Minneapolis’ Vacant Buildings: Historic Edition

In a previous post on my own blog, I mapped out properties in Minneapolis that were listed in the property records database as having been built before 1900. This was to get a sense of where older properties are and how many there are. It was also in response to a bout of local hand-wringing over the demolition of one ‘historic’ and supposedly ‘unique’ house, located at 2320 Colfax which even the strongest advocates for preserving the house admit it is actually just an inferior copy of another, beautifully maintained house a half-mile away, on 1716 Dupont.

Demolition dangers

Beyond 2320 Colfax, there are many other properties in danger of demolition. Using data that has recently been made machine readable, Minneapolis’ Vacant Building Registration list, and connecting it with Hennepin County property records, we can determine the year that these vacant or condemned properties were built. According to data accessed on February 7th, there are 571 properties on the list matching data in the Hennepin County property database. From this, it is possible to see that the “big years” for presently condemned properties ended with the 1920s. Beginning with the 1930s, there are fewer properties on the list; this may indicate there are fewer from this era and later which have been poorly maintained. With those dates in mind, I mapped the “critical” properties: those built before 1920 (373 of them; 65% of the whole list), and listed as vacant or boarded. If these properties aren’t preserved, they could well go the way of demolition.

Vacant Properties in Minneapolis, built before 1920

Click for a bigger version. Click on each property to see a little information, as well as a link to the corresponding City of Minneapolis PropertyInfo record. You can also use Google Streetview to take a peek at the exterior.

Why is this important?

There has been a lot of fuss recently about 2320 Colfax, which was never on the list of condemned properties, and is situated in a neighborhood with few dilapidated properties. In other parts of town, however (ones I’m guessing the loudest complainers rarely venture to), blight is more prevalent.

In North Minneapolis, for instance, a number of these properties are located within the swath of land cut through by the tornado in 2012, from which the area is still recovering. But, weather isn’t the only issue here. If you think 2320 Colfax is a convoluted issue, try considering the lack of movement on institutional racism and its influence on housing over North. Or, for a more detailed window into property issues, check out Johnny Northside, or Jeff Skrenes’ blog. Of particular interest are Johnny Northside posts by Camden Canary about landlord Daniel Gelb and John Hoff describing landlord Steven Meldahl which illustrate that even plain old property ownership is a complex tale involving slumlords, predatory companies offering to help people out with their mortgage, shell companies, and shady $1 multi-property transfers. These are issues that the city has so far demonstrated it is unable to solve.

This is not to say that because things are worse elsewhere, 2320 Colfax should be forgotten. Rather, if people care so passionately for this one property, where is the concern and candlelight vigils for all the rest?

Now that the demolition of 2320 Colfax is decided and just around the corner, perhaps some of this effort would be better spent in neighborhoods that desperately need revitalization. Given all the energy and celebrity attention directed at this single property, you’d think that it was Minneapolis’ last hope for preserving its history. As this map shows, there’s no shortage of preservation work to be done.

The data

For a copy of the data, point your browser to the following links:

Additional slices of data mapped:

The above were constructed using data from the following:

About Ryan Johnson

Ryan Johnson is a web developer and linguist from Minneapolis. His free-time is spent on language, folk music and keeping up with politics.

19 thoughts on “Minneapolis’ Vacant Buildings: Historic Edition

  1. Casey

    I agree with you you that the city and developers should invest in areas that could really use revitalization.

    The problem is that many real estate developers do not see the profit in those areas. The Uptown/Wedge area has been a boom for developers as it is a profitable area to build. By approving the demolition of 2320 Colfax, which had some of the lowest rents in the area, has paved the way for 4 more houses to be demolished for new development.

    If the city were to encourage developers to invest in areas of blight instead of focusing on the most ‘desirable neighborhoods’ perhaps we could diversify low income/high income areas to be desirable for all. Evicting low income tenants or inflating rents in ‘desirable neighborhoods’ just exacerbates this problem.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      Isn’t the city/etc doing that? Off the top of my head, regional bodies are looking at or have built: a North Minneapolis Greenway, other bike improvements, proposed Washington/Broadway streetcar, Penn aBRT route (whenever it does happen), Bottineau LRT, Above the Falls Master Plan, the completed Van White bridge. I’m certain we could discuss the minutiae of these projects and how effective they are, but there are certainly efforts to improve the desirability of North Minneapolis. Hopefully they can do more by figuring out the impound lot/rail yard. I’m not sure what else the city should be doing for less desirable areas, but I’m certainly open to suggestion and definitely supportive of making all areas of Minneapolis desirable to live in.

