and low-interest loans for restoration, cooperation by local inspectors, and, as it turns out most crucially, the sale and rehab of three former crack houses in the district that were owned by the MCDA. For their part, residents promised that this venture would spur a renovation ripple effect in the surrounding blocks, and breathe new life into an area known more for its murder rate than its architecture. But that's not what happened.

Instead, according to Healy Block residents, the MCDA blew the deal. The three houses that the agency swore would be sold and renovated by now remain incongruous sore spots on the block, in turn depressing adjacent property values. Piehl, one of those leading the charge, calls the MCDA's inertia "a real shame, especially with these historic houses. Every year that passes--what with freezing and thawing, vandalism, neglect, natural settling--means a more expensive rehab when it finally, if ever, gets done." And not getting these houses done hasn't been for lack of interested buyers. Healy residents know plenty of qualified folks who've passed through with high hopes of buying the properties, and left in disgust after being given what one neighbor calls "the ridiculous MCDA runaround"--meaning "sweetheart deals with lousy contractors that keep things stalled out, miles of strings attached to financing, and stringent compliance rules no one could possibly adhere to. Buyers just get dizzy with all the bureaucracy, throw up their hands and leave. And who can blame them? It's as if the MCDA doesn't really want these houses to be saved."

Some area residents are on the brink of suing the MCDA on the grounds that reasonable buyers for the three disputed properties have been unreasonably turned down, and that the agency's architect has sabotaged the process by refusing to work with certain key contractors--all at the expense of residents who bought their houses with the MCDA's hearty assurances that the district would be near completion by now.

The MCDA, for its part, invited a handful of Healyites down to its offices a couple weeks ago. It was, say survivors, tense. Accusations flew fast and furious around the room, as they have over the phone lines for months now. By early this week, the MCDA had agreed to turn the three orphans over to a developer, the Powderhorn Residents Group, which will then complete renovation and market each house for upwards of $100,000 by next summer. Piehl calls this compromise a "best last resort," but points out that such an arrangement will likely cost "tens of thousands of dollars more than a private buyer would have spent, only because that buyer would put a lot of their own sweat equity into the rehab, while city-sponsored contractors squeeze the deal for all they can get." And, despite more pledges of quick action by the MCDA, residents are keeping the threat of a lawsuit close at hand in case this new promise, too, turns out to be history.

 
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