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Lawsuit seeks to block demolition of historic grain elevators

The complaint, filed in Hennepin County District Court, claims the university is violating two state laws governing historic properties.

The suit asks the court to block demolition and for a declaration that the Electric Steel Elevator complex “is a natural resource and cannot be demolished” under the environmental rights act.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

A group calling itself Friends of the Electric Steel Elevator has filed a lawsuit to block the demolition of a historic grain handling complex in Southeast Minneapolis.

The request for an injunction seeks to prevent the University of Minnesota from following through on a demolition approved by the school’s board of regents last month. The school is planning to use the site for sports fields and a recreational sports bubble for U of M students.

The complaint, filed in Hennepin County District Court by Minneapolis attorney Erik F. Hansen, claims the university is violating two state laws governing historic properties. The first is the Minnesota Environmental Rights Act; the second is a state law requiring the U of M Board of Regents to “cooperate with the Minnesota Historical Society in safeguarding state historic sites and in the preservation of historic and archaeological properties.”

The suit asks the court to block demolition and for a declaration that the elevator complex “is a natural resource and cannot be demolished” under the environmental rights act.

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It also asserts that that the U of M did not adequately cooperate with the state historic preservation officer. “The Electric Steel Elevator is a unique and irreplaceable landmark,” the complaint states. “As such, its destruction would result in irreparable injury to plaintiff and to present and future generations of Minnesotans.”

The university issued this statement about the lawsuit: “Before making a decision to proceed with demolition of the electric steel elevators, the University engaged multiple community stakeholders, including the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office. The University also analyzed all financially feasible reuse options and released a detailed written report of the findings of that adaptive reuse study. The study identified no feasible alternatives that are consistent with the University’s needs, mission, or operational model.

“The University will defend the lawsuit and looks forward to working with stakeholders as the property is redeveloped consistent with the University’s needs, mission, and operational model.”

The grain elevator complex was purchased by the university in the fall of 2015 after the City of Minneapolis had denied a demolition permit sought by the previous owner. University staff proceeded with a plan to use the property to replace recreational sports facilities that were to be supplanted by a new track and field stadium.

The city did not complete a historic designation study and let the interim protection expire in October of this year. The U of M regents voted October 14 to authorize demolition. The regents acted after school staff determined there was no adaptive reuse that fit within the university’s mission. The school had already submitted documentation to the state historic office outlining the history of the complex and outlining a mitigation plan, which included collecting photographs and blueprints of the site. The school has also agreed to donate some equipment from the complex to the Mill City Museum.

Construction of the elevator complex began in 1901 and saw additions through the early years of the 20th Century, when Minneapolis emerged as a national center of grain storage and flour milling. Use of steel was one of the first attempts to construct grain elevators out of sturdier material than wood. Reinforced concrete eventually became the preferred method, and the handful of steel elevators that were built have mostly been demolished.

The complex of 32 elevators was designed by C.A.P. Turner, who later became nationally prominent as an innovative structural engineer. Designated by architectural historian Reyner Banham as one of the country’s three “classic” steel elevators, Electric Steel is the only one of those three elevators still standing.

These facts are why the complex had been deemed eligible in 2003 for placement on the National Register of Historic Places, though it has never been nominated and is not currently on the register.

Still, the university is obligated by state law to cooperate with the historic preservation office “in safeguarding state historic sites and in the preservation of historic and archaeological properties.” The university staff told regents that the law’s requirements were met with the notice that it intended to demolish and the submittal of a historic property record.

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But in a letter to university staff dated Oct. 18, Sarah Beimers, manager of government programs and compliance for the state preservation office, disagreed. “We do not believe that the university has provided an adequate opportunity for meaningful consultation with our office in an effort to resolve the adverse effect caused by the demolition” of the elevator complex, Beimers wrote. She also was critical of the reuse study that had been mostly completed by the previous owner, Riverland Ag Corp. She wrote that the U of M “has not done its due diligence for a property with this level of historic significance.”

“While it is typically the preference to fully rehabilitate the historic property for a new use within acceptable preservation standards, we would also be open to discussing other options” including partial demolition and partial preservation, Beimers wrote.

In approving demolition, the regents asked staff to look into preserving one or more of the silos. As with the previous owner, university staff said the building is vulnerable to trespassing and is an attractive nuisance that could result in injury or death to urban explorers.

The Minnesota Environmental Rights Act, known as MERA, is the same statute used to block the city of Minneapolis’ move to demolish Peavey Plaza. (Hansen was the attorney who intervened in that case.) While it is primarily written to preserve natural resources, MERA included “historical resources” among the natural resources to be preserved, and state courts have found that inclusion on the national register is a “principal factor” in determining whether a building is covered by the law.

Peavey Plaza was on the register but it was nominated by supporters only after the Minneapolis City Council had authorized demolition. Supporters of the Electric Steel complex are considering whether to push for a nomination to the register. Hansen said he doesn’t think Minnesota case law would require that a public property be on the national register as long as it meets federal tests for eligibility.

The complaint included a declaration from Robert Frame, a historian who has written extensively about the state’s grain elevators and been involved in the nomination of other grain facilities to the register. Frame wrote that he thinks Electric Steel is eligible for placement on the register under at least two of the criteria created by the federal government.

A third state law that could be implicated in the fight over the complex — though one not specifically cited in the complaint — is the Minnesota Field Archaeology Act. In a letter to the regents dated Oct. 7, State Archaeologist Amanda Gronhovd wrote that the site has potential to contain “important archaeological resources relating to Minnesota’s industrial past,” and asked the university to contact her office before any earth moving or demolition to determine whether any future project would adversely impact the site.