I’m deeply concerned about the recent reorganization of the Department of City Planning Economic Department (CPED) and the Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC). The integrity of the HPC is critical in assessing historic assets. While the intention to divide the HPC staff among the three remaining CPED teams may be in earnest, the consequences of diminishing this separate advisory board will be disastrous for historic preservation.
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Since the inception of the HPC in 1972 they have successfully protected over 100 landmarks, from the Foshay Tower and Orpheum Theater, to the Philander Prescott House in far south Minneapolis, to the Baker-Emerson house over north to twelve historic districts that preserve countless assets. While HPC has had many successes over the past 30 years there are countless structures throughout Minneapolis that are at risk of being lost.
Minneapolis has a long history of being poor stewards of historic preservation. Even with HPC our ability to save and protect historic assets is an uphill challenge. The City Council Zoning and Planning Committee makes the final decisions, and they do not always follow the HPC recommendations, as we witnessed with Rex Hardware on 26th and Lyndale in my neighborhood, Whittier. Despite the community rallying to save Rex Hardware and HPC’s recommendation for historic designation, based on its unique history as a hardware store for 80 years and being one of the only intersections in the city where all four corners still had their original brownstone buildings, the City Zoning and Planning Committee voted 4-2 against historic designation. Old brownstones are particularly vulnerable, as they may not meet current criteria for historic designation. The value of old buildings like Rex Hardware may be difficult to realize when they need much work to restore them. However, as brick is no longer laid by hand, over time new prefab brick facades will not age in the same manner and provide that living reminder of how early buildings were constructed. In addition to the historic value there are good environmental reasons to reuse and repurpose buildings like these. Since that fateful decision to allow demolition of Rex Hardware in 2009, there have been attempts to turn it into flat lot parking, it has been used as a construction staging area, and it has been even further neglected, growing 6ft high weeds, and attracting lots of litter and graffiti on a vibrant commercial corner.
Dividing HPC effectively diminishes their capacity to influence preserving these early structures of our great city. With each undervalued historic asset we lose what makes Minneapolis a unique place to visit and live; our ties to the past, our roots, our stories.
This is the wrong direction for the City of Minneapolis with regards to historic preservation. We should be increasing our scrutiny of old buildings that will prove to be valuable assets to the fabric of our aging communities not dismantling the Heritage Preservation Commission, the one check and balance we have for saving our history.