      Either way, maybe you can clarify your point a little. It’s ok for other places of the city, notably ones where low-income people/families reside, to have investment? Why would that investment not have the same side effects as what (people perceive) is happening in the Wedge?

    2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      It’s a pet peeve when people invoke what’s happened along the Midtown Greenway as emblematic of what’s happening “in the Wedge.” It’s not. Aside from the southern edge, next to nothing has been built in the Wedge recently.

      What’s worse is the the supposed alternative for 2320 Colfax – “preservation” – would have turned it into a million dollar single family mansion.

      I’m curious, though, how an area is both “desirable” and low rent, but not an “area of blight.”

      1. Casey

        Alex, you listed infrastructure developments, not housing. What I would like to see is investment into areas where houses are boarded up, vacant and vacant lots.

        Adam, neighborhoods can and should be a mixture of housing options. Many city planners and economists agree. An alternative for 2320 Colfax could have been to sell it as a rooming house as it is, only one of a few that were grandfathered in when they banned this type of housing unit in the city. Also, many apartment buildings in the Wedge have increased rent on current tenants, some over $100 a month.

        When lower income residents become displaced from a neighborhood will they continue to work there? I guess you would like the workers at restaurants and shops who can no longer afford the rents in Uptown to commute?

        1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          The fastest way to displace lower income residents from the neighborhood is to prevent expansion in housing supply in the area. As you note, rents are already doing up because demand exceeds supply.

          As for “could have been sold as a rooming house,” to whom? Who wants to operate a rooming house there? How should the property owner be compensated for the loss of value from requiring it to continue to be operated as you would like?

          1. Casey

            There are many investors looking for opportunities in the area. I know of a few that expressed interest but it was taken off the market. Why do you assume there would be loss of value?

            I do not propose preventing expansion. I would prefer to prevent destruction of affordable housing options. These are not mutually exclusive in proper city planning.

            1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

              “not destructing affordable housing options” does not mean that it will remain affordable. The owner may still want to sell. A would-be house renovator may come in eventually with an offer too good to turn down and change it. The landlord may look at what other 100 year old crapboxes are renting (because the area is so desirable but no new construction is going in) and jack up the rent. We don’t know what the rents would be in the Wedge absent the thousands of ‘luxury’ apartments that went up, but I’d be willing to bet a whole Healy House they’d be higher than they are now. Especially the older, run-down triplexes, apartments without in-unit washer/dryers, etc.

        2. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

          Yes, I listed infrastructure developments. Ones that make the area more attractive, easier to live car-free (which also lowers new or re-development costs), etc. If you’re saying the city should focus its money instead on flat out building affordable housing as a means to make the area desirable, I’m not sure I agree. That’s part of the solution (and the city/Met Council/etc DOES provide grants, etc to non-profit developers for this), but rectifying imbalances in the public realm (parks, transportation, etc) has to be among the top of the methods a city employs.

  2. Steve

    Construction dates in the Hennepin County records are extremely unreliable. Many structures are far older than the dates listed.

    1. Ryan Johnson Post author

      Indeed. I made note of this in the previous post, but not here. Sometimes “1900” seems to be a catch-all year for properties, I guess, built before 1900. Even more recently built records can be inaccurate by a couple of years, and some don’t even have a year listed (and a small few have “0000”).

  3. Brian Finstad

    I want to say first that I hope the tone of this does not mean to sound condescending, but when you ask where the outrage is regarding demolitions in North Minneapolis, that statement itself indicates you do not know much about what is going on in North Minneapolis. The same supporters of the Orth House have been combating demolition and rehabbing houses themselves for quite some time. You probably just don’t hear about it because our universe in North seems to be very separate from what is going in elsewhere in the city. This small group of people, myself included, has stopped the demolition of countless buildings and is making significant change in reforming the bureaucracy surrounding why these buildings are getting demolished to begin with. We pretty much live, eat, and breathe this issue actually. Other than that demolition is involved, the forces driving demolition on the Northside are exactly opposite of what is occurring in the Wedge. The demolitions are not for the purpose of development and thereby increasing density, but are hollowing out neighborhoods. It is not because the conditions of the houses are too bad or that there is not a market for them. It is because they have been entangled in a mind numbing web of bureaucracy. It took Blong Yang and Linda Higgins getting into office to seriously start to see some reform. They get it. My mantra is that we don’t have a blighted house problem in North Minneapolis, we have a bureaucracy problem that looks like a blighted house problem.

