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From historic to history: why the U of M is able to demolish the Electric Steel Elevator complex

Thanks to the special status it enjoys in state law, the U of M says that it doesn’t need permission from the City of Minneapolis, or the state, to demolish the buildings.

The Electric Steel Elevator could be demolished starting as early as October.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

When members of the Minneapolis City Council voted unanimously last year to block the demolition of a significant piece of the city’s industrial history, they might have thought they’d taken a big step toward preserving it.

They didn’t.

Pending an expected approval by the University of Minnesota Board of Regents in October, the Electric Steel Elevator — one of the last steel grain elevator complexes in the region — will be demolished starting shortly after the Regents authorize it. And in its place, in an area just east of TCF Bank Stadium, will someday be the new location of something slightly less notable: a recreational sports bubble.

In other words, in a little more than a year, a structure that was deemed eligible for placement on the National Register of Historic Places will go from historic to history. 

Fighting a losing battle

In September of 2015, the Riverland Ag Corp. asked the City Council to allow it to demolish the 32-bin grain elevator at 600 25th Avenue SE and sell the land to the university. The company’s president, Craig Reiners, didn’t deny the historic nature of the place, but he also said it was obsolete as a grain storage facility. The company couldn’t sell it or reuse it in its current status.

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Riverland was also fighting a losing battle with vandals and urban explorers, who found a way around all of the fences and locks, cameras and alarms the company employed to keep them out. Someone, Reiners feared, was going to be hurt or even killed while exploring the place.

Reiners had been given a financial lifeline from university officials, who said the U would buy the land for $1.45 million — but only if the buildings were demolished. The university even agreed to cover the costs of that demolition. The only thing Reiners needed to close the deal: a demolition permit.

The city of Minneapolis, however, wasn’t on board. The city’s Heritage Preservation Commission and Zoning & Planning Committee thought the plan to demolish the structures was premature, and ordered a study to assess the grain elevator’s historic status. The city also wanted to see if there wasn’t a new use for the structure.

Then, in early September 2015, the City Council voted to give the structures interim protection from demolition or alteration — for one year. Once the historic designation study was completed, the heritage preservation commission would decide whether to recommend the Electric Steel Elevator complex for permanent placement on the city’s historic register. If more time was needed, the protection could be extended for another six months.

But shortly after the council’s action, the university bought the Electric Steel Elevator complex anyway. And on Thursday, at a meeting of the school’s facilities, planning and operations committee of the Board of Regents, university staff will ask for authority to tear the place down, sell the scrap steel for as much as the market will pay and clear the land for its next use. Mitigation will include photographic documentation, donation of some equipment to the Mill City Museum and donation of rare architectural drawings to the state.

“We are excited because we’ve worked very closely with Mill City to identify a number of elements that can be salvaged,” said Monique MacKenzie, the U of M’s director of planning in the Capital Planning and Project Management office. “There are some huge pieces of equipment in the property that Mill City Museum feels they can use immediately in their collection.”

And thanks to the special status it enjoys in state law, the U of M says that no permit is needed from the city of Minneapolis for the demolition, nor is there any need for it to get approval from the state historic preservation office.

So what makes Electric Steel special, anyway?

Built between 1903 and 1914, the silos and buildings of the Electric Steel Elevator were early examples of the expansion of the city’s grain economy, away from the river and toward rail connections.

One of the factors that makes Electric Steel special, however, is also what makes it endangered. While many unused concrete silos remain in place because they are too expensive to demolish, some of the costs to take down a steel elevator can be recovered by selling the scrap steel.

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Robert M. Frame, who’s studied the storage facilities that supported the state’s wheat farming and milling industries, says that steel was one of the early choices for owners looking for better alternatives to wood before concrete eventually won out. The only other steel elevator in Minnesota was taken down in 1995.

The Electric Steel Elevator, circa 1910.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
The Electric Steel Elevator, circa 1910.

Electric Steel has another claim to historic status: It was engineered by nationally prominent structural engineer C.A.P. Turner. “If [Turner] touched something, you pay attention to it,” Frame said last summer. “If his name is on the plans, it makes a structure stand out.”

The historians who’ve examined the building agree on its historic status. A report written in 2002 to support the creation of a Southeast Minneapolis Industrial Area historic district concluded the elevator was a contributing structure of the district, and that it met at least three of the criteria required for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Minneapolis stands down

Electric Steel Elevator is one of six historic properties listed on the city’s Historic Preservation Commission webpage as subjects of current designation studies. But the study was never done  — and won’t be. While the HPC and the City Council could seek six more months to complete the work, staff will not make that request. And since the commission does not meet before Sept. 11, the interim protection will expire, leaving the building eligible for a demolition permit without the City Council’s permission.

But an explanation for why the city didn’t pursue historic status for the elevator has been elusive. Steve Poor, director of development services for Minneapolis, said the staffers who might have completed the designation study were busy with other tasks, especially work updating the city comprehensive plan. “It’s not that they didn’t intend to do it, they just didn’t have time,” Poor said.

In many cases, much of the research is done by building owners who are seeking register status. That isn’t the case with the Electric Steel. Staff, however, would not have been starting from scratch. A 92-page report had already been prepared for last summer’s preservation commission and City Council discussions on the facility. 

