What’s the Wirth House worth?

A group called the Parks Legacy Society says the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board is giving a non-profit parks group a sweetheart deal on rent at the Superintendent's House in Lyndale Farmstead Park -- and the tenant has failed to live up to some of its promises.

It appears the Park Board will continue to lease to the Minnesota Park and Recreation Association (MPRA) despite the protests.

To some, the house at 3954 Bryant Ave. S. is a significant city symbol -- built to lure Theodore Wirth here in the early 1900s. The Superintendent from 1905 to 1935, Wirth gets a large share of the credit for developing the city park system.

Succeeding superintendents used the house until David Fisher moved out in the mid-1990s. At that point in time, some saw the house as problematic and needing significant repairs. A 1997 report in the Star Tribune quoted Park Commissioner Patricia Hillmeyer referring to it as "an albatross."

The house stood empty until the MPRA, a non-profit group supporting parks and recreation professionals, moved in in July 1997.

Park Board President Bob Fine said the board hasn't made a decision on what to do with the house -- and it may well want to preserve it for future superintendents. "The question is, what is the best interim use?" he said.

The Park Board staff said the building has handicapped accessibility problems on the upper floors, making many other uses problematic.

The Parks Legacy Society, which includes parks enthusiast Joan Berthiaume and Ted Wirth, grandson of Theodore Wirth, said rent is well under market rate.

A subsidy or a moneymaker? Under the current lease, the MPRA has an option for a three-year extension, Fine said. The Park Board doesn't need to take any action.

The Association pays the Park Board $10,000 a year in rent, or roughly $830 a month, the MRPA said.

The Park Board pays roughly $5,000 a year for utilities, said Assistant Superintendent Michael Schmidt. Looked at one way, it is a net of $5,000 a year.

"Part of the logic was that when the superintendent lived there, the Park Board paid the utilities," Schmidt said. "If there was a superintendent living there, there would be no income and the expense would still be there."

John Belfry of Tangletown sees it differently: "As taxpayers, we are subsidizing that group," he said.

The MPRA has proposed increasing its rent by $1,000 a year each year, starting in 2003. That's about an $83-a-month increase for the first year.

Association Director Jon Gurban said he did not know what market rate should be for the house, since it has many limitations.

Roy Sutherland, superintendent of parks for Rochester and MPRA President, told the Park Board the association was getting a "sweetheart deal."

"We appreciate it," he said, adding the two organizations have a very similar mission.

The association also provides 150 free memberships to Minneapolis park staff, which it values at $19,000, Gurban said.

Belfry questions the value of the memberships and wonders if, under the city ethics code, employees should accept gifts.

He and others said the Park Board is leasing the house while at the same time renting a trailer in the park to house horticulturalists.

Schmidt said he ruled out use of the house for the horticulture staff because of handicapped accessibility problems and high remodeling costs to make it usable as lab and storage space.

Historical exhibits lacking In 1996, Gurban said, MPRA would use the first floor for a historical display, open to the public, covering neighborhood history and a century of the park-and-recreation movement, according to a Southwest Journal article.

A Dec. 6, 1996 letter from the East Harriet Farmstead Neighborhood Association to the Park Board about the MPRA lease said: "Of particular interest is the usage of the current living room as a space for historic pictures and artifacts and as a space for special events."

Those exhibits are not in place today.

"It is clear that the MPRA has no intention of creating a main floor museum with public access that they promised the neighborhood," Berthiaume said. "We offered to do that and it is clear they have no interest."

The MPRA has been a good neighbor and allowed others to use the house for various events, Gurban said -- like Halloween events, a local production of Romeo and Juliet and even occasional tours by the Parks Legacy Society.

Making the tours a regular event would be disruptive, he said.

Regarding a local history display, Gurban said, "We have received no request from the neighborhood association that said, 'Let's put some display together.'"

Paying for repairs In 1996, Park Board staff said the MPRA would pay for renovations, including heating upgrades and new air conditioning, according to a report in the Southwest Journal.

The MPRA paid the Park Board $5,000, Gurban said, "which is what they requested."

The Legacy Society has looked at building permits taken out for 3954 Bryant Ave. S. and estimates the Board has spent more than $200,000 to fix the house.

The Park Board's accounting system doesn't have a breakdown of money spent on the property, Schmidt said. He estimated the costs at more than $70,000, but less than what the Parks Legacy Society said.

Then-Superintendent Fisher thought it would have been unfair to ask a new tenant to pay for deferred maintenance, he said.

The Association is seeking an added six-year lease.