Bringing Down the House

Taxpayers spent $65,000 to demolish the old Victorian at 1816 15th Ave. S. A buyer wanted to invest at least that much to fix it up. Make sense? You bet, says the Minneapolis Community Development Agency.

THE EARLY-SUMMER SUN HASN'T YET BURNED THE DEW FROM the grassy back yard when the yellow John Deere fires up its engine and arches to full size, its hydraulic arm towering over the little two-story house. Rubber tracks dig into soft ground; a mulberry tree snaps like a sprig of parsley in the grip of the large, toothy bucket. Then the ground shudders again and the excavator--jaws dribbling with leaves and shredded branches--lumbers toward its prey.

The teeth hover over the back of the house, then dig in with a loud, splintering crunch. A few bites make short work of a wooden addition. Without the sagging lean-to, the brick Victorian looks slimmed down, strikingly handsome, much the way it must have appeared when it was built more than a century ago.

The yellow machine lurches back on its tracks as if to admire the two-story one last time. The engine idles. Then the Deere jerks in and takes a bite of brick. "There goes Vanessa's kitchen," says Katrina Harrison as an inside wall appears, the off-white paint still showing the outlines of a stove and refrigerator.

Michael Dvorak

Harrison lives next door to 1816 15th Ave. S.; she has brought her preschool daughter to watch the demolition. Her husband John Strot stands a few steps away, puffing furiously on an American Spirit. A handful of other neighbors wander in from the alley. All eyes are solemnly focused on the jerky motion of the Deere's jaws.

"You know," muses Harrison, "when the water guys came last week to shut off the water, they had to call in and double-check. They couldn't believe that this was the right house. It looked too good."

Harrison glances over her shoulder, hikes the sleepy girl up on her hip, and heads toward a woman with long, gray hair standing alone in a narrow patch of sun. "We deserved 24-hour notice, Edie," she says, then nods toward the four police officers who stand side by side, arms crossed, near the edge of the lot. "Seems like everyone knew but us."

The woman takes a breath and seems about to reply, then turns her gaze to the ground. Finally she says, flatly, "I was unaware that they had guaranteed a 24-hour notice."

"They" are the Minneapolis Community Development Agency, which owns the building, and "they" haven't guaranteed anything in the year during which Harrison and her neighbors struggled to save 1816. The advocates held rallies at city hall, asked for meetings with Minneapolis's powers that be, even lined up a buyer willing to make more than $100,000 worth of renovations on the house.

The way Edie Oliveto-Oates, the MCDA's project coordinator for the Phillips neighborhood, sees it, it was all futile, an effort to preserve a house too far gone. And today she and her bosses are determined to put an end to the nonsense.

There's a loud crash, and all heads turn toward the yellow excavator, now standing in the middle of what used to be the kitchen, a four-foot mound of detritus under its tracks. Its jaws have fastened on a toilet, effortlessly shearing it into pieces; motes of debris fly through the air, causing the spectators to squint and cover their mouths with T-shirts.

The head of the demo crew walks deliberately through the crowd and up to Oates. "Brick houses are more time-consuming," he says. "But we're making good progress." By noon, he predicts, the little Victorian will be nothing more than a sodden mass of brick, lumber, and insulation.

It won't be the first, or the last, to end up this way. In some form or another, the scene playing out at 1816 15th this morning of June 17 is repeated hundreds of times in Minneapolis each year; in 1998, according to the Department of Inspections, the city issued permits to demolish 281 single-family homes and duplexes. More than a quarter of those structures were owned by the MCDA.

Which is why a growing number of residents, real estate experts, and historic preservationists have taken to calling it the "Minneapolis Community Destruction Agency." Many of the buildings the agency is tearing down, they argue, are structurally sound and could be renovated by buyers eager to snap up historic, affordable properties. "Right now, the market is starving for housing stock," says Dean Eichaker, a real estate agent who lives four blocks from the brick Victorian. "That house--built with care and deliberation--would have sold, no question in my mind."

Architect and Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission member Bob Roscoe concurs, adding that the MCDA seems mired in a time when "the bulldozer [was] the revitalization tool of choice. We should know better by now. But we're having a relapse." And nowhere, Roscoe and other advocates say, is the relapse more apparent than in Phillips, the city neighborhood richest in turn-of-the-century houses.


Corinne Zala lives in one of those houses, and she has developed and sold dozens of others through her one-woman nonprofit Neighbors Helping Neighbors. Its headquarters is a closet-sized nook with lots of windows, a big desk, and a computer that is never more than a few mouse clicks away from the online neighborhood gathering place

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