Spotlight on teardowns

Side-by-side projects at the 4200 block of Washburn Avenue South in Linden Hills.

Martha Hewett and Linda Varvel know a thing or two about teardowns. The houses immediately north and south of them were torn down and rebuilt, one before the 2014 moratorium and one after.

Hewett said the difference between the two houses is like “night and day.”

“It’s been a really different experience for us, both in terms of the actual house itself and in terms of the process,” said Hewett, a resident of the 5100 block of Vincent Avenue.

Before the moratorium, they initially didn’t know who the developer next door was. They said a truck dumped trusses in their yard, and workers moved their planters to store materials. The house appeared to loom over them, with first-floor windows high above their own.

After the moratorium and the regulations that followed, the scale of the second house under construction feels smaller, they said. There has been respectful communication with the developer, and they have a better idea of their rights. They’ve posted No Trespassing signs so each subcontractor has clear knowledge of the property line.

“You feel like you know who’s doing this and you know what’s going on,” Hewett said.

Nearly three years after the month-long moratorium on teardowns, 2016 wrecking permits for single-family homes in Linden Hills and Fulton have declined about 45 percent from a peak in 2013, according to data provided by the city. The Linden Hills neighborhood continues to see the most wrecking and remodeling activity in Southwest Minneapolis by far, according to city data.

New design guidelines following the moratorium set a maximum house height and require attached garages and high-reaching basements to count toward the maximum building bulk. A new construction management agreement set guidelines related to issues like noise, working hours, debris, idling vehicles, groundwater and erosion. An online toolkit provided guidance for neighbors of new construction.

“The sheer level of activity is a challenge, from just people absorbing that amount of construction in a residential area,” said Council Member Linea Palmisano, who sought the moratorium and worked on the new regulations. “That’s just a lot to deal with.”

Palmisano said it’s a good sign that her office is fielding fewer complaints, despite the high level of construction.

“From my perspective, it’s going a lot better,” she said. “It’s largely not involving our police and not involving our Fire Department.”

Urban construction is challenging for everyone, said Dick Kotoski of Lee Homes, who worked on the aforementioned Vincent Avenue teardown prior to the moratorium. He said workers comply with building code.

“I know this builder and other builders try to be as considerate as they can,” he said.

He said the city’s new requirements, such as additional shoring during excavation, has increased project costs $5,000-$10,000.

Loren Schirber, owner of Castle Building & Remodeling, said he’s been frustrated by rules that now count attached garages toward maximum building bulk, and said it’s caused him to lose projects.

“If people want to take up their whole backyard with a garage, so what?” he said. “It doesn’t change the street appeal.”

Schirber said he’s seeing more requests for large projects. Homeowners are staying in place and improving their houses, he said, particularly given the current market challenge of finding and bidding on a new home. And even though remodeling prices have increased up to 27 percent in the past year-and-a-half, due to the rising cost of labor and materials, demand remains steady, he said.

Jane Kohnen, president of the Fulton Neighborhood Association, said developers seem to be asking for fewer variances from building code. Fulton started the BLEND Awards in 2007 to recognize houses that blend new construction into the neighborhood fabric. And Linden Hills organized the neighborhood’s first Little Homes Tour last summer as an appreciation for homes with well-designed small footprints.

Kohnen said the initiative has made an impact on some builders, while others continue to build maximum-allowable size houses. She said regulations that came out of the moratorium have made a positive impact.

“There are still complaints about building requirements and enforcement on how things are being built, but it’s certainly better than it was,” she said.

Denis Houle, president of the Armatage Neighborhood Association, said teardowns don’t seem to be the burning issue they once were.

“I’m not hearing as much about the issue as I was in the past,” he said.

For those living next door to a teardown, however, the issue can continue to loom large.

Fulton resident Joan Chartier said the empty home next door at 5040 Xerxes Ave. S. is entering its third year of construction. She nearly hit a nail gun cartridge with her lawn mower, and she’s seen months go by without a soul on the site.

She said that while city staff have been responsive to her concerns, she wishes the city could compel the developer to finally complete construction on this house before focusing on other jobs.

