College’s houses find new homes in Whittier

The Whittier Alliance is moving two houses it purchased from MCAD to vacant lots down the street

The "MCAD houses" at 2541 and 2543 Stevens Ave. S. are moving to the street's 2700 block. Credit: Dylan Thomas

WHITTIER — Jim Dowds seemed to be taking the news cheerfully enough.

Although one of a pair of Stevens Avenue houses was already resting on a solid bed of crisscrossed steel I-beams, already being inched up off its stone foundation with hydraulic pumps, it wouldn’t roll at midnight on Nov. 6 as planned, Dowds, the contractor overseeing its eventual move two blocks down the street, said. Somebody down at City Hall had gone on vacation, he explained, smiling on a frosty morning despite the last-minute glitch, and so some tree limbs overhanging the street wouldn’t be trimmed that day and 2543 Stevens Ave. S. would remain at that address for another week, at least.

A project several years in the making culminates this month when 2543 and its neighbor, 2541 Stevens Ave. S., both located on the edge of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design campus, move to two empty lots on the street’s 2700 block. The college sold them to the Whittier Alliance for a dollar apiece, and the neighborhood organization plans to spend about $280,000 to turn them into single-family starter homes.

That’s something the neighborhood doesn’t have a lot of, explained Whittier Alliance Executive Director Marian Biehn. Whittier has abundant rental housing and some grand and historic homes, but there’s not much in between.

“There isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t hear from someone who wants to stay in the neighborhood but can’t find a place,” Biehn said.

Soon, Biehn will be able to point those prospective homeowners to 2726 and 2728 Stevens Ave. S., where the two homes, both constructed in the late 19th century, will end up. A report prepared for the Heritage Preservation Commission noted both were contributing properties to the Washburn-Fair Oaks Historic District of century-old homes, but they were the last remaining of the 14 single-family homes that once shared the east side of their block, and both structures were considered of less architectural value than others in the district. MCAD purchased both within the last five years and was using them as student housing.

In their new locations, they’ll replace two four-unit buildings that were both condemned in the mid-’00s and later demolished, according to city records. They’ll stand side-by-side again, situated mid-block between a single-family home of more recent vintage and the Greenleaf Community Garden.

Elfric Porte, the city’s manager of residential and real estate development, said both of the vacant lots were tax-forfeited properties the city acquired from the county and then sold to the Whittier Alliance. Port called the deal a “win-win” for preserving the old homes while contributing to neighborhood stabilization.

“It helps with the other residents on the [2700] block, because they don’t see a blighted, vacant parcel,” he added.

MCAD Associate Vice President of Facilities Brock Rasmussen said the college has no plans for “immediate development” of the newly freed-up land on its property.

“We know that someday in the future that is a likely spot of future expansion,” Rasmussen said. “Those two lots, they round-out our campus edge.”

If this story sounds familiar, it’s because in 2009 MCAD moved another century-old home off the south end of its campus.

The Blue House, as it was known, now rests on a foundation in the Lyndale neighborhood. It was replaced by a surface parking lot and sculpture garden.

The college at first planned to demolish the Blue House, but when the Whittier Alliance objected and the Heritage Preservation Commission rejected that plan, Dowds and others stepped-in to find a buyer and coordinate the move. At the time, Biehn told the Southwest Journal she was “really sorry to see it leave.”

This time around, Biehn said, MCAD and the neighborhood agreed early on to a sale. That was near the start of 2012, but it took nearly two years to locate and secure the vacant lots and get all the necessary city permits, she said.

During that time, the neighborhood’s board of directors spent hours weighing the financial risk of investing in the homes against two of the organization’s top priorities: preserving historic structures and promoting home ownership. The Whittier Alliance allocated about $220,000 of Neighborhood Revitalization Program funds earmarked for housing and $60,000 from its reserves to the project.

“It came down to the question of what’s more important,” said Erica Christ, president of the Whittier Alliance Board of Directors. “… The majority of us [on the board] felt like doing something that helps fulfill the [organization’s strategic] plan was way more important.”

While MCAD is covering most of the moving costs, the Whittier Alliance will pay to renovate both homes and bring them up to code. The organization plans to offer both for under $180,000 and is seeking owners who plan to live on the property.

Christ said the alliance stands to make or lose about $20,000 on the project. Either way, they’re likely to add a few more long-term residents to Whittier.

“We’re losing the people who want to put down roots,” she said. “They’re doing that in some other neighborhood.”