They may not be paving paradise. But the University of Minnesota regents voted Friday to tear down 32 old grain elevators on the edge of campus. Some of their own students and other preservationists say they’re making a historic mistake.
Over the past month, opponents had flooded the regents with more than 100 letters and e-mails, pleading with them to save the empty steel cylinders as a remnant of the golden age of Minnesota’s grain industry.
But U officials said no one had come up with a viable plan — or the money — to preserve them, and that the site, near TCF Bank Stadium, was a public safety hazard as well as a waste of valuable real estate.
The rare steel structures, built from 1901 to 1914, were considered significant enough to be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, according to the university. But they never quite made the mark.
The university acquired the 5-acre complex, known as the Electric Steel Elevator Property, in 2015, for $1.5 million after the previous owner tried in vain for 14 months to find a buyer.
Monique MacKenzie, the university’s planning director, said the old silos had “not aged well” since they fell out of use, and that they were a temptation to trespassers, who break through the security fences to explore the 60- to 80-foot-high structures. “Unfortunately, vacant grain elevators have a history of occasional tragic events,” she said.
The university studied other possible uses for the silos but concluded there was “no feasible or practicable alternative to demolition,” according to the report. Under the plan approved Friday, the U will attempt to save some parts of the structures for historic purposes.
The regents approved the plan on a divided voice vote.
Before Friday’s vote, President Eric Kaler backed off from his initial proposal to use the site for a $6 million recreational sports facility. Kaler said that, at the request of some regents, he would review other options before making a final recommendation by February.
But he said there was no reason to delay razing the grain elevators. “We need that land for higher and better use,” he said.
The current recreation sports “bubble,” which includes softball fields and a temporary cover during winter months, is being moved as part of a project to build a $13 million track and field facility near the new Athletes Village. On Friday, the regents approved funding for both projects.
‘The last of their kind’
But the decision to raze the grain elevators troubled opponents such as Lindsey Kieffaber, a graduate student in architecture at the U’s College of Design, who watched in dismay as a regents committee endorsed the plan this week.
“It’s sort of a monument to history,” she said of the steel silos, which were a precursor to the concrete silos that came to define Minnesota’s grain industry. “They’re the last of their kind,” she said.
Andrew Smeby, a fellow architecture student, said it would be one thing if the site were being demolished for a cancer research center. But “it’s tied to the sports bubble,” he said. “We don’t necessarily feel that our tuition should be used for [that].”
Thomas Devine, a member of the Board of Regents, said he is sympathetic to the calls for historic preservation. But for all the opposition, no one has come up with an alternate plan.
“At this point, I haven’t seen a lot of really concrete solutions,” he said. “I haven’t seen anyone come to the table.”
U officials said they plan to donate some of the silo artifacts to the Mill City Museum, and they will determine over the next few weeks how much of the site’s history can be saved.