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Judge tosses attempt to stop demolition of Colfax house

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: June 10, 2014 - 5:32 PM

Updated at 2:41 p.m.

A district judge has denied an attempt to stop demolition of an Uptown-area rooming house that has become a flashpoint in the city's tension between preservation and growth.

A group of local preservationists, calling themselves the Healy Project, sought a temporary injunction to stop property owners Michael and Linda Crow from tearing down the 19th century house — which has been extensively remodeled over its long life — to make way for apartments.

Judge Marilyn Brown Rosenbaum on Tuesday denied the motion, largely because the plaintiffs who testified as experts lacked the credentials to claim the building was a historic resource under the state's Minnesota Environmental Resource Act.

The case stirred emotions among neighbors and preservationists, who held candlelight vigils outside the house during recent council discussions over the demolition. They were encouraged by television host Nicole Curtis of HGTV's "Rehab Addict," who brought a camera crew to City Hall to capture the council vote and the emotional aftermath in a nearby hallway.

Anders Christensen, one of the plaintiffs, said they are still weighing possible next steps. They could appeal the judge’s ruling on the injunction, or proceed to trial on the merits of their argument that the house qualifies as a "natural resource" under state law. The house would be protected from demolition in the interim, however.

Stephen Harris, an attorney for the Crows, said no demolition is expected until the developer wins needed approvals from the city. The Crows would also need to give tenants proper notice to vacate.

The lawsuit followed a City Council vote to allow demolition of the building on 24th Street and Colfax Avenue, agreeing with a staff recommendation that the building was not worth saving.

"It is clear that the grant of an injunction will affect the Crows' ability to sell the property, will delay redevelopment, and will cause great economic harm," Rosenbaum wrote.

Rosenbaum said in her ruling that the plaintiffs who testified, Christensen and Robert Roscoe, were not qualified to say whether the building qualifies as a historic resource under state law. Christensen and Roscoe both rehab old houses for a living.

"The testimony of both Christensen and Roscoe lacks foundational reliability, and is not based on the type of data or education generally relied upon by experts in the field of historic designation or preservation," Rosenbaum said.

The judge added: "Plaintiff has failed to present any expert testimony and has failed to establish even a threshold legal basis for a finding that the building is a protectable natural resource under MERA."

The Crows relied on the testimony of the city's architectural historian John Smoley and Amy Lucas, a historical consultant. Smoley and Lucas said the property is not eligible for historic designation, based on the city's ordinances, because of how much its integrity has diminished.

 "Both Smoley and Lucas were qualified to give their expert opinions," Rosenbaum wrote.

The house was built in the 1890s by master builder T.P. Healy, who designed 140 houses in the Minneapolis area, many of which are still standing. Following several fires, the inside has been converted into a rooming house with single units, long hallways and shared bathrooms akin to a dormitory.

The fight over the house began in 2012 when the Crows entered into a purchase agreement with the Lander Group. Christensen appealed a staff recommendation in 2013 that the building was not a historic resource, which succeeded at the City Council.

Crow then applied to demolish a historic resource in 2014. The Heritage Preservation Commission denied the application, but the City Council granted an appeal.

The 42-unit apartment project (above), meanwhile, is slated to be heard by the planning commission committee of the whole this Thursday.

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