Council members face off over abandoned gas stations

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They say it’s time to take a suburban politician to task, for what he’s been doing to their North Minneapolis neighborhood. But he says that while he might have been “neglectful,” he’s trying in good faith, now, to make things right.

“They,” in this case, are Harrison Neighborhood Association (HNA) members and Fifth Ward Minneapolis City Council Member Don Samuels.
The suburban politician is Columbia Heights City Council Member Bobby Williams, owner of Jeff’s Bobby and Steve’s Auto World at 40th and Central in Columbia Heights and Bobby and Steve’s Auto World at Washington Avenue and I-35W.

Williams also owns two stations in North Minneapolis, at 315 Penn Ave. N. and 1307 Glenwood Ave. N. But those two aren’t thriving like his downtown and Heights stations. They’re closed and boarded, and have been for years.

Recently, the one at 315 Penn Ave. N. got hit with graffiti; city inspectors issued a graffiti removal order the week of June 12 and also, according to Joanne Velde of the city’s inspections department, authorized contractors to go out and cut brush and tall weeds and remove rubbish on the property.

The North Minneapolis neighbors have been holding sit-ins at the Penn and Glenwood station. (The Harrison neighborhood is south of Olson Memorial Highway.) They’ve formed a group called NAAGS: Neighbors Against Abandoned Gas Stations, and are gathering signatures on a petition that asks the City of Minneapolis and Williams to do something about removing the gas station.

They’ve had three “Happy Hour” (3-6 p.m.) sit-ins so far, including one during the Juneteenth festival June 17.

In March, neighbors and volunteers from the American Institute of Architects and other planners held a design charrette to help generate ideas of what they want to see at Penn and Glenwood and Girard and Glenwood. The wish list, printed in a Penn-Glenwood Design Charrette pamphlet, starts with “Tear the Gas Station Down!” and neighbors chose the motto, “clean it up or tear it down.”

HNA staff member Annie Young said that at the design charrette, a resident made the comment, “None of this [planning] makes a damned bit of difference if we don’t get rid of the gas stations!”

Harrison is a “teeny little neighborhood,” Young added. “I don’t think anybody has had an abandoned gas station as long as us. We have a list of strategies.”

HNA executive director Larry Hiscock said neither gas station has a “for sale” sign. At Penn and Glenwood, he added, nearby lots have sold for $25,000. “We’re missing opportunities for redevelopment housing,” he said.
Harrison resident Heather Fraser said, “Every time I go past it, I think ‘What a shame.’ It’s at the gateway to North Minneapolis as well as the Harrison and Bryn Mawr neighborhoods. It’s really too bad that the property is not used and doesn’t have a good business on it.

“Many people in Harrison feel like they’re doing their best with the limited resources they have,” she added. “Here’s somebody who has much more in the way of resources, and doesn’t seem to be doing all that much, despite having been contacted repeatedly by the neighbors.

“There’s a sense of frustration and abandonment here,” Fraser added. “Neighbors have said to me that they couldn’t leave an abandoned car on the street for more than three days without having it towed, but Bobby Williams has left a whole building abandoned for many years and nothing happens.”

Fraser said there is also a growing optimism, because of some new redevelopment in the area, that Harrison finally is getting a chance at revitalization.

“Neighbors want to see this property looking better. They want more commercial activity here. My hope is that the property will be sold to someone who will develop it into a good looking, viable business that makes money and serves the neighborhood.”

According to Hennepin County property records, 315 Penn Ave. N. is owned by Robert Williams and A.D. Williams, who Bobby said is his brother, Arlan Williams. The property is valued at $97,000 and the property taxes are paid up. The 1307 Glenwood Ave. N. gas station is owned by Marie Edstrom. Williams pays the property taxes. The property is valued at $130,000 and taxes are current.

Williams’ side
When asked who Edstrom is, Williams said he bought the Girard Avenue station from her. He added that he has a quit-claim deed from her, although it is possible it was not filed.

Williams said he is cleaning up pollution at the Penn and Glenwood station, but people keep dumping garbage on the property and painting it with graffiti.

“Maybe I have been neglectful,” he said. “I’ve had two people recently who said they want to buy it, they even put earnest money down, but they backed out. I’m not saying I’m lily white, but the house right next door is boarded up. It’s not a very good neighborhood.”

Williams said he bought the Penn and Glenwood station in the late 1970s when it was a Skelly station and “doing fine.” He changed it to a Texaco station. But when federal environmental laws changed in 1999 and he had to upgrade the gas tanks at all his stations (he now owns a total of nine), he decided it was time to close it. “We boarded it all up.”

The Harrison neighbors say it’s been abandoned for 12 years, but Williams said he doesn’t think it’s been that long. “I’ve been paying more than $3,000 in property taxes on it, and pretty high storm water fees. It’s been for sale for several years. I’ve gotten a lot of calls from people who want to buy it. I’ve gone through a couple of realtors and paid my [real estate] attorney’s fees. It’s been a headache for me, I want to sell it.

“Now there’s this whole thing of the Harrison people coming on like gangbusters,” Williams added. “People in a community group can cause you a lot of grief. It’s an embarrassment to me, in a sense. I’m in a quandary; what do I do? Somebody put graffiti on it right before Channel 5 news interviewed me, and now their alderman’s been calling me.”

Williams said he has four monitoring wells on the Penn/ Glenwood site and pays every month for them. “That’s probably why I’m not selling it, because people know there’s pollution. Here in Columbia Heights, the city is cleaning up its industrial area, but I’m paying it myself in Minneapolis. I get some money from a state petro fund but that doesn’t pay for all of it. “I understand what the neighbors are saying and I want to fix it up too. Maybe I should spend $50,000 and make it a different building. I thought if I left it the way it was, people who bought it could fix it up the way they wanted it.”

Last year, Williams said, somebody put anti-President Bush posters on the station. (Williams displays a photograph taken of himself and President Bush on his desk at the Columbia Heights station.)

“Somebody told me there were people living in the station but I don’t believe it. I haven’t seen any signs of that. Now there’s a window over the door that’s been broken.”

Williams added, “I think the neighbors [in North] know that I’m pretty high profile. It’s kind of like they’re doing this to slam me. But they’re really embarrassing themselves, calling attention to a neighborhood that needs so much help.”

Williams said the station on Girard is not for sale, because he expects the City of Minneapolis to soon clean up the area near International Market Square, where a new stadium will be built. “I think that area will turn around.” He bought it in the late 1970s when it was a Shell station. He closed it in the 1990s, after turning it into a Mobil station. Workers pulled out the gas tanks and cleaned up the pollution, he said.

Williams said he doesn’t want whoever buys the Penn/Glenwood station to open it as a gas station, because he owns another one six blocks away—Bryn Mawr Tire at Cedar Lake Road and Penn, which he bought in 1975—and it would be a competitor. “I don’t know if tearing it down is the answer. The building is pretty solid.”

The entire situation with NAAGS might eventually have a positive effect on him, Williams added, because it’s making him “rethink” his life. “I attempt to always do the right thing, and I should have probably done something with that store before this.”

The gas stations are both in Minneapolis’ Fifth Ward, and Samuels, the Minneapolis Council Member, said he’s been encouraging NAAGS to pay Williams a visit at a Columbia Heights City Council meeting.

“It is truly an unjust thing for a city council member of one city to do this to another city,” Samuels said. “A council member has such a sophisticated understanding of the effect that blight has on a community. It’s not right at all. Both of Bobby’s eyes are open on this one.”