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Minneapolis residents get crash course on less-restrictive Historic Conservation Districts

Cumberland, Ind., offers one example of how a city can protect its historic integrity without over-regulating residents.

The National Road (US 40) in Cumberland, Ind., c. 1908.
Indianapolis Historic Preservation Commission

The meeting was billed as a “visioning workshop” for Minneapolis residents interested in finding out what a Historic Conservation District might do for their neighborhoods. 

But before they got down to the business of “visioning,” they got a crash course in the difference between “Historic Conservation” and “Historic Preservation” districts from city planner John Smoley, who has a Ph.D. after his name.

In Historic Preservation, Smoley explained, the building materials are as important at the total structure. This means that if the house you own in a Historic Preservation District needs new windows, you can’t just go to Home Depot and buy some that resemble the originals. The rules would require that materials, design and craftsmanship match the originals.

He likened this process to restoring an autographed Babe Ruth baseball by replacing the old leather and stitching with new stuff and then duplicating the signature. The restored baseball might look great, but it is no longer historic or valuable — it’s just a baseball.

A ‘happy medium’

Historic Conservation Districts are “the happy medium,” Smoley told some 30 folks who turned out for the recent meeting. A Conservation District can be whatever those living in that area want it to be. If the residents decide demolitions, for example, need to be regulated, they can write the rules and make that a priority.

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Cumberland, Ind., was one of the examples of a Historic Conservation District featured in the meeting handouts. The small town was founded in 1831 as an isolated settlement along what was then called the National Road. The town became a popular stopover for travelers and, by 1900, was hosting nine trains a day filled with passengers and freight.

The residential neighborhoods were characterized by widely spaced houses, some with barns and summer kitchens, and an absence of sidewalks or curbs typical of the “isolated independent existence” of a rural community, according to a publication by the Cumberland Conservation District.

And then came trouble.

Cumberland is only 10 miles from downtown Indianapolis on the west and the town of Greenfield on the east. Both cities were expanding in Cumberland’s direction. In 1999, Cumberland was listed as one of the 10 most endangered towns in Indiana as suburban development threatened the town’s historic integrity.

And the Indiana Department of Transportation had plans to widen the old National Road, which had become U.S. Highway 40. Cumberland became a symbol of urban sprawl.

But the residents fought back.  In 2001, Cumberland was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 2002, it established a Conservation District, which includes 226 parcels of land and 132 structures.

The Conservation District established its list of Preservation Objectives and guidelines for renovations, signage, parking lots and demolition. Big-box retailers and drive-thru establishments were discouraged and mixed-use housing encouraged.

Creating a neighborhood vision

Back at Minneapolis City Hall, it was time to get on with the “visioning” workshop.

“People are looking for greater protection for neighborhoods,” said Smoley, who cited demolitions and loss of neighborhood character as the main concerns he has heard. “What do you like that you would like to see preserved and protected?” he asked.

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“What we’re trying to avoid is having ‘the Eden Prairie-looking house’ in the neighborhood,” said Anita Tabb, who represents the Lakes area and downtown Minneapolis on the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. She hears neighbors say a house “looks like it belongs in Eden Prairie” when it doesn’t fit the neighborhood. This is not usually offered as a compliment.

“New development is at the detriment of historic property,” said Jana Metge of Citizens for a Loring Park Community.

“In North Minneapolis, we’re tearing down too many of our houses,” said Jeff of the Hawthorne neighborhood. (Many of the participants at the meeting identified themselves by neighborhood, rather than name — like Jeff, who left during the meeting.)

“We shouldn’t forget commercial, because we have some charming commercial areas,” said a woman who talked about the Linden Hills neighborhood.

“We have some iconic churches,” added another woman.

“The lot scale and the building should be consistent with what’s on the block,” said another participant.

“Lake of the Isles didn’t want to be a Historic Preservation District and now they cry every time a house is torn down,” said another.

Light-rail impact in Prospect Park

Residents of Prospect Park were there in force. That neighborhood was on track to become a Historic Preservation District but opted instead for designation as a Historic Conservation District after deciding the stricter preservation rules would not work for them.

They like the mix of housing styles where large homes and small cottages, contemporary and traditional, co-exist. But like Cumberland, trouble could be coming their way.

The Central Corridor Light Rail line abuts the neighborhood, and new apartment buildings have popped up along the route.

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Prospect Park has three square blocks zoned R-4, which allows multi-unit residential of up to four stories. Those blocks are now single-family homes, but just before the housing market slammed to a stop, developers were door-knocking the neighborhood. Residents suspect they will return.

“We know it’s just a matter of time,” said Joe Ring of the Prospect Park East River Road Improvement Association and one of the leaders in establishing a conservation district in that area. “They will be very difficult to stop.”

The Marcy-Holmes neighborhood, just across the river from downtown, is another threatened area. It is home to the historic Florence Court brick townhouses and Dinkytown and abuts the University of Minnesota.

The population is dominated by young people, many of them students, who rent. It is not unusual for landlords to own multiple properties in the neighborhood and make few repairs.

“If we lose those old homes, we will lose the character of the neighborhood,” said Doug Carlson of the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association. He said elegant older homes next to dilapidated buildings leaves people asking, “Why didn’t someone do something?”

“What about advisory help from city preservation staff,” asked a man who got nods of approval from around the table.

Edna Brazaitis has lived on Nicollet Island in a Historic Preservation District for 30 years and says she has gotten “helpful” advice from city staff and trusts them.

“As a property owner, I’m more concerned about what my dumb neighbors are going to do,” she said, citing teardowns and additions to Island property as sources of frustration.

“In a Conservation District, what we’re asking for is the house to be a good neighbor,” said Bob Roscoe, an architect and former member of the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission, which oversees protected properties.

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There were more questions from Smoley. He wanted to know how long citizens thought a Conservation District should have to review building or renovation plans, what kind of fees should be charged and who should have the authority to make decisions. 

There was little consensus, and those still left in the room — about 10 of the original 30 — were starting to look at their watches.

The next task for Smoley will be to work on creating a proposed ordinance that spells out the rules for establishing a Historic Conservation District That ordinance likely would go before the City Council in late spring.