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.”
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.”