Documents prompt more questions — but give few answers — about Minneapolis’ decision not to oppose U demolition plan

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
The elevator complex is at 25th Avenue SE near TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

When they first heard that an industrial grain elevator complex near the University of Minnesota campus was threatened with demolition, Minneapolis city staff members were concerned.

In an email sent in January to others in the development services department and city attorney’s office, city planner Lisa Steiner sounded the alarm over what’s known as the Electric Steel Elevator complex.

At the time, the buildings were protected under the city’s historic preservation rules. Four months earlier, after the U said it wanted to buy and demolish the complex, the City Council had voted to give the structures interim protection from demolition or alteration — for one year.

Once a historic designation study was completed, the city’s heritage preservation commission would decide whether to recommend the complex for permanent placement on the city’s historic register. As such, the University of Minnesota would need the city’s permission before it tore down the historic complex of steel grain silos, city staff maintained.

But Steiner had learned from Minnesota’s State Historic Preservation Office that the university believed it needed no city permission — not even a demolition permit — and was moving ahead with the plan to clear the site near TCF Bank Stadium for new recreational sports facilities.

And yet, nine months later, the city stated that interim protection was not going to be extended, essentially announcing that it was standing down from opposing the U’s plans. At the time, Minneapolis officials said it was because city staff lacked time to prepare the historic designation study.

Yet documents recently released in response to a Data Practices Act request by MinnPost reveals that wasn’t the case — that there was, in fact, a decision made by senior department managers and the city attorney’s office to not oppose the U’s plan for demolishing the complex.

Sounding the alarm

According to the emails released this month, Steiner initially found out about the university’s plans for the Electric Steel complex from Sarah Beimers, the manager of government programs and compliance with the State Historic Preservation Office.

Beimers had been contacted by University of Minnesota officials under a section of state law that requires state agencies, including the U of M, to cooperate with the state preservation officer whenever its actions involve buildings that are eligible for placement on the national historic register.

The elevator complex was deemed eligible for that designation due to its role in the state’s grain production and milling history, and because its steel construction is rare and was designed by nationally renowned structural engineer C.A.P. Turner.

The U of M maintains it met a state requirement to cooperate with the Minnesota Historical Society in “safeguarding state historic sites and in the preservation of historic and archaeological properties” by informing the state preservation office of its plans for the complex, and by documenting the history of the complex as well as working to preserve some of the equipment.

And when Beimers asked U of M senior planner Andrew Caddock whether the school would need to get the City of Minneapolis to issue a demolition permit, Caddock said no. “Because of the university’s statutory authority, permits for demolition (and building, etc.) projects on UMN property are issued through the university’s own Building Code Division,” Caddock wrote.

But Electric Steel is not on the current U of M campus. It is on land adjacent to campus property, which led Beimers to ask the city’s Steiner: “I’d be curious to know if the City agrees … can’t imagine that this hasn’t come up before.”

Steiner said she would ask the city attorney, but offered her opinion that the city “would definitely require a demolition permit” and that “because this property is under interim protection, the demolition would absolutely require approval from the City’s Heritage Preservation Commission.”

Assistant city attorney Erik Nilsson expressed a similar opinion — at least on the need for commission approval — and said so in an email to Community Planning and Economic Development Department (CPED) Director Craig Taylor.

“Any request by the university to alter (inc. demo) the property at this point requires the submission of a certificate of appropriateness application with review of HPC,” Nilsson wrote Taylor. He added that he would prepare a letter that day for Taylor to sign and send to the U of M.

If such a letter was sent, it should have been included in the city’s DPA response. It wasn’t. And a city spokesperson could not confirm whether a letter was drafted or was sent.

But when one of the city’s principal planners, Hilary Dvorak, proposed a meeting “ASAP” on the issue, Nilsson suggested that “everyone take a deep breath” and that he would be in contact with his boss.

