Time for upgrades in Columbia Heights?


Community center, police station, liquor stores, business and housing building planned.

After last year’s shooting at a Central Avenue pool hall, Columbia Heights police officers arrested six suspects and handcuffed them to the benches they use in lieu of holding cells. At the trial, said Columbia Heights Police Chief Tom Johnson, “The defense contested our test results for gunshot residue on the suspects. They said they could have picked the residue up from our station, and the judge agreed. It was the first time anywhere in the United States that that’s happened.”

The case (in which two men died from gunshot wounds and six people were convicted) shone a spotlight on what some call the woeful inadequacy of the city hall building, built in 1978–which also houses the fire department, city offices, and the city council chambers. Council members and staff agreed that the public safety facilities need upgrading, sooner rather than later, and added it to a long list of projects already on the development roster.

Plans for another big-ticket item, a proposed community center, are moving forward, with a July 10 open house at First Lutheran Church. Residents will be able to ponder four different plans at two different sites–and their respective price tags.

Following is an update on Columbia Heights projects in the works, including the construction of the city’s two new liquor stores and other municipal and private developments.

Liquor stores

Finance Director Bill Elrite said that construction will soon start on the city’s two new liquor stores, at 4950 Central Ave. NE and 2105 37th Ave. NE. Both will be built concurrently, to start July 9; at its June 25 meeting, the city council awarded the bid for the work to Copeland Builders, a Bloomington firm.

“Both will be about 11,000 square feet,” Elrite said. “The one on Central will have a 4,000 square foot basement under half the building. The two stores will look very similar, with masonry, brick and cut stone block. They will exceed our design guidelines in quality and materials; we want to set a precedent for future development, especially on Central Avenue.”

Officials expect both stores to be finished in November, Elrite added. “The timing is working out well. Our bids came in $500,000 to $600,000 lower than the architect’s estimates, and we had 15 contractors submit bids on the project. You normally get six or seven. I’m excited about these projects. We’ve had many positive comments already about our clearing the blighted buildings off the Central and 50th site.”

Commercial, residential

Community Development Director Robert Streetar said that the city is in the process of amending the development agreement for the Grand Central Lofts property along Central Avenue. After former co-owner Bruce Nedegaard died, his partner Dave Klober (who owns the Unique Thrift Store on 37th Avenue NE) will take over the project. “Once the development agreement is finished, he (Klober) has an entity ready to build a parking ramp at 47th and Central (northeast corner). There is also a plan for 45,000 to 60,000 square feet of mixed-used commercial, with some restaurants and office space.”

Streetar said Ryland Homes’ Park View housing project, south of Huset Park between Jefferson and University avenues, is going well. “Two buildings are underway in Phase II. Next is a senior co-op, which will be right off the roundabout [on Jefferson].” Although plans originally called for commercial space in that area, Streetar said the developers decided to switch the commercial buildings to University and 37th (northeast corner) so they would be more visible from University.

The building on Central that houses the Don Murnane Wig Shop (3710 Central Ave. NE) will be razed this summer, Streetar said. “The city owns it, and we got $50,000 in CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) funds from Anoka County to tear it down.” The city has no immediate plans for the site, he added, although city staff is looking into the possibility of acquiring more land in the area for future development.

The city also owns the vacant lot south of the Heights Theater on Central Ave. NE (the former Burger King site). “We had submitted a request for special legislation to get money for pollution clean-up, but it didn’t move out of the Senate tax committee. At this point, we’re doing nothing with that property.”

The former NEI College of Technology site, on 41st Avenue, west of Central Avenue, is one of two sites being considered for the community center.

Public safety building

Columbia Heights City Council Member Tami Diehm said that the city has been kicking around the idea of a new facility for a long time. “Our existing police and fire facilities have some severe deficiencies, in terms of space and the building itself. We need to look at what we have to do to bring it up to certain standards. As a city, we need a good state-of-the-art building. As we have more activity, it becomes more and more important to have a facility to deal with it.

“The whole time I’ve been on the council, we’ve been dealing with residents’ concerns about Heritage Heights,” Diehm added. “We’ve been saying to them, ‘We hear your concerns,’ and then we’ve been offering band-aid solutions, with extra officers in Grid 8 and improved lighting on the streets and in the alleys.

“I finally looked at my fellow council members and said, ‘What have we done?’ We came up with the idea of locating a police facility on the corner (at Central and 47th avenues). It’s a big undertaking; we formed a subcommittee and have been meeting regularly. We went through the old space needs studies and tried to put together a rough estimate of what this project will cost.”

(The Heritage Heights area is east of Central Avenue, south of 47th Avenue, north of 45th and west of Reservoir Boulevard.)

Subcommittee members toured other cities’ facilities: New Brighton, Coon Rapids, Anoka, St. Anthony. They talked to other city officials and architects. They also talked to a financial consultant. Streetar said the city spent “less than $15,000 to have an architect do a ‘pre-design,’ after talking to the police and fire chiefs about their needs and what they want in the future.”

Police facilities: How bad?

