How I’d fix the Orth House process shortcomings

Neighbors participate in a candlelight vigil to save the Orth House in August of 2014.

First off, I have to give major credit to my council member Blong Yang over the Orth House. This isn’t because of his vote, although he was one of two to vote against its demolition. It’s because after my last post, he did something that should be far less rare among our elected officials: he responded publicly and directly.

On my personal Facebook page, he posted a link to the Zoning and Planning meeting where the Orth House demolition appeal was granted. At issue for the preservationists has been a sense that the appeal wasn’t handled in a fair enough manner. The city staff position was not in favor of a historic designation that would have made demolition far more difficult for the owner to obtain. And while the staff person did present the Heritage Preservation Committee position, and in some detail, many feel that position was not defended as vigorously as it should have been.

There are two reasons why a better defense of the Orth House was warranted, and one way that similar situations can be avoided in the future. 

First, on a basic level of fairness, both sides did not receive an equal chance to persuade the governing body of their position. The appelant, Michael Crow and the Lander Group, were given a chance to fully express their perspective and the evidence they had to support their opinions–and as appelants they deserved that opportunity. But the other side was presented by a city staff person whose personal and departmental position was in line with the appelant’s.

So what we had was a few minutes of a city staffer saying, in effect, “The HPC position is that the property meets enough criteria as a historic resource that demolition is not warranted, and here are all the reasons why that is wrong. I am open to questions from this board, and then I yield the floor to the folks who propose demolition.” I’m not exaggerating. Here’s the YouTube link. The staffer speaks from about the 1:30 mark and for the next ten minutes or so. At almost every turn, he speaks about why the house should be demolished, or at least why from his perspective the HPC got it wrong. The Heritage Preservation Commission’s position was never fully articulated in this hearing.

Conversely, if you read the minutes of the HPC meeting where their motion passed to place the property under interim protection pending a designation study, you’ll see precisely what their position was and why they arrived at their conclusion. (For the exact context, go to the first link above, then click on the “Colfax Mins” link, and then look at pages 18-24 of that pdf file.)

Throughout that discussion, the prevailing majority of HPC commissioners felt that the property did in fact retain enough historic integrity, and did have enough (potential) historic significance to warrant interim protection. They also expressed a concern that the property was NOT sufficiently marketed, and that while the word “reasonable” is subjective, alternatives to demolition did in fact exist.

To anyone who doubts this assertion, I challenge you: Read the HPC minutes and take note of what that body articulated as their position. Then watch the city staff report during the appeal and see how much, if any, of that position made its way into that presentation. I assure you, the answer is “little to none.”

Now, on an issue that’s already settled, why does this matter? It matters because the truth matters. It matters because integrity matters. It matters because a fair, open, and transparent process matters. And the next time you’re in the midst of a contentious issue, you’ll want to have your ability to argue your side protected and upheld through either city staff or through the city council governing bodies. That did not happen here. Instead, what we got was the equivalent of a boxing match where there was one fighter and two referees who both said, “I want a fair fight.”

(Even THAT sports analogy is generous, as what we really had was one point of view fully articulated, the opposing point of view was noted, and then disagreed with, and then public testimony was opened. But time constraints and other limits were placed on that part of the meeting.)

Again, whether it’s the addition of protected bike lanes, or the repeal of the lurking ordinance, or any other number of important issues, our city process should allow for a vigorous debate on all sides. How then, might that happen when a city staff opinion differs from that of one of commission or committee?

In such a case, I believe the HPC should have been able to designate who it wanted as a person to articulate its position. That commission could have voted its confidence in the city staffer’s objectivity (if it so chose). Or it could have sent one of its own commissioners to present its case. Or it could have designated an individual with extensive knowledge on the issue as the person responsible to express their point of view.

Well, technically the HPC couldn’t have done so because no such process exists. But one should. A process like that would allow the public to lobby a commission to have a particular position fully presented. Even if an initiative failed, at least the process could be open for a full-fledged debate. And that, my friends, is what each and every Minneapolis resident deserves.

This post was written by Jeff Skrenes and originally published on North by Northside. Follow Jeff on Twitter: @northxnorthside.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 04/02/2015 - 10:20 pm.

    Orth

    To know if there is a problem with the process, you really need to look at multiple cases and not just this poor example. It may be that the staff member wasn’t much of an advocate because he understood that the “evidence” was nonsense. When the case eventually went to court, that evidence wasn’t even considered because it was so worthless. People got really upset about this (not the actual neighbors, who were happy to see this eyesore go) but the decision made was ultimately the correct one.

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