Added Steve Poor, the director of the city’s development services, which oversees the city’s office of land use, design and preservation: “Yes, I want Dev Services to calm down. We will address this issue with alacrity and prudence.”

Meeting with the U of M

The records released by the city do not pick up the issue again until May 2016, when another city planner, Haila Maze, tells Steiner that she had heard that CPED head Taylor was meeting with university officials. That meeting, on May 19, ultimately included Taylor, Steiner, and Jason Wittenberg, the city’s manager of land use, planning and preservation.

After that meeting, Jan Morlock, director of community relations for the U of M, wrote to thank the city contingent for the meeting. “Good to have the opportunity to review what we are working on and get your advice on next steps,” Morlock wrote.

A week later, Wittenberg told Steiner, Maze, Nilsson and Poor that Taylor had asked to be included in a staff discussion of the Electric Steel issue. Records show that staff continued to work on the issue through July. In one email to Steiner and Dvorak, Wittenberg wrote that staff’s message to the city’s heritage commissioners should “basically be that we are still in discussion with the U of M about next steps and how to move forward and the U of M is working with SHPO.”

But the level of that work was called into question when Beimers, from the State Historic Preservation Office, wrote Steiner to say the university had simply sent a letter earlier in 2016 saying they planned to demolish the complex. “They did not specifically [ask] for our review and comment,” Beimers wrote.

She added that the the U of M had hired a consultant to prepare a photographic and textual documentation report, but that “I have not heard anything since then.”

In response to that bit of news, Wittenberg wrote Steiner: “Well, if that’s the extent of their conversations with SHPO, that doesn’t represent a lot of ‘working with SHPO’ up to this point,” by the U.

“I think SHPO is limited in what they can require them to do since it isn’t designated, just eligible for the National Register,” Steiner responded, referencing the fact that SHPO involvement and approval would have been required under law had the complex been on the National Register.

At about the same time in July, Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commissioner Ginny Lackovic expressed her interest in Electric Steel to Dvorak. “This is one I think we should be fighting for, I plan to prepare a nomination, hopefully this week,” Lackovic wrote.

And in an email to commission Chair Laura Faucher, Lackovic wrote: “U of MN is very clear about their intent for the electric steel elevator. This would be a good topic for discussion.”

Dvorak agreed that the commission should be updated. In an email to her coworkers, she wrote “as I understand, no designation study has been prepared as of today and interim protection will end on 9-11 unless it is extended. Thoughts?”

Wittenberg responded that he, Steiner and Maze had been in discussions with Taylor and Nilsson on the topic. “Before we schedule any discussions with the [Historic Preservation Commission], one of us will have to circle back to them,” Wittenberg wrote.

But the topic did not formally return to the Heritage Preservation Commission, and a week after Wittenberg’s email, Taylor sent a message to Monique MacKenzie, director of planning and space for the U of M, to let them know: The City of Minneapolis would not be standing in their way when it came to the Electric Steel complex.

“As I shared with you on the phone, I met with staff and the City Attorney’s office and we agreed that we would not be extending protection on the site,” Taylor wrote on July 19. “So once the protection expires, let’s discuss next steps we should be able to work with you to move this forward and get you the approval you need to demo.”

Demolition approved

In September, after the issue was placed on a university regents committee agenda, MinnPost asked the city about the protections for the building. Had a historic preservation designation study been completed? If not, why not, and would the city seek a six-month extension as it was permitted to do under the city’s preservation ordinance?

At the time, Wittenberg referred questions to his boss, Steve Poor, who said city staff simply ran out of time to complete the study and were busy on other projects, including a review of the city’s comprehensive plan. “It’s not that they didn’t intend to do it, they just didn’t have time,” Poor told MinnPost.

No such reasoning, however, was referenced in any of the correspondence released to MinnPost by the city this month.

Back in September, Assistant Minneapolis City Attorney Nilsson did not respond to questions, though City Attorney Susan Segal did, noting that while the city does have jurisdiction “over regulatory and land use matters,” at the U of M, “we seek to work cooperatively with the university as we do other public partners.”