Johnson recently talked to the Northeaster about the police facilities, saying that except for cosmetic changes of new paint and carpeting, nothing has been upgraded since the late 1970s. “The current facility was built before the computer age. Our wiring for the computers is hanging along the walls on the outside; the ceilings are cement and there was no way to get up inside there. The building has its original HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning); even though we’ve had the lines cleaned, there is a black tarry substance that comes out of the heat vents. And as soon as spring gets here, I get hornets coming through the walls. They dive bomb me when I’m on the phone.”

Johnson said there is no closet or storage space in any of the offices. Officers process evidence, such as dusting for fingerprints or bagging evidence, on a bench in a one-car garage on the west end of the building. The garage door is the “sally port” that officers drive into when they bring suspects to the station. They also keep a freezer in the garage, used to store food for neighborhood picnics hosted by police.

Another garage was turned into the investigations department. The two holding cells were converted into storage space and an office. Johnson said Columbia Heights has 25 officers; three are female, and everybody shares the same locker room. (It does have a bathroom with a door.)

He said the air conditioning system drains down and drips water into the conference room, which is the room they use to interview suspects.

“Our gun range has 1950s technology. We reel in the targets by hand. The ventilation system came from an old restaurant.”

Seventeen officers share the squad room; “one officer might be watching a training video, while another has a prisoner cuffed to the bench in the hallway. We have one rest room for everybody–staff, officers, suspects.

“We would like to compete with other departments and bring trainees here,” Johnson added. “But to try and sell a company on using our training room is difficult.”

What about those benches with the handcuffs? Johnson said the station used to have two holding cells, but after state regulations changed, “it made it impossible to keep them open. There are different requirements according to how long suspects are kept in the cells. We would have needed an alarm system, the suspects have to be monitored, we needed cameras, different wiring, separate bathroom facilities. And we are supposed to have Bibles or other religious books according to their faith available.”

What is he hoping for, in terms of a new facility? “I hope to see the space we need to do our job in a professional manner, a building our officers can take pride in, and one that allows me to recruit the best of the best. It needs to be equal to the time we’re in technologically. I’m not looking for crime labs, but we need interview space, holding facilities, rest rooms. Our investigators should be able to talk on the phone and not have to compete with each other because they’re so close together. Our staff sees other communities like New Brighton, Ramsey, Coon Rapids, Blaine, that have much better facilities, and they ask, ‘Why can’t we have that?’”

“I think putting a public safety building up there would have a huge effect. Brooklyn Center had an area similar to Heritage Heights and they put a station right in the middle of it,” Johnson said. “They saw a dramatic decrease in crime.”

Both the fire and police departments are cramped for space, Johnson said. The council subcommittee is looking at including both fire and police in one building because the two departments already share many amenities. “We could use the same training rooms, locker rooms, interview rooms. We work very closely together on things like arson investigations and medical calls. We go on every fire call; usually an officer gets there first.”

Community Center

Tuesday, July 10, 6:30-8:30 p.m. at First Lutheran Church of Columbia Heights, 1555 40th Ave. NE, Columbia Heights residents can view four proposals for the Columbia Heights Activity Center. It is the second open house hosted by ACAC (Activity Center Advisory Committee); a final one is planned for fall.

The four plans range in price from $11 million to $22 million.

Option One is a 76,000-plus square foot addition to Murzyn Hall at Huset Park, to include two gyms, a walking track, a fitness area, a teen center, a senior center, a child care center, a meeting room and offices.

Option Two is almost exactly the same plan at a different location: a 78,000-plus square foot new building at the NEI site on 41st Avenue.

Option Three is the most grandiose: a $22 million-plus building at the NEI site. At 117,661 square feet, it would have four gyms, a walking track, a fitness area and teen, senior and childcare areas, a meeting room, offices and a swimming pool.

Option Four is a cooperative effort between the city and the Columbia Heights school district, which has already been planning to add at least one gym to the north end of the high school on its own. The plan calls for one gym at the high school and another either at NEI or Huset Park. Total project costs would be $15,414,558 if the gym were built at the NEI site, or $16,096,169 if it were built at Huset; the school district would pay some of the cost.

Residents received fliers in the mail describing the four options; they can also be viewed here, or call Kirsten Partenheimer, community development specialist, 763-706-3674.

The outlook

Streetar said that when the state legislature cut local government aid to cities and counties five years ago, Columbia Heights and other communities suffered. The state used to have programs and resources geared at helping homeowners and businesses–such as the This Old House program, which gave people renovating their property a break on property taxes–but the programs have all disappeared.

Whatever progress Heights has been able to make, Streetar added, has been thanks to what he calls the “proactive and visionary” city council.

He said the city offers some help to homeowners in the form of a home rebate program, which reimburses owners for some renovation costs. City staff has also been bringing in developers such as the non-profit Greater Metropolitan Housing Corporation (GMHC) to help upgrade Heights’ housing stock. A recent GMHC plan, he said, includes tearing down a long-abandoned, burned-out property in the 4100 block of Jefferson and building two single family homes on the site.

“You have to set goals,” Streetar said. “You have to have a little bit of courage. We have a lot to do. But we’ve gotten 25 grants totaling over $7 million in the last five years. I write them, Randy [Schumacher] writes them. We’ve got to compete for the money, but we’re getting it.

“The general responsibility of any city is to see where the decay is and intervene early. You have to help your residents maintain their property with low interest loans, whatever it takes. You can’t wait until an entire neighborhood is in tough shape.”