This Land Is Our Land

There goes the neighborhood: Julie Miller says her block is unrecognizable since Children's Hospital began an expansion project

There goes the neighborhood: Julie Miller says her block is unrecognizable since Children's Hospital began an expansion project

Julie Miller has a hard time remembering what her Columbus Avenue block in south Minneapolis looked like when she moved in nearly six years ago. In the last six months, three 100-year-old-plus homes on her street have disappeared. Bulldozers have bitten holes through the center of part of the historic block. And remains from trees older than the stately Victorian structures are splayed across the now muddied lots.

Miller learned about what would happen to her Phillips West neighborhood only by mistake last summer. She stumbled upon a copy of minutes from an Abbott Northwestern Community Advisory Committee meeting from April 2005 that detailed Children's Hospital's plans to build a medical office building and parking ramp on Chicago Avenue, between 25th and 26th streets. No one had informed Miller or her neighbors about the hospital's plans.

Since then, Children's Hospital has acquired 10 of the 19 properties on the Columbus and Chicago Avenue blocks, and demolished six of them. Just purchasing the homes is a direct violation of a land-use covenant that has been in place for decades. "Buildings that were originally built as housing," the covenant states, "will not be purchased/rented for health-related use." In 1998, the "binding agreement" was revised and signed by Allina, Abbott Northwestern, and Children's Hospital.

Miller, like other property owners in the area, had previously been told by a man named Jim Dowds that he and his company Prima Land, Inc. were purchasing the seven homes to make space for Chicago Avenue apartments. Residents, however, believe Dowds was purchasing the properties on behalf of Children's Hospital—which indeed now owns the parcels. (Dowds did not return phone calls from CP seeking comment.)

"[The hospital has] basically come in and accomplished the goals of eminent domain," says Miller. "This just sets a precedent for what the hospital can come in and do to the rest of the neighborhood without approval."

The neighborhood is part of a biotech initiative backed by Mayor R.T. Rybak. Designated the "Life Sciences Corridor" in 2003 in an effort to foster the city's health care sector through major tax breaks, the 25-block stretch that runs from the Metrodome to Lake Street is made up of 19 health care institutions and medical-device companies. Rybak is the board's chair. "This is simply the result of the mayor being in cahoots with the medical community," Miller says. "Residents here have little recourse."

This isn't the first time a hospital in the corridor has been the catalyst for contentious rehabs and developments. Allina's presence has virtually reshaped Midtown in recent months, causing property values to skyrocket and forcing out longtime business owners along Lake Street. With the current Children's expansion, Phillips West residents are feeling more squeezed than ever.

Clifford Olson owned rental property on Chicago Avenue and 25th Street. Last year, he received a handful of inspection notices from the city outlining repairs that became so costly he decided it would serve him better to tear down the duplex. In the 32 years he'd owned the building, the only notice Olson received previously was for grass that had grown too high. Other rental owners also received hefty fines for the first time. Olson and other neighbors wonder if the city is trying to drive out residents by breaking them financially.

"Is it a coincidence? I don't know," Olson says. Olson, now a supporter of Children's Hospital, suggests that the land deals raised the suspicion of people in the neighborhood. "But if I had been the hospital director in charge of purchasing land," he says, "I might have done the same thing."

Dan Kratz, the senior director for business development at Children's, says Dowds was putting together his own apartment project, and that Children's purchased the seven parcels of land from him in September or October of 2005. (However, the Hennepin County property tax database says, for instance, that Children's purchased 2516 Chicago, a property Dowds told residents he bought, in October 2004.) Soon after, Children's purchased a triplex, a duplex, and a BP gas station in the neighborhood.

Kratz maintains that the hospital has been sensitive to the community and informed residents of plans for construction of a six-level parking ramp and 120,000-square-foot medical building that will also serve as family accommodations. "We had been discussing it for many months with the Community Advisory Committee," Kratz says. He also says the hospital currently has all the property it needs for that plan.

Susan Lynn, an artist who rents one of the seven studio spaces at the former Methodist Episcopal church on East 26th Street nearby, isn't so sure Children's is done buying up properties. "They've said that before," Lynn notes. In January, the hospital purchased two homes on Columbus after Kratz vowed at a September meeting that the rest of that street's properties were of no interest to the hospital. "It feels like we're having the rug pulled out from under us." Since the late 1990s, the church's sanctuary performance hall has been hosting nationally recognized experimental noise-rock shows. Children's had previously expressed interest in the 97-year-old property, but has since backed off.

Kratz says Children's Hospital will likely submit its final plan to the neighborhood in June. Though Children's already has demolished six homes on the block, the hospital hasn't received approvals or permits for any of their construction plans from the city's zoning and planning department. And Kratz does admit the current plans for the neighborhood could again change depending on city requirements. And if the neighborhood doesn't approve of it? "That will be the city's issue to deal with."