On a Tuesday afternoon Bob Lunak slowly drives his black Ford Ranger through a quiet neighborhood just east of Penn Avenue South, north of Interstate 494. Red and white yard signs dot the front lawns of modest, post-World War II ramblers and bungalows--"Another Richfield Neighbor Supports Best Buy!" Many of the homes are in need of a paint job or a new roof, but Lunak can see only opportunity. "Look at these beautiful houses," he gushes, pointing right and left with one hand, navigating with the other. "Look at 'em! They're just beautiful. Anybody who says these are dilapidated needs glasses."
Where Lunak finds hope, the City of Richfield sees only blight. By the end of summer the 68 homes that sit along a three-block rectangle running east to west from Penn to Morgan avenues and north to south from 76th to 77th streets are slated to be demolished. The area, which sits in the shadow of two mammoth Walser auto dealerships and is known as Interchange West, is set to become the new $160 million corporate headquarters of Best Buy Co.; the keystone of Richfield's plan to transform itself from humble inner-ring suburb to burgeoning center of commerce.
The publicly traded company is in the midst of closing deals on all 68 homes, as well as commercial properties in the area, and hopes to break ground by the end of summer. If all goes according to plan, Best Buy will begin moving its 5,000 employees from Eden Prairie to a four-building, 42-acre corporate campus by the end of 2002.
Lunak is not in Best Buy's plans. He is a home mover, as was his father and as is his son. In 55 years of business Lunak House Movers has done work all over the Twin Cities, helping to clear the way for I-494 and I-35, along with Highways 100 and 62. Now he wants to add Interchange West to his résumé. The process of moving a house involves constructing a nest of wood and steel beams in the basement, literally jacking the shelter from its foundation, rolling it onto a truck, and, under cover of night, transporting it to a different plot of land. "It's like going down the road with a semi, only you're wider, longer, and higher," Lunak explains.
In September Jock Shields, a business associate of Lunak's, contacted Opus Northwest, the Minneapolis-based developer hired by Best Buy, and offered to purchase 33 of the Richfield homes. Shields and Lunak were only interested in one-story dwellings that wouldn't get tangled up in electrical or telephone wires. The pair claimed that in two weeks they could transplant all the structures from Interchange West to an empty lot to await new buyers, who could then move their house to a new foundation. "We can get them out of there just about as fast as they can be wrecked," maintains Lunak. "With the affordable-housing market the way it is in Minnesota, I'll advertise 'em and they'll sell like hotcakes. I'd probably sell ten the first week."
Shields will not disclose how much he offered to pay Best Buy for each house (for fear of tainting future business deals), but whatever the price the company was not selling. The homes remain slated for the bulldozer. "It's corporate waste," says Shields. "We're trying to recycle homes; we're trying to create affordable housing."
Best Buy dismisses the duo's carping as sour grapes. "This is about a business proposition that was brought to Best Buy," says spokeswoman Joy Harris. "Best Buy declined the business proposal and now these folks are looking to turn this into news and we don't believe it is."
Best Buy also points out that Lunak and Shields aren't being wholly altruistic. The two would resell the homes at a substantial markup and pocket the difference. "It's our business," counters Lunak. "It's what we've been doing for 55 years. Of course we expect to gain."
Regardless of Lunak and Shields's motives, 68 homes are slated to be destroyed--a fact that has housing advocates up in arms. "It's unconscionable, during a housing crisis, that we would tear down structurally sound houses," says Greg Finzell, executive director of the Rondo Community Land Trust, a nonprofit housing developer in St. Paul. "They should be evaluated, and those that can be moved ought to be moved."
Best Buy maintains that moving the houses poses legal and environmental problems. They refuse, however, to comment on exactly what those problems might be. Spokeswoman Harris does point out, however, that Best Buy will try to salvage and recycle everything from concrete to copper before destroying the homes.
One obstacle to moving the homes can be traced to the City of Richfield and the steps it has taken to jump-start development in the area. In 1993, six years before Best Buy was in the city's sights, Interchange West was designated a tax-increment-financing district. The classification allows the city to purchase and clear properties for a public purpose and then use the increased property taxes from development to repay any expenses incurred. But the city also had to prove to the state that at least 50 percent of the properties in the area were substandard, an assessment that the city continues to stand by. "We're not gonna move something that's substandard in Richfield just to be substandard somewhere else," says city administrator Samantha Orduno.
"There's nothing wrong with those houses," declares Saundra Spigner, a representative on the Metropolitan Council. "We should be able to use those houses on scattered lots and they become homes for the working poor."
Lunak's proposal is not the only controversy kicked up by the Best Buy deal. The Walser family, who owns two auto dealerships in the area, has filed several lawsuits against Richfield in an effort to hold on to its property. So far those legal actions have failed. Walser is under a Hennepin County District Court judge's orders to vacate by June 15.
Another lawsuit was filed earlier this month by the Richfield CARE Team, a group of residents opposed to the Best Buy deal. The plaintiffs, who live outside the Interchange West neighborhood, are concerned about the impact 5,000 commuters will have on traffic and congestion in the area. The suit challenges the city's rejection of a petition asking for a citizen referendum on the development. "The city and Best Buy are going as fast as they can, hoping that the opposition will fold in the face of what looks like overwhelming momentum," says Tom Goodman, the group's lawyer. "They're acting illegally, they're violating the law, and we're calling them on it."
Regardless of the lawsuits, Best Buy and the City of Richfield are plowing ahead. Orduno, the city administrator, claims that it would be logistically impossible to move the houses safely in such a high-traffic area, with both I-35W and I-494 looming nearby. "We move homes all the time, where it's safe to do so," says Orduno, pointing out that Richfield is in the process of relocating 25 homes in the flight path of a new runway at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
But Lunak, who has been transporting homes around the Twin Cities area his whole professional life, says the safety issue is a diversion tactic. "She's full of bull," he declares. "She's just full of bull. They're just trying to cover their asses while they're wrecking these nice, beautiful houses."
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