Lowry Hill East neighbors are mobilizing to try to save what was once a 25-unit affordable apartment from demolition, but despite the current owner having played a role in damaging the building, city officials say there’s little to be done to stop it.
The city ordered the apartment at 2003 Aldrich Ave. to shut down in 2018, with families forced to move out, after cracks large enough to see through floors appeared in the facade and inspectors fretted that further shifts of the building could cause a gas leak and, potentially, an explosion. The building, which includes two retail spaces, has been vacant ever since.
Council President Lisa Bender (Ward 10), who represents the area, said that while she is saddened and angered at the loss of naturally occurring affordable housing, the city has no legal avenue to make the owner repair the building. She said the wrecking permit, which is currently being processed, cannot be denied on subjective grounds.
“It’s so unbelievably frustrating,” she said.
The building’s current owner, Randolph Street Realty Capital, purchased the building in March after settling a lawsuit filed by the previous owner, Michael Feddersen.
At the time of the cracking, Randolph Street was doing excavation work on a project immediately to the east of 2003 Aldrich — razing the Theatre Garage and Steeple People sites on Lyndale Avenue to make way for the 111-unit Pure Lowry apartment complex that’s opening to tenants this September.
Feddersen’s lawsuit alleged that Randolph Street’s subcontractors negligently installed soil nails, soldier piles and something called “rammed aggregate piers,” leading to an over-excavation of the soil and a “cave-in deep below the surface” of 2003 Aldrich. Soil conditions are poor in the area, which was once the site of a 40-foot deep swimming hole, “Lake Blaisdell,” that was filled in the late 19th century as the city’s population grew.
The result of the cave-in, the suit claimed, was that the site “settle[d] abruptly” in July and August of 2018, causing pipes to leak, doors to stop working, aluminum windows to bow and twist and walls both inside and outside the building to crack.
On Oct. 12, 2018, the city gave residents three days to vacate. While all buildings move and have some cracks, Ken Staloch, a city building official, told the Southwest Journal that he’d never seen a building move to the degree that residents needed to leave.
A handful of the tenants had to go to emergency shelters, according to emergency homeless shelter consultant Monica Nilsson. She said the property management company moved tenants who could afford it into units in other buildings. “They were more expensive and smaller, but people were desperate,” she said.
The 2003 Aldrich apartment, built in 1923, had needed some interior and exterior repairs, patching and brick tuckpointing before 2018, but a report that Feddersen commissioned from the forensic engineering firm Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates found that were it not for the damage from the project, 2003 Aldrich “would have continued operating as normal into the foreseeable future.”
Randolph Street hired its own forensic engineering firm, Encompass, which concluded that its client’s activities were “the primary cause of the recent movement of the 2003 Aldrich structure.” (Encompass’ report found that rain sliding off 2003 Aldrich’s roof and into the soil over the past decade was also a “significant contributing factor.”)
Randolph Street and Feddersen reached a confidential settlement in February, and Feddersen sold 2003 Aldrich to Randolph Street for $525,000 in March — significantly less than the $3 million Feddersen paid for the property in May 2017. Feddersen and Randolph Street principal Jonathan Saliterman have declined to comment for this story, and it’s unclear whether the sale was a term of the settlement. Feddersen reached a confidential settlement with his insurance company, Midwest Family Mutual Insurance, around the same time he settled with Randolph Street.
During litigation, both Feddersen and Randolph Street commissioned independent estimates of the cost of repairing the building, but those estimates are not included in public court documents. Feddersen’s lawsuit places the cost of damage at over $50,000.
Before it was vacated, rents at 2003 Aldrich were $799-$1,099, according to apartment listings.
Randolph Street has preliminary plans to replace the nearly century-old, four-story brick building with a five-story, 47-unit market-rate apartment that includes ground-floor retail and 14 parking spaces.
At a Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association (LHENA) committee meeting on Aug. 12, President Alicia Gibson vowed that neighbors would fight the proposal tooth and nail.
“We are in an affordable housing crisis, and there were people made homeless by this,” she said. “Developers need to know that if they pull a stunt like this in our neighborhood, there’s going to be hell to pay.”
LHENA wants time to determine whether it’s possible to repair 2003 Aldrich and is looking to wage a public pressure campaign against demolition. Gibson said city leaders need to use their power to stop the destruction of naturally occurring affordable housing.
“Our city’s elected officials should be held accountable for saying bye-bye to affordable housing,” she said.
Saliterman has told LHENA staff that his firm plans to demolish 2003 Aldrich by mid-September.
Andrew Hazzard contributed reporting to this story.