Preserving Prospect Park

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Residents will vote on whether to pursue historic district designation

Prospect Park’s walkable, small-town feel harkens back to the late 1800s when it was a “commuter suburb” near the old streetcar line, with stately homes, elaborate landscaping, and curving paths that meander in and around gentle slopes.

Its rich history, earmarked by outstanding architecture and significant landmarks, testifies to the city’s coming-of-age, providing a valuable link to the past, some community stakeholders attest. In light of development that seems to encroach on the neighborhood from all sides, however — such as projects that may come with the planned Central Corridor Light Rail Line — some worry Prospect Park might one day lose its remoteness and charm.

One way they hope to safeguard it is to designate the area as an historic district through the National Register of Historic Places, which recognizes properties that are tied to special moments in American history, architecture, archaeology, engineering and culture. If awarded, Prospect Park would become the state’s largest historic district.

The standing is primarily symbolic; it doesn’t place any restrictions on landowners, but it may help stave off unwanted development, explained Joe Ring, chair of Prospect Park/East River Road Improvement Association’s (PPERRIA) livability committee. Under the designation, no federal dollars, permits or licenses may be applied to any development that diminishes the neighborhood’s character.

Basically, historic designation would give the community greater leverage over the nature of residential development, Ring said. The process, which began as one of the neighborhood association’s Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP) goals, has been in the works for about a decade.

If national listing is successful, community stakeholders may pursue local historic designation, as well. Often, local and national status go hand-in-hand. The city-administered designation carries more political clout than the national registry, which is more of a formality, but it requires widespread public support.

In general, historic districts boost property values, although it’s a trade-off because they also raise taxes. It comes along with many responsibilities on landowners. “It changes the tone,” said Ring. “The city then sees the community or district as an asset. It’s a shared thing that goes beyond a private property,” he said. “Everyone has a stake in it.”

More than 20 districts in the city have been identified as potentially eligible for local designation, according to city information. Bob Roscoe, who served on the Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) for 22 years and lives in the East River Road area, explained that local historic designation deals with anything that involves applying for permits for building and remodeling. Specifically, that refers to character-defining attributes of a building’s façade, he said.

The HPC reviews applications to ensure alterations conform to a building’s architectural style. “The HPC isn’t a beauty board,” said Roscoe. “The purpose of the regulatory aspects isn’t to maintain a high level of aesthetics, but to prevent obtrusive changes. History is a record of change. The idea isn’t to freeze-dry history.”

Designation doesn’t automatically mean “no” when it comes to tearing down something, he explained. It depends on its position as a “contributing property.” New developments must meet certain guidelines, but restrictions apply only to work that requires a permit. The same thing goes for the changes themselves. The majority of permit applications go through, he said.

Pointing to other areas that have been designated historic, he said, “It’s been my experience [the regulations] aren’t a problem for most homeowners.”

It is peer pressure, more than the regulations, he said, that helps them maintain high quality. “The status affords stakeholders the moral high ground to go beyond dollars and cents… to think about things before we start tearing them down because they’re part of our heritage,” Ring said.

This month, Prospect Park residents will receive notification in the mail from state officials about the national designation application that is underway. Neighbors do have the opportunity to object, and if 50 percent of the residents vote nay, it will be dropped altogether.

Ward 2 Council Member Cam Gordon said he supports community members’ steps to preserve Prospect Park, but he admitted there are downsides to local designation. “While it has major economic benefits for an area, it is often perceived as something negative as it does take some — though certainly not all — individual property rights,” he said in a written statement for a meeting regarding the process for Prospect Park in mid-July. “Without strong consensus and understanding, such designations can lead to very time-consuming legal challenges.”

A record of the past

Historian Marjorie Pearson, from the Minneapolis-based consulting firm Hess Roise, was hired by PPERRIA to take an inventory of the neighborhood’s historic offerings in 2001. In a 38-page report, she recommended Prospect Park for historic designation (national and/or local) on the basis of its social history, community planning and development, architecture, and relationship to the city’s formation.

Prospect Park originated with wealthy real estate speculator Louis Menage, who offered the territory to the city in 1884. “Because of its topography, much of the community was laid out with a curvilinear street plan with named streets rather than the strict rectangular grid with numbered streets,” the Hess Roise report states.

The houses demonstrate an architectural continuum, from the classical to more picturesque Arts and Crafts (Craftsman), Prairie School, Tudor Revival and English Cottage style, according to the report. Prominent architects of the time including Frank Lloyd Wright, Lowell A. Lamoreaux, Elizabeth Sheu and Winston Close designed some of the homes.

Nearly 600 structures within the neighborhood are listed in the study as “contributing properties” that are historically meaningful, including the neighborhood’s most recognizable icon, the Prospect Park Water Tower — more commonly known as the “witch’s hat” that stands on Tower Hill Park.

From what she has witnessed, Pearson said historically designated neighborhoods often show an orderly and controlled process of change, while property values tend to rise — and taxes go up. “Over the years, by and large, most of the people in the neighborhood really want to do the right thing by their houses and be sympathetic of the architecture of the buildings in the larger community,” she said.

At a recent meeting about historic designation, some community members discussed regulations already in place for remodeling homes. Having listened to their testimonies, Pearson said, “I’m not sure having another layer of protection makes that much difference.”

Community perspectives

Ring claimed Prospect Park community members have already benefited from a city ordinance (chapter 599.200) that offers protection for properties that are historic or under consideration for historic status. For example, Station 19, a restored firehouse near the University of Minnesota, could have been lost in the shuffle for a new Gopher stadium, had it not been for its historic designation, he pointed out.

Mary Alice Kopf, who has lived in the same house on Warwick Street for 40-some years, agreed. Kopf owns a couple of 1884-built duplexes and a single-family bungalow in the neighborhood. She has restored the duplexes that line Cecil Street, while the bungalow was featured as part of the Minneapolis-St. Paul home tour in April.

Considering that most of the neighborhood is already built up, she said, historic designation is a useful tool. “It’s a way of dealing with and having a voice in development,” she said. “I think it’s a marvelous opportunity for people who live in the neighborhood to participate in things that happen to them.”

Not everyone is thrilled by the notion of historic designation, though. At least one person, Marylee Murphy, a graduate student at the university, said she is skeptical of creating more regulations — and more hassles.

Longtime resident Tony Garmers said he’s ambivalent. “You can plan and do all kinds of stuff, but things seem to happen no matter what,” he said. “Subsequent events dictate what happens. You can’t account for all of those.”

Still, it seems many residents believe the status will empower the community to act in its best interests. Roscoe said part of Prospect Park’s appeal is that “It’s always been an area where people with an enlightened vision [had] forward-looking styles of houses… They were built by people with a lot of intellectual investment. They weren’t just looking back, but they were looking ahead.”