  4. Brian Finstad

    To expound on what all that web of bureaucracy entails is too long for a comment, but it is an interesting tale to tell (or at least to me it is). Bill from your group asked me to do a pod cast and I declined. But now I’ve had a change of heart – I’ll contact Bill and set it up.

  5. Brian Finstad

    I do have to point out as well that 2320 Colfax is not a copy of 1716 DuPont. It is the other way around. The reason that the city council unanimously determined 2320 Colfax to be a historic resource was because it was a turning point in his body of work and became the prototype for what he built following the Queen Anne’s he is most typically associated with.

  6. Jeff Skrenes

    I disagree on some of the insinuations in this article (more on that in a moment). But thanks for the shout out, and especially thanks for shining a light on the problem of demolitions, boarded and vacant properties, and blight in north Minneapolis.

    I know I am a leader in housing preservation in my community, but the notion that north Minneapolis is somehow separate from south, or that the preservationists over south aren’t involved here is simply incorrect. First, I was not initially a preservationist, but became one when many of those that have been derided by this and other “pro-density” blogs reached out and educated me. Simply put, housing preservation in north Minneapolis, as precarious as it is, would not be in the state it is in today without the leadership and support from south Minneapolis preservationists. (Many of whom have bought and rehabbed properties in my community. You just don’t hear about it.)

    1. Ryan Johnson Post author

      Thanks for popping in! I agree with your critique of my post here, there are several things (some of these are yours, some are also my own criticisms of myself):

      (a) it’s impossible to give a full treatment to any issue on North without writing way more than I did, within the constraints, I had to summarize (and was actually not entirely satisfied with my own extremely tiny vagueries).

      (b) I agree that it’s part bureaucratic: I know that city departments that should be working together on this do not know what each is doing, and then it’s just difficult for citizens to get access to all that data in an easy way. Sometimes the city does something good, but every thing I hear about some property owner who’s busted for being skeezy is, according to what I’ve read, only a drop in the bucket.

      (c) I’m not trying to imply that people from the south side need to move up there to fix things– I hope my cry for awareness doesn’t say that, what I mean to say is mainly: the Wedge is making the most noise about issues relating to property, and actually 99% of the properties on this map are outside of the Wedge.

      (d) It’s incredibly hard to find out a lot about successes in North, apart from the blogs that do exist when you’re an outsider like me. I even know what I do, partly because a good friend lives up there, and keeps me informed. I’ve read what I can, but there’s a lot I’m just not going to know.

      Probably the editors will come in and smack me for this, but: I wonder if you’d like to write a post here that goes into more detail? You know way more than I do, and I think you’d be way more qualified to summarize the things that I pointed vaguely at. I also think the Streets.mn audience needs to hear what’s going on, what the successes and challenges are.

  7. Jeff Skrenes

    And many of the south Minneapolis preservationists have helped north Minneapolis by reaching out to their own council members when important northside votes are needed.

    Anyway, one of the reasons you don’t hear as much about what south Minneapolis folks are doing about northside preservation is precisely because the need is so great here. There are more than a few houses we’ve saved together (even if they’re not fully rehabbed yet; at least the backhoes are at bay for the time being). I wish I had time to blog about each one. Some are not at a place where the public spotlight is appropriate yet. Others, we just don’t have time to publicize because we’re already moving on to saving the next house.

    And I certinaly don’t begrudge anyone for working to save houses in their own community. Keeping demolition at bay is a LOT of work

  8. Jeff Skrenes

    Lastly, I’m particularly disappointed in one byproduct of the Orth House debate, and that’s the false notion that preservationists and urbanists are diametrically opposed on nearly every issue. We want much of the same things, especially around amenities like bike lanes.

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