The university regents gave final approval in October to proceed with the demolition, over the objections of some from the Prospect Park neighborhood and from the region’s preservation and architecture communities.

Now, as the university’s contractor moves to begin demolition before the end of 2016, a group calling itself Friends of the Electric Steel Elevator has filed suit to block demolition. The attorney handling the litigation, Erik F. Hansen, is the same attorney who successfully blocked demolition of Peavey Plaza under the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act.

The documents reveal that some on CPED staff remain displeased with the city’s lack of action to protect the grain elevator complex. An email with the subject line “what a joke,” was sent in the wake of the MinnPost article “From historic to history,” which ran on September 7.

“I read this on the train this morning and was so irritated and disappointed that the article didn’t more explicitly call out the city for not completing the study,” wrote senior planner Becca Hughes in an email to Dvorak. “And Steve’s comment — unbelievable.” In reference to Taylor’s 12 years with the U of M, most recently as executive director of the office for business and community economic development, Hughes wrote: “What the author neglected to do is to trace this to the director and his links to the U.”

“Infuriating.”

Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/30/2016 - 01:32 pm.

    Nicely done

    Nice bird-dogging on this one, Peter. While I await further developments, it would appear (some would say “once again”) that U of M sports programs trump almost everything else. Not that there are a lot of alternative uses for a grain elevator complex that’s been abandoned as far as its original purpose is concerned (A “historic” designation is little more than permission to rust and decay unless some productive alternative use is found), but it does seem that at least a couple people failed to follow through on what they were supposed to do.

  2. Submitted by John Appelen on 11/30/2016 - 05:19 pm.

    Same Questions

    Who are these people who want to keep rusty dangerous eye sores in place?

    Are they planning to raise the money to buy, restore, provide security and maintain them?

    Do they have a different motivation?

    • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 11/30/2016 - 08:30 pm.

      No dog in this … whatever it is, but up until just a few years back, this was a fully operational terminal grain facility (not exactly a “rusty dangerous eye sore”); the operator decided it was not going to be profitable anymore and put it on the market and get shed of the tax burden (seems like the City of Minneapolis would benefit more from private rather than public redevelopment of the property, but the uncertainty of that happening with similar properties in the city might make taking it off the tax rolls, what a U facility would do, more desirable).

      It would seem to be a group with no institutional memory in my neighborhood, Prospect Park, who are opposing the U of MN’s plans, but when I was involved, Peavey was well studied in the Bridal Veil Alternative Urban Areawide Review (an AUAR is a comprehensive study that takes the place of project specific environmental analysis done under state and federal law) finished many years ago for the whole of the industrial area that this property is a part of and an historical inventory done by Hess Roice and Co. was a part of it, i.e., the City has studied this to death. No one had any idea how Peavey could be reused then, but this was moot as it was still profitable at the time; as far as I know, there are still no workable reuse ideas yet.

      I’d like the U and the City to spell out just how they are going to commemorate this historic grain operation (U says they will donate historical items from demo to Mill City Museum, but this is pretty vague), and perhaps what few of my neighbors are concerned about as well could be spelled out (not acting through the neighborhood association AFAIK; seems to be only one or more persons plus an org. with legal resources, probably Preservation Alliance. I think all interested parties should all get on the same page and get on with some common goals instead of all this kerfuffle.

      • Submitted by Serafina Scheel on 12/01/2016 - 09:07 am.

        Prospect Park Association is actively involved

        Both the PPA’s Zoning & Project Review Committee and the neighborhood association, with the support of the community at multiple neighborhood meetings, have been actively involved in opposing the demolition. Prospect Park 2020 has also been involved. The relocation of the recreational sports bubble is a particular sore point, because the proposed land use doesn’t fit within the neighborhood planning vision, nor within the University’s Athletics and Recreational Sports District as outlined in the University’s Master Plan. The U’s own Metropolitan Design Center had offered administrators alternatives that do fit within that plan, which the U has thus far declined to consider.

        • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 12/01/2016 - 08:00 pm.

          Nothing on your website, though, although perhaps you or I could dig up some minutes if I really cared all that much.

          My point is that when I was a Prospect Park representative on the Southeast Economic Development Committee (predated PP 2020 and involved all three SE Mpls neighborhoods, one in St. Paul and various government entities including the Port of St. Paul with an interest in what happened in this industrial area), none of the planning efforts you write of existed, Peavey Electric Steel Elevators were operational (until a few years ago), and historical work for Peavey and the whole area was essentially completed that would satisfy anything from redevelopment to a historical designation (we were all fascinated by the historic technology of this terminal grain elevator facility), so all the hubbub from Minneapolis HPC and the Council seemed a little odd to me because just like PPA, they seem to have lost their institutional memory of everything or tailored it to suit whatever faddish whims newer board members like you might have, but I suspect all you write of here is limited to committee reports and without actions actually voted on by the full board, none of it means anything. If PPA were on record opposing, supporting, or not caring about what happens, I have not seen it as a disinterested resident of PP.

          When Peavey came on the market, it seemed like the U was considering the site for Track and Field facility, but like all the grain facilities in this area north of Prospect Park, it needs a party willing to reuse or demolish what is there for their purposes; plans cannot be as rigid as you would like as to specific redevelopments and when you have folks willing to go for it. Surly Brewing was certainly not in anyone’s plan, but they were willing to go for it. A “sports bubble” seems as good as anything that could go up there, and although my criteria for a good development usually centered on jobs, this’ll do considering how hard it is to get anything redeveloped up there.

          PPA should get onboard. Trying to stop the U from dealing with Peavey seems silly to me and one more reason I don’t bother with meetings anymore.

          Again, everyone needs to get on the same page and then we should start turning them, eventually finishing the book on these Electric Steel elevators. I would certainly like to see exactly what the U will do with the Mill City Museum.

          • Submitted by Serafina Scheel on 12/06/2016 - 11:48 am.

            Institutional memory

            The preservation of the elevators has been under discussion in the neighborhood meetings, the full board, and the appropriate committee for more than a year. Sorry you haven’t participated.

            Going back to earlier studies of the area, like Alternative Urban Areawide Review (which rated the elevators at a high priority for additional historic review) and the May 2001 SEMI Refined Master plan, they talked about the importance of the elevators. From the refined Master Plan (p 32-33):

            One of the park scenarios is to focus on the Peavey
            Electric Elevators and the existing array of grain
            elevators located immediately to the east . The
            feasibility of maintaining and celebrating the Peavey
            Electric Elevators should be studied. Ideally, when
            these elevators are abandoned, they could be stabilized
            and maintained, to be saved and celebrated as ruins.
            The land around the elevators should be excavated to
            create a pond . The result will become a picturesque
            “ruin” of these “castles of industry” floating on islands
            in Granary Pond and silhouetted against the skyline of
            the City . The “ruins” would remain the tallest buildings
            in the district, and they would be visible from University
            Avenue.

            Were there different documents and historical work you were referring to, Bill? I’d be happy to forward things on if there’s something missing.

        • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 12/01/2016 - 11:41 pm.

          In reading minutes of the neighborhood association, it appears that a letter drafted by folks on the zoning committee you refer to might have been up for approval by the board on Monday (no minutes available yet, but perhaps you were there), but aside from a presentation earlier this year from the amorphous group suing the U to stop demolition, only the committee has been discussing the matter.

          I still think blocking demo is a lousy idea as the sports bubble requires only level ground, can be relocated at any time, and anything else can be built on the site at some point, perhaps even something compatible with whatever plans one holds sacrosanct. Given the current construction and flux in U of M athletic facilities from Dinkytown, east, I imagine the U needs some flexibility.

