August 5, 2008

Razing Trouble to Rebuild Minneapolis

By Steve Brandt, Star Tribune, Minneapolis

Aug. 5--Gordy Knox was leaning over the front gate of his duplex when the wreckers arrived next door Monday, followed by news photographers.

"Here come the cameras again," Knox directed at the nearest city official, Tom Deegan.

"I see you guys are finally getting around to it."

"This one today, and that one in three weeks," said Deegan, manager of the boarded- and vacant-building unit in Minneapolis, motioning to the house on the other side of Knox's duplex.

"Yesterday wouldn't have been too soon to me," landlord Knox told a reporter.

After a news conference, a backhoe went to work on 2914 Dupont Av. N., the first of scores of foreclosed houses in Minneapolis that will be razed with $1.25 million of aid from Hennepin County.

The aim is to double the number of demolished boarded properties to 100 this year and give some hope to the patch of Minnesota most damaged by the foreclosure crisis.

The backhoe's blade sliced through walls of lath and studs like paper.

Soon Knox, who said he had been calling the city for demolition since the house was boarded in 2006, was a happier man.

The demolition of 2914 took so long to happen because every time the house got boarded, someone would remove the boards and start the clock over again, Deegan said.

"We need productive properties on the tax base, not shells," said Mike Opat, a Hennepin County Commissioner, at the third news conference held on the block in less than five months. He pushed for the $1.25 million in aid the county is providing.

The city is required to pay $875,000 back to the county by the end of 2010. That figure represents its average collection rate on demolition costs assessed against the properties and paid by the current or future owner.

A long, troubled decline

The 2900 block of Dupont Avenue N. is home to an uneven combination of vacant lots left behind by demolitions in years past, buildings with fine architectural details but worn by years of hard use, and new houses built several years ago when the area's housing market was stronger.

Before its demise, 2914 Dupont recorded 126 housing and other violations since 1990, according to city files. At times, it lacked required grass in its yard, was open to trespass, had uncut weeds and a junk car, attracted trash and was marked by graffiti.

The house was one of 930 homes registered as vacant and boarded in the city. About 550 of them have been condemned, often needing extensive work and a complete inspection before they're habitable. That house at 2914 reached that status in 2006 when it was ordered boarded, and a fire in February effectively ended any chance of rehabbing the house.

Making a demolition list

The city so far has judged 96 houses on its boarded list as candidates for demolition, all but six on them on the North Side.

"In order for this city to rebuild itself, we've got to get rid of the poor housing stock that is driving the prices down," said Peter Teachout, chairman of the Hawthorne Area Community Council.

The neighborhood had no trouble coming up with about 20 candidates for demolition, according to its housing staffer, Jeff Skrenes. The city evaluates the houses for such factors as the cost of rehab, historical value, condition and neighborhood vacancy rates before demolition is ordered.

Officials aren't sure why, but 2914 was stuffed with photocopy machines and other office equipment that had to be cleared out before demolition. Often, people use vacant houses to get rid of materials they don't want to pay to dump, Deegan said.

That junk made it hard for firefighters when a two-alarm arson fire started on the house's second floor.

Now, 2914 is history. Knox, a small-time landlord who drives in daily from Champlin to check on his place or cut grass, now has a new ambition for his neighboring lots.

"I'm hoping that they'll probably put a couple of new houses in like they did over there," he said, waving his arm across the street.

Steve Brandt --612-673-4438


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