Historic designation process frustrates Prospect Park residents


Be careful what you wish for. That’s what Prospect Park residents learned after they began the arduous process of becoming a designated national historic site almost 10 years ago. 

When it became apparent that the designation process was time consuming and national designation wouldn’t fully protect the houses of the history-laden neighborhood, residents decided in 2008 that interim protection was needed.

The interim protection would protect historic buildings from being demolished and the neighborhood’s character from being altered for at least a year, or until the city reached a decision on local designation.

But what residents didn’t expect was how strict the protection would be.

Recently, some residents have complained that the city is preventing them from making modifications to their houses.

“The feeling is the interim protection is restrictive – that it’s a little too intrusive,” said Dick Poppele, president of Prospect Park East River Road Improvement Association. “People were told the interim protection is for the neighborhood’s protection … but some don’t feel that way anymore.”

The interim protection, proposed by Ward 2 Councilman Cam Gordon in 2008, is based on national guidelines but enforced locally through the city’s preservation and design team of the Community Planning and Economic Development Department.

The main benefit of interim protection is that an area is treated like a historic site while waiting for actual designation. Poppele said it’s important because federal recognition doesn’t prevent the demolition of historic buildings unless they were built using federal funds.

“We wanted that process to be taken through the Heritage Preservation Commission, but they didn’t go through HPC because we didn’t have interim protection,” Poppele said. “Or at least that was the excuse.”

The guidelines being implemented are used to analyze alterations to 11 other local historic districts and 148 landmarks in Minneapolis, according to senior city planner Aaron Hanauer.

Residents have complained the guidelines are too broad, leaving room for strict interpretation by the city.

“One of the biggest issues is windows. Some residents are frustrated because they bought energy-efficient windows and couldn’t get a permit for them because the city says that’s too much of a change,” he said. “This has raised the anxiety of the neighborhood. They’re wondering, ‘Well, what if I want to do specific things?'”

Daniel Peters is a Prospect Park resident who wanted to rebuild his deteriorating chimney with higher quality bricks. He said he had to pay a $750 fee for a certificate of appropriateness from the HPC, which is required for major building alterations.

Peters thinks the fee and certificate are unnecessary because the new brick material he’ll use looks similar to the bricks currently on his chimney.

“Why should I pay to preserve this inferior building material? I don’t know a contractor these days that would build an exterior chimney using that subgrade brick. There’s no reason to,” he said.

Jack Byers, CPED planning supervisor, said the guidelines are applied as defined by the city ordinance.

“By ordinance, we have to administer it … If you’re going to repair something that is a replacement of the original historic material and it won’t change your property, that’s a minor alteration. But if it changes it, that requires a certificate of appropriateness.”

He said the issue is that many customers still don’t understand the difference between a minor and major alteration.

Robin Garwood, policy aide to Gordon, said the protection is a response to past criticisms that the city wasn’t requiring residents to go through the HPC process. But he said a downside is the process can last several months.

PPERIA’s anxiety

The interim protection was supposed to expire in September but was extended to March 2010 because no design guidelines to determine specific requirements were developed. PPERIA has been working since August on drafting these guidelines.

Garwood said his main fear is the interim protection will expire before a decision at the local level can be made.

“There has to be a lot of work that happens over the next three months if it’s going to happen,” he said. “I don’t know that everybody … in the proposed district is really even tracking this very closely.”

Poppele said residents have to pay attention and “think this through.”

“The key is that we’ll be able to write guidelines that provide for the protection but at the same time provide the flexibility,” he said. “That has not yet been answered.”

Another issue is that the Planning and Preservation Team can choose to take the community’s recommendations as advisory, which frustrates residents, Garwood said.

“I think there’s a difference of expectation from both sides,” he said. “Even if we write the guidelines, how do we make sure they’re interpreted that way by [city] staff? That’s the big question.”

There is concern that residents will associate their hassles under interim protection with national or local designation guidelines. A majority vote from residents is needed to pass the national designation; if residents opt out, the process will be terminated.

After having troubles modifying his chimney, Peters said he’s not certain he’ll vote for historic preservation.

“When you do historic preservation you’re giving up some of your property rights … as a community,” Peters said. “I don’t think that’s been clearly spelled out. The question is what do we get back to make that worthwhile?”