City of Minneapolis
The elevator complex at 25th Avenue SE near TCF Bank Stadium, circled in yellow.

Would it have mattered? The university asserts that it needs no permit from the city; that it would not be required to abide by the interim protection status, anyway — even if a permanent listing on the register had been achieved.

Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal does not concede the university’s claim about off-campus properties, however.

“On the question of city jurisdiction over properties owned by the University outside of their campus area, we do have jurisdiction over regulatory and land use matters,” Segal said via email. “That being said, however, we seek to work cooperatively with the university as we do other public partners.”

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The U’s MacKenzie said that university officials did meet in May with city planning officials, including Community Planning and Economic Development Director Craig Taylor and Land Use, Design and Preservation Director Jason Wittenberg, to let them know what the school’s plans were for the property. She described them as pleased with the work being done by the university.

“We have worked closely with the city to understand their intent and their process and try to align our work efforts with their needs,” MacKenzie said. Wittenberg referred questions about the city’s position to Poor.

Do other preservation laws apply?

While the U of M might be exempt from city historic preservation rules, it would have been covered by other state and federal laws had circumstances been slightly different. If federal funds were involved in any part of the project, for instance, it would have have been required to protect buildings that are on the national register or eligible to be listed, but there is no federal involvement in either the proposed demolition or the construction of the new recreational sports facilities.

State law requires state agencies as well as the U of M to involve the historic preservation office whenever it is threatening properties on the state or national registers. A preservation officer would have to be consulted “to determine appropriate treatments and to seek ways to avoid and mitigate any adverse effects on designated or listed properties.” Absent an agreement by the preservation office, the U of M couldn’t act but could trigger mediation before a special five-person panel.

In this case, eligibility for listing isn’t sufficient, it must be on the register. That puts a different section of state law into play, one that requires the U of M only to “cooperate with the Minnesota Historical Society in safeguarding state historic sites and in the preservation of historic and archaeological properties.”

The university says it satisfied that requirement by informing the state preservation office of its plans for the Electric Steel complex, and by sending copies of a historic property record report and an investigation into possible adaptive reuse.

Sarah Beimers, the manager of government programs and compliance for the preservation office, said the university has involved the state office more intensely on other projects, even when they weren’t on the state or national registers, including Tate Hall and Northrup Mall.

“In this case, the U is saying we’re not going to consult with you. We’re just going to tell you what we’re going to do,” Beimers said. “They didn’t ask for comments.”

Opposition from neighborhood

The Prospect Park Association has long opposed demolition of the complex. As association president Christina Larson wrote to the regents: “Time and again in a continuous series of planning documents,the Electric Steel Elevator is identified for preservation as a contributing landmark to reinforce the unique heritage and essential character,” of the area. “By purchasing this site with intent only to demolish the extant historical structures, the University does an end run around due process and ignores decisions made by both the city and the neighborhood. ”

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Gayla Lindt, a resident of the Prospect Park who’s on the faculty at the university’s School of Archicture, argues that the property is outside the “Regents Boundary” for campus growth and has not appeared on lists of future university ownership. “I am terribly concerned that University Board of Regents have not been duly provided the fullest context for this significant decision,” Lindt wrote to regents. “Documenting and saving parts and pieces of an historic structure is not commensurate with preserving by conservation or adaptive reuse  … nor does it contribute in a meaningful way to a rich sense of place.”

Electric Steel Elevator
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Electric Steel Elevator is one of six historic properties listed on the city’s Historic Preservation Commission webpage as subjects of current designation studies.

The possible decision to demolish the elevators — as well as the notice in the regent’s meeting docket that an adjacent elevator will also be purchased and demolished — was seen by the Prospect Park Association as further evidence that a state requirement that the U of M work directly with neighborhood organizations via the University District Alliance on issues of expansion and development isn’t being followed.

Larson wrote that the association was “simply informed” of the U of M decision during a June 7 association meeting. “In our opinion, this is not stakeholder engagement in the spirit and mandate of the legislated University District Alliance,” Larson wrote. While the neighborhood group members “understand and support the University in its mission … the way in which the University has acquired additional land has often been disruptive, destabilizing and not always consistent with Regents policy and the legislative intent. The Electric Steel Elevator is the latest example.”

Council response

Council Member Lisa Bender, the chair of the Zoning & Planning Committee that rejected the demolition permit last year, did not respond to requests to talk about the fate of Electric Steel.

The complex is in the city’s Ward 2, which is represented by Council Member Cam Gordon, who said he has become convinced that the Electric Steel complex is unique historically and would have liked to see the city’s designation study completed so as to demonstrate that.

Gordon said he at least expected the university to bring its case back to the Heritage Preservation Commission for its involvement and comment. And he isn’t convinced that if the city pushed its jurisdiction in court — especially in regards to a building that was designated historic prior to being purchased — that it would lose.

That possibility went away when the city staff decided not to complete the designation study that might have led to permanent historic protection under the city’s ordinance. 

“Maybe both sides don’t want to go to court because they’ll find out the wrong thing,” Gordon said.

The pending demolition raises a broader issue for Gordon: what to do about the dozens of grain terminals around the city and the state. “We need to start taking a look at which ones have development potential, which ones are being used right now and which ones may be historic,” he said. “We haven’t made a lot of progress.”