DM Wallace did not respond for comment.

Chartier has lived in her house for 23 years, and she said her house would probably be considered a teardown as well.

“It’s too small for most people these days. They want these huge homes,” she said.

Armatage resident Ryan Egan is watching a nearby teardown at 5440 Cumberland Rd. He said his block has mostly been untouched by teardowns until now, and he fears the neighborhood will someday become out of reach for first-time homebuyers. The Cumberland house sold last summer for $205,404, according to Zillow, and it’s now a 3,600-square-foot house listed by Dream Homes Inc. for $849,900.

“The house that was there obviously needed work,” he said. “But it didn’t need to be three times as big with three times the cost. … You’re pricing out a lot of people.”

Egan said he’s been frustrated by construction debris in the yard and disrespectful workers.

“The neighbors will be great people, but it’s a difficult process to get there,” he said.

Kaleab Girma of Dream Homes said neighbors of the Armatage project have been confrontational from the beginning. He said the wind can carry debris into neighbors’ yards, but his crews work to clean it up.

“Some neighbors just don’t like the idea of teardowns,” he said.

When choosing a house to redevelop, Girma said he looks for small homes in disrepair with few bedrooms. He said homebuyers want to live in the city with open floor plans and at least three bedrooms, and they aren’t seeking large yards.

“There is more value in the land than there is in the home,” he said. “Some neighbors look at it as a negative. … They’re not looking at the gain in property value they’re going to realize down the line.”

At 2624 W. 44th St. in Linden Hills, the asking price for a single-family house is $895,000. A website devoted to the sale doesn’t show any photographs of the house, but does note that the site’s zoning allows up to four stories in height. On a recent weekday, a man who drove past the house told this reporter he was looking for the real estate agent. If he could make the house livable for a few years and the house next door went up for sale, he said, the combined lots would probably generate a lot of interest. The property owner declined to comment.

A house listing at 2624 W. 44th St. advertises the potential for four-story development on the lot. Photo by Michelle Bruch
A house listing at 2624 W. 44th St. advertises the potential for four-story development on the lot. Photo by Michelle Bruch

“This typifies where the rubber meets the road in Linden Hills,” said Walter Pitt, chair of the Linden Hills Neighborhood Council Zoning Committee. “The value of the lot far [exceeds] the value of the home.”

Next door at 2620 W. 44th St., the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission is considering an application this month to demolish a house deemed a “historic resource.” The house is notable as the prior residence of writer Brenda Ueland, according to a city staff report, who is often cited as the first female reporter at the Minneapolis Tribune. Ueland went on to write for magazines including the Saturday Evening Post, publish books including “If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit,” and advocate for women’s rights on behalf of factory girls and prostitutes. She lived at the house from 1954 until her death in 1985.

A historical consultant working on behalf of the applicant said there are better ways to honor historical significance, as the home contains no office or study directly linked to her significant works. The consultant suggested a Brenda Ueland Reading Room at the Linden Hills Library.

The applicant did not immediately respond for comment.

Pitt said he sees a bit of natural selection happening in the neighborhood, particularly where homes stand on large lots.

“Old houses which may be junky are destined to come down,” he said. “Even ones that are nicer and more historic, as the price goes up for the lot, then those are destined to come down.”

Pitt said he’s learned that the question of how to grow is not black and white.

“Do you keep it, do you get rid of it, how do you balance these things?” he said.

Hewett said teardowns have changed the character of her Vincent Avenue block, which started as mostly one-and-a-half story bungalows. She’s seen four complete teardowns, one scheduled to start any day, and one rehabbed second floor. But she said it’s good to see families who can afford larger homes choose to live in the city and send their kids to city schools.

“When we first came to this neighborhood, when a family got a little bit bigger, they would move out because the bungalows weren’t big enough,” she said. “…It’s never going to be a treat to have a house torn down and rebuilt next to you. I think it’s a good compromise between the interests of new people who want to move in to the neighborhood and have a bigger house, and the interests of people who are already here.”