Court chastises city for preventing developer from razing dilapidated historic building

Minneapolis has designated some 200 structures within the city as historic landmarks worthy of preservation and protection. But there’s about to be one fewer landmark on that list before long, following a sharply worded court ruling that allows the demolition of the old First Church of Christ Scientist building in Elliot Park to proceed over the city’s objections, according to the Star Tribune.

Minneapolis officials erred when they denied a permit to demolish a historic former church whose condition has deteriorated for years, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled this week.

“We reverse the City of Minneapolis’s decision … because the denial was unreasonable, arbitrary, capricious, and not supported by substantial evidence,” retired Judge John Smith wrote on behalf of the court.

The city website describes the landmark built in 1897 this way:

…Architect S.J. Bowler chose a small-scale design of the Doric order. The Doric order was believed to be the oldest, simplest, and most adaptable form of Greek architecture. Only two buildings – The University of Minnesota Library (now Burton Hall) and the First Church of Christ Scientist – remain as examples of this style in Minneapolis. 

Unfortunately, however, not much of the former church’s glory remains in good enough condition to be appreciated, much less preserved. Although once considered for renovation, the structure has long been vacant, deteriorating into an eyesore fenced off from the public.

The church was once stately, featuring a pristine grand sanctuary and a prominent stone staircase in front. But the building has sat vacant for 15 years. Graffiti and vines have overtaken parts of its walls, and water has seeped through the roof. Metal supports were eventually installed to prevent a collapse.

Weidner Apartment Homes, which is helping to develop an adjacent apartment building, bought the former church several years ago with initial plans for possible restoration. Weidner later asked the city for permission to demolish the building, but the citizen-led Heritage Preservation Commission and the City Council denied that request.

The standoff set up an unusual challenge to the city’s preservation powers over historic properties. The case wound up before the Minnesota Court of Appeals.

The developers filed an appeal in court. Their attorney, Stuart Alger, argued that the city’s decision was “arbitrary” and “capricious” and made it impossible to demolish the building. The city’s attorneys disputed that characterization and said they had a rational basis for denying the permit.

But the appeals court came down firmly on the side of the property owner, not to mention common sense. The judges reversed the city’s denial of a permit to demolish the nearly 125 year old structure that would cost millions of dollars to renovate, rebuking officials in the process.

The judges — Smith, as well as judges Renee Worke and James Florey — sided with the developers, saying they “presented significant evidence of the deterioration and high cost of rehabilitation of the building.” Some estimates put the price of repairs at roughly $4.2 million.

The city had argued that it might be possible to use the building for another purpose, but the court said that argument “was based on conjecture and speculation” and “does not acknowledge that alternative uses of the building other than office space ‘would cost nearly the same but returns significantly less revenue.'”

The appellate court’s ruling should serve as a reminder to local officials that many factors that need to be taken into consideration in an area of regulation prone to promote preservation for preservation’s sake.