Old Pillsbury Library could become condos

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One of Old St. Anthony’s most stately structures, the old Pillsbury Library building, might soon be turned into condominiums with new town houses built alongside it, according to several city officials. The potential developer, however, says there are no plans and nothing has been decided about the building’s future use.

If you’re younger than 40, you probably don’t remember when the white Vermont marble building at 100 University Ave. SE was a library. It closed in 1967 and the Minneapolis Public Library system sold the building to a medical diagnostics company. Since the 1980s, it’s been Dolly Fiterman Gallery.

John S. Pillsbury, who donated the building to the library system, also never got to see it as a library. He died before it opened in 1904.

On December 2, the Minneapolis City Council approved a resolution authorizing city staff to give Library Property LLC, which lists developer Ray Harris as its “first and sole governor” in its articles of organization, an option to buy some city-owned land next to the building.

Rebecca Law, a project manager for the City of Minneapolis Public Works Department, said in an email and confirmed in a telephone conversation that the company has an option to buy the old library building as well, “while [Harris] explores the feasibility of his proposed condo project. He would need to own both the City land and the Fiterman parcel [the old library building] to implement his project.” The “city land” is between the old library building and the St. Anthony Main parking ramp.

Harris sounded even less definite. He said he expects to “know more within 60 days. It could be sooner.

“We don’t even own the property,” he said, “and we might not.”

Because of its historic status, the building “can’t be torn down,” Harris said. “It has to be preserved, so that’s what we’re working on.”

Documents on the city’s Web site that track the action to give Library Property LLC an option to buy the city property do not mention Harris or the possible condominium development. On agendas for the city council’s Transportation and Public Works Committee and for the council itself, the action is labeled “sale of excess city-owned vacant land.” The documents identify Library Property LLC as the buyer, stating the company is the “adjacent property owner.”

According to city and county records and officials quoted earlier, the company does not own the adjacent property. City officials said, however, that they would not sell the land to the company unless it buys the old library building as well, thus becoming the adjacent property owner.

The documents ask the council to authorize city staff to sell the property “according to the terms of the Option and Purchase Agreement. Asked for copies of the option and purchase agreement, City Council President Paul Ostrow said those documents don’t yet exist.

Melissa Bean, who is executive director of the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association (the property is on the edge of that neighborhood), said the group was not notified that the city was giving an option to buy the land, and that she wouldn’t expect the group to be notified at this stage. Victor Grambsch of the Nicollet Island-East Bank Neighborhood Association said he had “heard on the street” about the possible condominium project at the old library location, but that the group had not heard from the city about the purchase option.

Ostrow said he was not aware of the land purchase option or the condominium idea when contacted last Thursday, the day before the city council approved the option. He said later that the item passed the council without any discussion that identified Harris or the condominium idea.

Ostrow said he is comfortable with granting the purchase option without widespread knowledge of the eventual possibilities. He said the city isn’t in a position to issue a request for proposals for the property, because the city only owns the adjacent land and not the old library building itself.

Asked if the purchase option suggests a level of city approval for the eventual project, he said no. If Harris’ company buys the old library building and brings a project forward, Ostrow said, the fact that the city council approved his option to buy the city-owned land “wouldn’t in any way compel me to vote for it.”

Was he comfortable with the general level of knowledge the council had when the option was approved?

“Under the circumstances, I’m comfortable with it,” he said. “I don’t see this option as any kind of approval. I don’t think this is a big decision.”

“What ultimately happens there is certainly important enough” to require widespread notification and careful consideration of the project, he said. But the city, he said, hasn’t given up any power to regulate a future proposal.

According to council committee documents, Library Property LLC will have until June 30 to complete the purchase or the option will expire. The committee and council action calls for the company to pay $75,000 for the city owned land. After expenses are deducted, that money is to be deposited into the city’s parking fund.

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