A group of preservationists and neighborhood residents are hoping to prevent St. Paul officials from carrying out what's been dubbed a "demolition derby" in the Dayton's Bluff historic district.
The city is looking to tear down at least seven buildings -- all but one built in the 1800s -- and get approval, from itself, to do it by year's end.
Residents complain that they've been cut out of the process and that projected costs to rehabilitate the buildings have been unrealistic. Economic times have changed, they argue, and more people might be willing to step up and give the buildings a look toward rehabilitation.
"Given how long the city has owned and even neglected these, there is confusion what the urgency is now," said Carol Carey, a Dayton's Bluff resident who is also executive director of Historic St. Paul. As a member of Preserve Frogtown LLC -- which has renovated two homes in the Frogtown neighborhood -- Carey is also involved in talks with the city to attempt to renovate the Dayton's Bluff properties.
City officials say they've done all they could to save the buildings -- putting out multiple requests for proposals in past years -- to no avail.
The city has rehabbed 16 historic buildings in the area, but these buildings have become eyesores beyond saving, they say.
"There is a point where after you've (put out requests for proposals) three times, not getting responses or numbers so high they're not viable," said Patty Lilledahl, director of housing for the city's Department of Planning and Economic Development, "these properties can be a blighting influence in the neighborhood, and some neighbors aren't happy about that.
"At some point, you have to make a determination."
Some residents note that that "point" happens to land on the last month the current city council members -- who will ultimately decide the buildings' fates -- retain their seats.
Jane Prince, who just won the ward's city council election this week but has yet to be seated, said she reached out to the city's Department of Planning and Economic Development about discussing the issue with some of the neighbors but was rebuffed.
Other neighbors say they've been trying to reach out since August -- while city officials said their first formal contact was just last month. Additionally, city officials confirmed they're still talking with Preserve Frogtown, though they haven't dropped an appeal to tear down the homes.
"I think it's very possible that in some kind of community process that the neighbors would come to an agreement about saving some of them and losing some," Prince said. "There are things we could talk about if people of good faith would come together. I know it isn't all or nothing for the neighbors."
The city purchased the properties between 2007 and 2010, mostly with federal funds, as part of its "Inspiring Communities" housing redevelopment program, designed to pump lifeblood back into deteriorating neighborhoods.
Most of the buildings -- at 716 Wilson St.; 208-210, 216-218, and 275 Bates Ave.; 700 and 767 Fourth St. E., and 737 Plum St. -- had been vacant for a year or more.
Built between 1857 and 1930, the buildings are all examples of architecture from what Dayton's Bluff historians consider a "period of significance," when new immigrants from Sweden, Ireland and Germany, coming to work at railroads and factories, settled on the bluff.
The city spent $733,000 to acquire the buildings, mostly with federal funding.
Since then, the city has put out requests for proposals to renovate the structures multiple times, and put some of the properties up for sale for as little as $1.
The proposals that came back were all high -- far above the $150,000 gap between rehab costs and selling price the city was willing to accept. A review of five properties by the Pioneer Press showed proposals with "subsidies" (losses) ranging between $255,000 and $550,000, with the majority in the $300,000 range.
"We've been trying. We've offered them with subsidy, with $150,000. We even said they could request even more than that," said Joe Musolf, a project manager for the city's Department of Planning and Economic Development.
Tom Dimond, a former council member who has rehabbed historic buildings in Dayton's Bluff, disputes the figures -- calling the high bids "bogus," born out of fear from contractors protecting themselves because they don't know what they're getting into. And others had added work that had nothing to do with saving the essential structure.
In particular, he points to the house on Wilson Street -- one in which the city noted proposed subsides in the $480,000 to $550,000 range, as part of a multi-building proposal.
Among other things, the proposal included tacking on two additional bedrooms to the two-bedroom house.
"Those numbers are outrageous. ... Adding two bedrooms and a bath has nothing to do with the historic district or actual costs to make this property habitable," Dimond said. That proposal was the only one for the home.
"Most of the properties do need a significant amount of work," Dimond acknowledged, before adding, "People do this work all the time without spending those kinds of dollars. These are modest, working-class houses."
City officials replied that, "It's in the developer's best interest to provide cost estimates that are competitive, so that they have the best chance to win the bid. They do not have a reason to inflate the costs."
Structural engineering reviews of five of the homes conducted in September by Minneapolis-based Mattson Macdonald Young each carried the same phrase: "Repairs are possible, but would likely be very costly."
Mattson's analysis in some cases noted sagging roofs, water damage, foundation walls "crumbling, cracking and bulging," bent shoring columns and, in one case, a collapsed chimney.
"Nobody's asking for the houses to be rehabbed regardless," said Carey, of Historic St. Paul. "People really just want an opportunity to be part of the process. There is some question along the continuum of do nothing and doing absolutely everything at an incredibly high standard at great cost."
In October, the Heritage Preservation Commission, an advisory panel to the mayor and council, denied demolition requests for five of the seven buildings by the city's Housing and Redevelopment Authority. Two of the seven buildings -- at 208-210 and 216-218 Bates -- had already been approved for demolition during a prior meeting.
Originally, commission staff had recommended tearing down some of the five buildings. But following a packed hearing in which residents complained they'd had little input and few options had been explored, the commission ruled against demolishing any of them.
"We feel there needs to be more of an effort to fully explore and exhaust all of our rehab solutions and balance that against the immediate impact that demolition would have on the historic district," said David Wagner, who serves on the executive committee of the Preservation Commission. "That loss of fabric would be immediate and forever."
On Dec. 2, the redevelopment authority, whose voting members are made up of St. Paul City Council members, plans to appeal that decision to the St. Paul City Council. Essentially, the members will be appealing to themselves. It will be a public hearing, with a decisive vote likely that day.
The cost to demolish five of the buildings could run up to $98,000, with costs for the remaining two yet to be estimated.
A Pioneer Press review of the city's "Inspiring Communities" housing rehabilitation program in May showed the city spent roughly $45 million, mostly in federal funds, to acquire 391 properties. Of those, it had fixed up and sold 192 of them and paid for the construction of 82 more, some of which are on the market.
Tad Vezner can be reached at 651-228-5461 or follow him @SPnoir.
Correction: This story has been updated to correctly state the "period of significance" timeframe. The timeframe stretches from 1857 to 1930, and thus includes all seven properties reported to be under consideration for demolition.