New life for abandoned hospital?

Development talk around City of Lakes building resurfaces

STEVENS SQUARE — The City of Lakes building has not been a good neighbor, said Frank Anderson, a longtime Stevens Square resident.

The former health care facility at 110 E. 18th St. — a hodgepodge of additions built around the original Abbott Hospital — has been vacant for about two-and-a-half years. Anderson, who lives on the same block, said the building has been anything but quiet in that time.

“You’ve got people sleeping around there, drinking around there,” Anderson said. “[There’s] trash around the building.

“It’s very much a black eye” on the neighborhood, he added. “Any vacant building in any party of the city, it adds to the crime rate.”

Minneapolis Police recorded 76 calls for service to the building between the beginning of 2006 and early December 2007. Those calls included dozens of reports of trespassing, as well as several for burglary.

An abandoned vehicle behind the building may have been used for prostitution, police and neighbors said. In October, police responded to a report of an accidental overdose in the building.

The people behind Gateway Commons, the development company that owns the site, said they did not plan for things to work out this way.

“Our intentions were to be finished with it a long time ago,” said Amri Elsafy, one of three partners who purchased the building in January of 2004.

After twice attempting to develop the site into condominiums, Elsafy and his partners now plan convert the City of Lakes building into apartments. Work could begin as soon as next spring, he said.

In November, Gateway Commons put up a fence around the building to discourage trespassers until construction work begins at the site.

Anderson said the fence had improved the situation on his block, somewhat. But after waiting years to see progress at the site, he remains skeptical about Gateway Commons’ intentions.

“I just don’t believe they’re going to do it,” he said.

Changing market, shifting plans

In 2005, Gateway Commons presented plans to build a 23-story condominium tower on the City of Lakes site. The Heritage Preservation Commission and many neighbors opposed the proposal, and it was eventually rejected by the city.

A smaller project, known as Fusion Flats, was on its way to city approval in 2006 when the Minneapolis condominium market soured.

“The slowing down of the condo market really hurt us,” Elsafy said.

Elsafy and his partners, Majid Mashad and Swami Palanisami, are now working with an architect on plans to convert City of Lakes into apartments. Just how many units the building will contain was still an open question in December, he said.

The nature of the City of Lakes building makes for a complicated project, he added.

Both the original 1910 Abbott Hospital building fronting 1st Avenue South and the 1919 Janney Building are contributing properties to the Stevens Square Historic District. But City of Lakes also includes multiple additions constructed decades later, which are not considered historic.

Elsafy said he and his partners originally planned to demolish many of the later additions. After so many delays, though, they may keep much of the building intact just to speed completion of the project, he said.

In the meantime, Gateway Commons still struggles to secure the huge building.

“We’ve spent about $20,000 in just boarding up the building and [installing] padlocks,” he said, “and these people find the most creative ways to get in.”

Police and neighbors found evidence of squatters living in the building. So-called urban explorers made the maze-like facility an illicit playground and posted pictures on the Internet. Burglars stripped copper piping from the building worth “hundreds of thousands” of dollars, Elsafy said.

He estimated City of Lakes has had upwards of 200 replacement windows and 20 different doors, adding: “If somebody wants to get into that building, they will.”

Anxious for change

The illegal activity inside and around City of Lakes concerned nearby property owners, who said they were anxious for construction to begin.

Diane Hansen, owner of Copenhagen Properties, said she was concerned for her residents at 1706 Stevens Ave. S. and employees who worked there. A back door on her building opens up to the rear portion of the City of Lakes building, including a loading dock.

“If you’ve looked around back behind [City of Lakes], there are all kinds of little niches and places [where] people can hide or camp,” Hansen said.

She added, though, that she knew of no confrontations between her tenants and any trespassers from next door.

Bruce Ackerman, who owns the building at 1700 Stevens Ave. S., said his residents reported feeling “nervous” passing the vacant facility.

“I think with the fence up, people feel better,” he said. “My tenants are more comfortable, now.”

Steven Gallagher, executive director of the Stevens Square Community Organization, said Gateway Commons was cooperating with the neighborhood and police to reduce crime around the building.

“In my opinion, lately they have done whatever’s necessary to curb people getting in there,” Gallagher said.

Elsafy acknowledged that no fence would keep out a determined burglar or squatter.

“Is it 100-percent goof proof? No,” he said.

The best deterrent to crime, neighbors said, would be an occupied building. That’s why they were eager to see construction start.

 “Everybody’s excited to see something happen,” Ackerman said.