          I’m almost never inclined to let the gorilla have its way, but this neighborhood opposition just seems pointless to me.

  3. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 11/30/2016 - 08:47 pm.

    A Tempest in a Teapot

    I am having a hard time getting worked up over this one. It would be different if this involved more than, as Mr. Schoch says, “permission to rust and decay”.

    I wonder how many taxpayers want to pay for the long term maintenance (and repair? is that what’s next?) of something which is little more than an eyesore, however architecturally noteworthy. And then there’s the safety issue, no small matter. And what would those costs be, anyway? And for how long would they continue?

    So while I admire Mr. Callaghan’s skills at drawing out the Byzantine fabric of emails, phone calls, meetings, and organizations involved, I would like to see those skills applied to something of more concern to your average Minnesotan.

    Finally, would it make a difference if the property was to be used for a more noble purpose than yet more sports facilities?

  4. Submitted by Pat Terry on 11/30/2016 - 09:21 pm.

    I just don’t get it

    They are abandoned grain elevators. There is no one out there who wants to use them or pay for them. I guess aesthetics are in the eye of the beholder, but I sure don’t see it.

  5. Submitted by Jake Thunderson on 11/30/2016 - 10:19 pm.

    Buncha unusable steel tubes. Who cares. Tear ’em down and regrow some native prairie for all that matters.

    Pro tip to the U: next time you want to demolish some pointless structure (I dare not say ‘building’ as that implies something that might have a productive future), tell everyone you’re going to build a big, beautiful road: no one will stand in your way!

  6. Submitted by John DeWitt on 11/30/2016 - 11:01 pm.

    Could be UMore here

    The steel grain silos lie in what has been designated the University Avenue Innovation District by both Minneapolis and St. Paul. Some refer to it as UMore here. It has the potential to become a successful 21st century community and research park. It offers many benefits:
    • Four light rail stations on the very successful Green Line
    • Adjacent to one of the largest university campuses in the country
    • Adjacent to one of the few campuses with its own Medical Center
    • Adjacent to one of the few campuses with an ag college just down the road
    • Equivalent in size to the Ford Plant site in St. Paul.
    I regularly read articles about the extensive planning St. Paul is conducting on repurposing the Ford Plant site. It’s disappointing that all I’m reading about regarding the University Avenue Innovation District is whether some old steel grain silos should be torn down for yet another University of Minnesota athletic facility.

  7. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 12/01/2016 - 08:05 am.

    Athletic facility…

    As I understand it, the “Athletic Facility” is intramural fields. Otherwise known as a grass lawn with an outhouse. As a 1970’s era student at the U we played softball and touch football on the then fields off of Como Avenue: grass lawn with an outhouse. They have long since become student housing. Seems a perfect interim solution to getting rid of obsolete structures that no one cares to purchase, rehab or care for in anyway with their own money. Knock them down, turn one silo into an outhouse and sod rest and use it for intramural sports, hardly US Bank Stadium V2. If a more grand plan develops in the future, we’ll be ready and already have an outhouse of historic significance.

  8. Submitted by Ian Stade on 12/01/2016 - 08:41 am.

    Thanks for your great reporting

    The status of the University as a land grant institution is an interesting twist in this story. No matter how old a building is on the University campus, as a Heritage Preservation Commission, we don’t have jurisdiction, as I understand it.

    I would love to weigh in when the University makes alterations to historic buildings like Northrup Auditorium (former home of the Minneapolis Symphony) but we don’t get to.

    In this particular case, there was no alternate buyer besides the University, no plan put forward to save and restore the elevators so I voted against interim protection in the first place. That is not to say these aren’t special and unique but we can’t save anything and I still haven’t heard a reasonable way this structure could have been reused.

    This story isn’t over yet, attorney Erik F. Hansen brought Peavey Plaza back from the brink (another historic resource I wouldn’t have voted to protect), maybe he can work his magic with the elevators and they will someday be part of a U of M athletic facility.

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