Last week at the Historic Preservation Commission hearing, the White Castle building and the International Order of Oddfellows building were both granted initial designation as historic landmarks. Minneapolis preservationists are thrilled with this step but more than a bit concerned about the processes that led here.
First off, the designation by no means makes these structures safe from demolition. Kemps, the owner, still has every intention of tearing down these buildings. Their end use of the site is not a curb cut, but just additional parking. With West Broadway’s zoning, a parking lot is within commercial standards and would likely need little to no additional approval once those structures are gone. The removal of these buildings, however, would create one–just one–additional parking spot for Kemps’ semis. In all likelihood they will next apply for a demolition of a historic resource. In the meantime, expect them to take minimal care of the buildings and worry even less about whether they are secure from trespassers or the elements. After all, every little bit of neglect and damage to these structures brings them closer to Kemps’ end goal.
Thanks to the dogged support of several HPC members, the buildings have an added degree of protection for now. But as the headline indicates, questions abound regarding the process.
What is an “informational” hearing?
The agenda item was listed as “informational,” and it was unclear whether public testimony would even be allowed. As an aside, Old North Minneapolis members did extensive research on the properties, and submitted substantial reports and detailed comments to CM Yang and other city staffers. On a technicality, it seems that much of that information and public opinion was done before the agenda for this meeting was announced and therefore may not have been included in the report of how much public comments were in favor of both preservation and historic designation status.
Second, the informational designation of the agenda item made it unclear whether 1) public testimony would be allowed, and 2) if a decision would even be made at the particular hearing. Personally, I had work commitments that kept me busy until the early evening. Had I known whether my presence could have impacted the decision one way or another, I would have made every effort to attend. A normal HPC hearing would have ended prior to my arrival, but this one apparently went on long enough that I could have made it. The lack of clarity about what would happen and how public input may have been utilized certainly affected the attendance of at least one or two other people as well.
What is “public testimony” anyway?
So even though a decision was ultimately made, no public testimony was ostensibly allowed. However, Kemps was able to present information from their structural engineer’s “findings” regarding the condition of these properties. That smacks of a double standard. The condition of the structures has little to do with the historic significance they hold, unless the deteriorated conditions leads to a diminished level of historic features left on site. A structural engineer’s report is more appropriate when seeking the demolition (or preservation) of such a structure, but I would submit is almost irrelevant when determining its historic significance.
And yet Kemps was allowed to present its engineer’s findings during the hearing as if that were some neutral testimony about the historic relevance of these buildings. Property conditions aside, Kemps has an agenda. So do I. If I had Kemps’ resources and access to the property, how much do you want to bet that my structural engineer report would be focused on how the structures could be salvaged and put to a new use? Kemps is not a neutral party in this matter by any sense of the imagination. So why were they allowed to present their side without public testimony from those who wish to see such historic resources preserved?
Is it one structure or two?
Both Kemps and preservationists have their respective end goals in mind for both structures. But the history of the White Castle building at 410 West Broadway and the Oddfellows property at 404 are each unique. The conditions of each property are likewise unique. One may be more historic than the other, and one may be more salvageable than the other. So far, they have been treated as a single entity. Should the historic designation process or attempts to demolish move forward, these should be split into two different categories. If a permit is sought to demolish a historic resource, Kemps should have to apply for two, not one. There would then be two public hearings as well.
I remain convinced that both buildings are historic and salvageable, but objectively, these are two different situations and should move through the city processes as such.
Kemps is almost certain to apply for a demolition permit, and that will then require a public hearing. Research, comments, and activism should be prepared in such a way as to delay and thwart that goal. Remember, the only thing Kemps gains is enough parking space for one semi. Do they really need that in order to function? And if they do, then is this site the right place for them? Or will they continue to buy and tear down commercial and housing structures around their site?
If Kemps is worried about needing a barrier between their trucks and West Broadway, then as long as the White Castle and IOOF buildings still stand, that barrier already exists. Finding an end use for these buildings doesn’t have to happen overnight. That kind of a process can take years to successfully unfold. But if they are torn down, the appropriate end use will never be realized.
Because the process itself has been shaky, and because Kemps has so far been unwavering in their attempts to destroy these historic resources, northsiders and preservationists have to remain vigilant.
(Photos from the Old North Minneapolis Facebook page)