OPINION | View from my porch: Last house standing

This adobe home at 393 Bates, built in 1929, sits on the site of the future Metro State parking ramp. Eminent domain may be invoked so Metro State can acquire the land.

Even as I write this, a community member asks me, “What is the status of the ‘adobe house’?” This 393 Bates Avenue structure is also known to some as the “last house standing.” As cranes, bulldozers and trucks work away in the great pit surrounding this solitary island, some see the predicament only as an impediment to the footprint of Metro State University’s parking ramp. One neighbor noticed activity around the house, jumping to the conclusion that demolition was pending. The lot’s perimeter has been shored up, leading to more questions about the future of the house. I notice changes in the landscape every time I walk past. A gap in the earth – is the digging around the property causing the “island” to weaken? When the hanging flower pots disappeared, a neighbor asked if it signified a dire change; but no, the plants just needed some tender care and watering, so owner Jim Smith had temporarily removed them. To those who watch the house, the flowers serve as a visual reminder that water, electricity, and life still flow there.

393 Bates Avenue has been home to Smith’s family since 1988, and his daughter has grown up there. Jim – along with many community members – would like to see his beloved house relocated to a new lot. No one from Metro State is talking, perhaps for legal reasons. Laura King, Vice Chancellor and Chief Financial Officer, simply said, “The Board of Trustees did approve the use of eminent domain if negotiations are unsuccessful.”

Metro State presented the Board with an action item, the document dated March 19, 2014, to approve the use of eminent domain in acquiring the property. The document states that “the seller has not responded to subsequent written or personal visits or requests to renegotiate the proposed purchase, leaving the university at an impasse on the acquisition of 393 Bates.” (Whether any communication or negotiations have taken place since March 19, this writer does not know.) This request for action does indicate that the property issue has the interests and involvement of the State House of Representatives Ways and Means and the State Senate Finance Committees.

Eminent domain may be used to acquire real property only for a public use or public purpose. Under Minn. Stat. §136F.60, Subd.2 the Board may acquire real property “…by gift, purchase, or condemnation proceedings. Condemnation proceedings must be under Chapter 117.” Minn. Stat. §117.025, Subd.11 (1) defines public use or public purpose to include “the possession, ownership and enjoyment of the land by the general public or by public agencies.” In this case, the university plans to fund, build, and operate a parking ramp and surface parking on its site to serve its classroom and event activities. Further, the university is required to produce parking necessary under city requirement to support its use. The property at 393 Bates Avenue is part of the overall plan for parking on the site. I don’t know how charging parking fees by and for a state institution works with property gained by eminent domain and for use as campus parking, but that may be a different topic altogether.

The Minnesota Historical Society describes this eye-catching home as a “rare example of a one-story Adobe Revival house…[with a] uniquely formal and symmetrical façade.” Each time I walk to work or walk home and pass the house, I’m not sure if the adobe house will be standing or if I will see a flattened area being readied for “the ramp.” Perhaps the oscillating crane’s pendulum hanging over the house earlier this week was the final omen of doom.

The MnSCU Acquisition of Property document notes: “The university intends to continue negotiating with the seller, but if the eminent domain action proceeds, the system intends to use the 'quick take' process provided under state law. The quick-take approach is commonly used by the state to take early possession of the property, but still requires proceedings in state district court before the state can take title. Even using this process, securing title to the property likely would not be completed until late 2014.”

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sage holben's picture
Sage Holben

Sage Holben (uppelto [at] gmail [dot] com) is a freelance writer who lives in Dayton’s Bluff, St. Paul.