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.

 

Katrina Harrison wasn't at the city hall meeting. But she heard about it, and the Preservation Alliance's recognition for East Phillips, through the neighborhood grapevine, and the news rekindled her hope for the little house next door. She'd pretty much given up, she says, after seeing Vanessa Stephens's efforts fail. She knew that the neighborhood group had approved another demolition permit, and that the bulldozers could show up any day. But as the lawn at 1816 turned green, she resolved to try one more time.

On June 15 Harrison, Stephens, various neighbors, and a phalanx of fresh-faced volunteers from the community group ACORN staged a protest in front of the MCDA's downtown headquarters. After a few chants of "Save our homes!" director-designate Cramer came out and promised to meet with the protesters the following afternoon.

Anderson slept well that night. As she was sipping her coffee the next morning, though, she heard "a beep-beep-beep. I looked out the window, and there was the bulldozer." She raced out and begged the demolition crew to wait. As luck would have it, the workers said they had another job nearby. They'd tackle it first, they promised, and return the next Monday.

The meeting Cramer had promised was held at the Project for Pride in Living headquarters on Chicago Avenue, in a small conference room around a big table. Harrison told her story; then Sue Anderson spoke up. Very little progress had been made, she said, since Cramer's talk of a "paradigm shift" nearly a month before. Realtor Dean Eichaker had compiled a list of 20 agents from Coldwell alone who wanted to sell MCDA houses. "But he has not received any marketing sheets, he has no information about lock boxes, and it took three weeks for the MCDA to come up with a list of the houses that they own in the Phillips neighborhood."

Cramer said he was "disappointed" to hear that. But, he added, the agenda today was not to rehash the earlier discussion, only to talk about 1816 15th Ave. S.

At that, Bob Roscoe weighed in from across the table. "It seems as though something could be done here," he said. "For death-row prisoners, all it takes is one phone call from the governor." But MCDA policy, Cramer replied, allowed no last-minute pardons. "This has gone through a process, as flawed as you think it is," he explained. "What's helpful about this [meeting] is learning what we can do better."

What the residents didn't know was that even before they sat down at the table, Edie Oates had begun making phone calls to seal the fate of 1816. She'd called Niland to discuss the dispatching of officers from the Minneapolis Police Department's C.C.P./SAFE unit. She'd phoned her MCDA co-worker, engineering inspector Mike Williams, to arrange for a demolition crew the next morning.

"It was a political deal," Williams says. "I was instructed to tear it down with the least political opposition. Edie called and said we need to get this one down. So--it cost us some money to do this--but I pulled this crew off another job and brought them up here."

Oates says she took action because the controversy had gone on too long. "There comes a time when there's got to be a line in the sand," she explains. "Otherwise the MCDA becomes part of the problem, the owner of vacant, boarded, and condemned houses that are causing problems in the neighborhood."

"You know," she continues with a hint of frustration, "the only houses you ever hear about are the ones where we throw up our hands and say we need to demolish. I do think that it's unfortunate that this house wasn't savable. But I would be a liar if I didn't say that a part of me is relieved, thinking, 'Good, we don't have to fight about this anymore.'"

She pauses, her eyes fixed on the ground. "I am sad to see it go down," she finally says. "But not every old house is worth saving. Some old houses are just that--old houses."

 

It's almost noon on the 1800 block of 15th Avenue South. The crew is working on the back end of the lot while the excavator levels what remains of the brick façade. The pile of rubble under the Deere's tracks is now nearly six feet high.

But the neighbors seem reluctant to leave. They've fallen quiet, wandering around aimlessly, occasionally picking up chunks of debris. Katrina Harrison fingers a brick and idly brushes off a cobweb. "Fifteenth Avenue was once quite glamorous," she says moodily. "It had a trolley line that neighbors could look down all the way into downtown."

She walks over to her own house, built in the 1980s by an MCDA-contracted nonprofit developer. "I'm happy to have my home," she says. "But the woodwork is put together with staples. It's popping out.

"My mom bought an old Victorian two doors down. It was a house that Edie felt should come down. But HUD got it--gave it an asking price of $12,000 and 47 people signed in to see it. At the time Edie said, 'Oh, HUD would sell an outhouse.' But it's beautiful. My house can never compare."

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