Should Lowry Hill be an historic district?

Man’s plan would make it harder to tear down mansions – or make certain home improvements

As you drive along the gentle bend that Mt. Curve Avenue takes in the heart of Lowry Hill, history flows by in the form of buildings. That’s true of any street in any city; all structures represent a moment in time, some worth noting, others not.

Lowry Hill’s mammoth mansions seem to hold grander stories in their bricks and mortar. Historian Bob Glancy has a plan to protect their durable tales.

Glancy has proposed a new Lowry Hill historic district that would make it harder to bulldoze the mansions and change structures in historically inappropriate ways. The district’s borders are roughly from Groveland Avenue to the north, Hennepin Avenue to the east, between Dupont and Colfax avenues to the west, and a line just north of West Franklin Avenue to the south.

He said his proposal to the Minneapolis Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) would protect 84 buildings. Of those, 54 are single-family homes, with a smattering of high-rises, office buildings and two-unit condos, among others.

"Why am I doing it? It’s more of a question of why am I finally doing it," Glancy said. "I’ve been thinking about it for years. It’s one of the most historic areas of the city, and why no one has gotten around to nominating it, I don’t know."

Glancy, an HPC commissioner, has nothing obvious to gain from his proposal except knowing Lowry Hill’s stately histories have added protection. Glancy doesn’t live within the borders of the proposed district (he moved from Lowry Hill to Southeast Minneapolis more than a dozen years ago). He doesn’t own Lowry Hill property and doesn’t plan to buy any.

However, property owners within an historic district will discover that they can’t simply get a building permit to add a garage or paint their house. According to city ordinance, they will also have to get an HPC "certificate of appropriateness" before making "any alteration of aŠproperty in an historic district."

That means if you want to repaint the outside trim on your bathroom window, you’ll need to get a "certificate of appropriateness" from the HPC. Same goes for putting on a new front door, or an old front door for that matter, or any other exterior alteration to your property.

Said Glancy, "The usual reason people think they should object is that it’s going to limit what they can do to their house. In some ways, that’s true. They can’t tear down just because they want to or they can’t tear off a brick front and put up aluminum siding over it, and a few things like that."

Developers who want to do a teardown must get the HPC’s approval before wrecking balls can swing.

Glancy said he wants to help protect the place where developer Thomas Lowry shaped the neighborhood that carries his name. "His marketing of selling lots and developing and building the first three mansions on Groveland set the style for his suburb, as it were. It’s the area where his personal influence was first expressed," Glancy said.

Processing history

Minneapolis has 12 historic districts, including two in Southwest: Whittier’s Washburn-Fair Oaks Historic District and the Stevens Square Historic District.

Creating an historic district begins this month when Glancy turns in the nominating paperwork to the HPC. Then, the commission will decide if the proposal is worth pursuing. If so, the HPC grants the district interim protection. That means the nominated properties can’t be destroyed or altered without an HPC certificate during the designation process. This interim protection typically lasts a year, while the HPC does a designation study.

HPC also submits the proposed designation to the state Historic Preservation Office and to the city’s Planning Commission for review. A public hearing is held, at which anyone can voice his or her objections to the plan.

If the Planning Commission approves the historic district, the proposal goes to the City Council, which has the final say.

Perhaps the greatest sticking point in the process is the designation study. Because the HPC’s budget is $25,000 per year, it can’t fund the studies detailing the building histories in the proposed district.

This is where Glancy again comes in. The neighborhood historian and Realtor says he’ll conduct the study himself, saving the HPC $10,000 or more.

Formidable foes

At a late January public meeting called by Glancy, the appropriateness certificates sparked the most opposition, voiced by about half the crowd of 30.

Robert Greenberg, a Lowry Hill resident, former HPC commissioner and businessman, said he worried that a city bureaucracy would dictate any and all details of alterations he and others might make to their homes. Others expressed similar worries.

Councilmember Lisa Goodman (7th Ward) wasn’t at the meeting, but she also opposes Glancy’s proposal.

"I am not a big fan of making the 95 percent of the people who don’t want to tear down their houses abide by a morass of regulations for the few that do," she said.

Goodman also criticized Glancy’s offer to do the HPC-required study, even for free, arguing that city staff is more objective.

Amy Lucas, a senior city planner and the HPC’s staff member, is also less than enthusiastic about Glancy’s proposal.

"I’ve never had anyone come saying, ‘I will do an historic district nomination for you. I’ll do all the research and write-up,’" she said.

She said she would prefer an initial neighborhoodwide survey of Lowry Hill’s approximately 700 houses before deciding the lines of an historic district.

Lucas said that she won’t know for sure if Glancy’s proposal has any merit until he submits his nomination, but that she’s "heard Bob talk, and what he said seemed weak."

Ed Newman, president of the Lowry Hill neighborhood group, said he, too, opposes Glancy’s proposal as it now stands.

Glancy said he expected opposition, but he’s also received e-mails supportive of the plan. Regardless, he said, he’s going to forge ahead with the proposal. If he wins, part of Lowry Hill will become the city’s 13th historic district and if not, it will become a footnote to history itself.