Saint Paul STRONG
December 21, 2015
Last Thursday night, the City of Saint Paul’s Heritage Preservation Commission denied the Saint Paul Department of Planning and Economic Development’s request to move forward on the demolition of two commercial properties in Dayton’s Bluff without a public hearing. Despite being staffed by PED, the HPC deemed public input to be appropriate and vital in guiding its decision.
Saint Paul STRONG, the citizens group formed in October calling for the public to have a greater voice at City Hall, hailed the HPC’s decision for a full airing of the issue. After hearing testimony, the HPC voted to deny PED’s request to extend its one-year deadline to allow the City to proceed with demolition.
The two commercial properties, identified by neighbors as the Shornstein Garage and the Schacht Block, represent key aspects of turn-of-the-century life in Saint Paul’s only historic district established to preserve the city’s working class history.
PED purchased the two properties along with five other residential buildings over 10 years ago, for historic redevelopment, at a cost of over $700,000. Last summer, Dayton’s Bluff neighbors were surprised to learn that PED had decided to demolish all seven properties, claiming they were too expensive to redevelop. At the same time, they learned that PED had sought and received HPC approval for the demolition of the Schact and Shornstein buildings early in 2014.
Fighting back against what they have termed to be PED’s “demolition derby,” neighbors discovered that the HPC approval PED received in 2014 had expired.
“Rather than apply for new demolition permits which would have triggered a public hearing,” noted former Saint Paul City Councilmember and preservationist Tom Dimond, “PED opted to grant itself a one-year extensive of the demolition permits without seeking HPC permission.”
Neighbors cried foul, and the City Attorney agreed that PED had to go back to the HPC to seek the extension. Yet, both the City Attorney and PED advised the HPC that it was not required to hold a public hearing to grant the demolition extension.
“To the credit of the HPC,” Dimond said, “members voted to allow public testimony and then voted unanimously to deny extension of the demolition permits. The commission cited the strong public interest and information provided as key factors in their decision.”
“When you consider that PED staffs the HPC and the Housing and Redevelopment Authority, which was the entity under which the buildings were purchased,” said Dimond, “The public is indeed fortunate that HPC advocated for a more open and democratic process.
In October, the HPC denied PED’s request for demolition permits for the other five residential properties in the Dayton’s Bluff historic district. Determined to proceed with demolition, PED filed an appeal on behalf of the HRA to the City Council. The HRA is made up of the seven members of the City Council.
“What is wrong with this picture?” said Dimond. “We have PED spending three quarters of a million dollars to purchase these properties, most of which were in habitable condition when they bought them. PED never put the buildings up for sale, and worse than that, never maintained them. Any private citizen who neglected buildings to this extent would have been criminally cited for letting their properties fall into this level of disrepair.
“Instead, PED - now wearing its HRA hat - decides to spend more taxpayer money to demolish the buildings, despite calls from neighbors throughout the summer and fall seeking to explore redevelopment options,” continues Dimond. “When the HPC, staffed by PED, sides with neighbors, PED files an appeal as the HRA (made up of the seven members of the City Council) to the City Council.
“The same PED staff that purchased and neglected the properties, illegally granted itself a demolition extension and got its hand slapped is now appealing the decision – and doesn’t want public input?” asked Dimond. “And the same seven elected officials happen to be both the appellants and the judges in this matter? Is this the way taxpayers expect their city to operate?”
Dimond concluded, “This is exactly why Saint Paul STRONG was established. The public needs to see the way the City is making decisions to spend taxpayer dollars. This level of legal and political maneuvering by PED staff needs to be viewed in the full light of day.”
Saint Paul STRONG supports neighbors having a greater voice in City decisions affecting their neighborhood. The recent Heritage Preservation Decision (HPC) decision halting a planned Demolition Derby in the Dayton's Bluff Historic District demonstrated the power of community voices.
Saint Paul Planning and Economic Development (PED) and the Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) are staffed by the same people. Essentially, when the HRA asks PED for approval it is asking itself for the okay. The Director who is responsible for ensuring the protection of the historic resources in the historic district is also the person applying for permits to demolish them.
Two demolition permits were issued before the neighborhood realized what was happening and could get organized. However PED never applied for the permits within the one year time limit. The HPC approval expired. PED had even notified itself in writing that the approval would expire within a year but failed to act.
The neighborhood appealed the decision. The law requires Heritage Preservation Commission approval. The City Attorney agreed.
City Attorney and PED letters to the Heritage Preservation Commission did point out that the Commission could decide not to hold a public hearing. This would deny neighborhood residents the opportunity to speak but allow the PED Director and PED staff to speak.
Saint Paul STRONG supports neighbors having a greater voice in City decisions affecting their neighborhood.
Contact: Tom Dimond 651 735-6667 John Mannillo, Saint Paul STRONG 651 292-8306