One down; more to go?

716 Wilson Ave., a city-owned property that’s sat vacant for about a decade, will be demolished after a St. Paul City Council vote. The house is the first of five in the Dayton’s Bluff historic district that the city’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority is seeking to demolish. (Patrick Larkin/Review)
716 Wilson Ave., a city-owned property that’s sat vacant for about a decade, will be demolished after a St. Paul City Council vote. The house is the first of five in the Dayton’s Bluff historic district that the city’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority is seeking to demolish. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

City council gives unanimous go-ahead to demo historic Dayton's Bluff house

After last week's St. Paul City Council vote, one of Dayton's Bluff's century-old homes will be turned to rubble.

A fire-damaged house at 716 Wilson Ave., that's owned by the St. Paul Housing and Redevelopment Authority, has been approved for demolition following some disagreement between the HRA and the city's Heritage Preservation Committee.

The HPC recommended against allowing the demolition, but the city council has the ultimate say.

Built in 1912, it's the first of five in Dayton's Bluff's historic district to have come before the city council for potential demolition — the rest are scheduled to be discussed during a Jan. 6 meeting, which is a public hearing, the first with the city's new council members, including Ward 7's new representative, Jane Prince. Prince's ward includes the Dayton's Bluff neighborhood.

The other city-owned properties in the historic district that could be demolished include 275 Bates, 700 Fourth St. E., 767 Fourth St. E., and 737 Plum St.

The city first acquired 716 Wilson in 2007, which had been vacant since 2005. The city took ownership shortly after it had been re-approved for occupancy, paying $150,000.

The property then sat vacant for another seven years, untouched under the city's control, until September 2014, when the house's front porch caught on fire.

At the Dec. 2 council meeting where the property's fate was decided, HRA staff member Joe Musolf told council members that 716 Wilson Ave. has a significant amount of damage as a result of that fire, including smoke and water damage throughout the interior, and underlined that the house had been analyzed multiple times for redevelopment purposes. The city had offered it in multiple requests for proposals, where developers were sought to fix up properties the city owns, but there were no reasonable offers.

Musolf also noted that the building is classified as "non-contributing" to the historic district.

Dave Thune, outgoing city council member, noted that the house had some charm to it, pointing to its built-in cupboards and its original staircase.

"I'm hearing from different people in the neighborhood that this house is worth saving," he said, before ultimately voting in favor of the demolition.

Bill Finney, interim Ward 7 council member, said the house was once nice, but questioned its viability following the fire damage.

"This house has gotten worse for wear," he said.

City mismanagement?

Tom Dimond, a preservationalist, former city councilman and outspoken critic of the HRA's move to demolish Dayton's Bluff houses, attended the meeting to ask that the council vote against the demolition.

Prior to the house fire, he argued, the house "didn't require one dime of subsidy to get a homeowner into it," pointing to the fact that it had passed a code compliance report shortly before the city bought it.

He questioned the HRA's management of the property, and suggested that even in its current state, it could be sold if it was marketed to the public.

He noted that one the proposals to rehabilitate the home were based on turning the two-bedroom house into a five-bedroom house, asking the city for a subsidy of $500,000.

Brad Griffith, a real estate agent who's active in community groups in Dayton's Bluff, also criticized the HRA's request to demolish.

"To tear down properties that the HRA has been stewards of ... is not a good public policy," he asserted.

Griffith, a member of the Dayton's Bluff Heritage Action Group, asked the city council and the HRA to "be better stewards of the historic district, support the historic district, and better define what the city really wants in terms of the historic district."

Despite the property going down, HRA staff say they're in talks with a developer about saving the rest. The developer has requested not to be named yet, but Patty Lilledahl, director of housing for the HRA, said the group has been through all of the houses, and is in talks with the HRA about possible ways to rehabilitate them.

"Hopefully, by the end of the year we'll know what their interest is in rehabbing the properties," Lilledahl said.

Bits of history

716 Wilson is known as the Schornstein House, as it was built by William Schornstein, a business owner who owned and ran the Schornstein Grocery and Saloon at 707 Wilson Ave.

With a front gabled, asphalt shingle roof with wide, flared eaves and cornice returns, it has a similar appearance of many early 20th century homes.

But, its uniqueness is by association — the Schornstein Grocery and Saloon was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, and according to Historic Preservation Committee documents "is architecturally and historically significant as one of the most unusual and ornate small Victorian era commercial buildings still standing in St. Paul."

$1 million

In total, the HRA is pursuing demolition of seven properties within the Dayton's Bluff historic district. The Historic Preservation Committee has pushed back on five of these.

The seven properties, if demolished, will have cost the city about $1 million in mostly federal funding.

Two properties, known as the "shock block," the row of commercial and residential structures at 208-210 and 216-218 Bates Ave., were approved for demolition by the HPC last year.

The five properties the HPC and HRA disagree about are all built prior to 1900, and four of the five are rated by the HPC to be important to the historic character of the neighborhood.

All the homes the HRA has targeted come with ample lists of required repairs and issues, sometimes including severe damage from water seeping in, foundation problems, and the like.

To demolish the properties, the HRA would use the Inspiring Communities fund, which is comprised of multiple funding sources, including local, state and federal dollars.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at Follow him on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.

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