An old building heading nowhere

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 1, 2011 - 10:27 PM

Once ornate, 628 E. Franklin has been through myriad financial setbacks and development fights.

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Azzam Sabri admits that he leaves open the windows of 628 E. Franklin for the pigeons as a protest against the city’s stance on his building permits.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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Pigeons flap in and out of the open upper windows of this multi-story building on Franklin Avenue, their feathers and down pillowing in the stairwells. Their droppings crunch underfoot.

Azzam Sabri, who got the building after a $140,000 grant was used in 2003 to rid it of asbestos, lead and guano, shrugs when asked why he keeps the windows open and lets the pigeons back in.

"I wanted somebody to live in the building," he says.

It's been 15 years since any person lived in 628 E. Franklin in the Phillips community of Minneapolis. The structure, boarded up long- er than any building in the city, might as well be a symbol of all the social, legal and financial ills that can sidetrack urban redevelopment.

Built in 1904 as luxury apartments with bay windows and distinctive brickwork, 628 slowly deteriorated. It got caught up in the savings and loan debacle of the late 1980s. It went tax-forfeit twice. It went into foreclosure, and its ownership has been disputed in court.

A different outcome was envisioned 11 years ago when the city bought 628 tax-forfeit from Hennepin County for $1. By now, contractor Jason Geschwind was supposed to have created and sold six luxury condos. Instead, while others successfully redeveloped nearby properties, 628's prospects got bogged down in missed opportunities, court battles and hard times.

Plans don't come off

Geschwind initially brought in Sabri to supply capital. The two developers competed for the building in 2002 with a third contender.

That was a neighboring nonprofit, HOPE Community, and its housing partner, another nonprofit now known as Aeon. Neighborhood activist Jim Graham said the city's development agency clearly wanted Geschwind, who promised to create the most property value. The neighborhood also backed Geschwind because he committed to start within a year.

But while Geschwind and later Sabri spun their wheels at 628, HOPE/Aeon redeveloped three corners of the Franklin-Portland intersection with dozens of units of mostly affordable housing.

Geschwind said that delays in the most recent HOPE/Aeon project, which borders 628, delayed him, and that his financing dried up, even though he told city officials he had access to a $1.5 million line of credit.

He and Sabri signed a joint venture agreement under which Sabri was to find financing. Geschwind said Sabri failed to adequately perform that task, and Geschwind had Sabri, his developer brother Hamoudi and their workers barred from the building.

Sabri said that Geschwind tried to steal the building out from under him. Hamoudi Sabri's company put a mechanics lien for $495,000 against the building for claimed work -- to protect it from Geschwind, Azzam said. However, that work was valued at only $65,000 on building permits. Hamoudi Sabri didn't return calls.

A series of court battles dragged on from 2006 until 2009. Geschwind said he ran out of money to prosecute his claim for the building, and a judge ruled that Sabri was entitled to ownership.

A pigeon protest

The city's deed required that Sabri perform on the commitments Geschwind made to develop condos.

But since Sabri got the building, he began battling cancer again. The condo market went bust. The city barred him from holding rental licenses for five years because it revoked two of his rental licenses, although he's appealing the second revocation.

The city theoretically has the right to pull the building back because redevelopment hasn't occurred. But Gesch- wind and Sabri saddled the building with mortgages that total more than it's worth, and the city would have to pay off creditors.

Sabri said that with city financing he could finish the building, and he periodically pesters the city to approve changing the requirements to allow a commercial redevelopment. But then he ignores the city's responses that he provide specifics about financing, marketing and other details.

He swore in an affidavit last year that he's indigent, making city and private financing unlikely.

Still a striking structure

So the building languishes in a standoff that shows no signs of ending, even as snow blows into the open windows, which Sabri admits he leaves open to protest the city's stance on his building permits.

Yet it's still a striking building, one that a city historic preservationist asked be spared from demolition. Prominent window bays overlook the sidewalk. There's ornamental brickwork outside. A terra cotta light fixture remains in the entryway as a fragment of the building's past. Those familiar with the interior say the building has good bones structurally.

Neighbors have long since lost patience. "Sometimes people hold a building hostage," said Chris Hannon, program director for a chemical dependency rehab program that last occupied the building and relocated around the corner.

"It's aggravating that the building sits there like that," said Alan Arthur, who runs Aeon.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

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