North Side still pocked with vacant buildings

  • Article by: MAYA RAO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 21, 2012 - 8:56 AM

A year after a tornado, many North Side buildings remain vacant, posing a physical and emotional barrier to recovery.

The lingering force of the tornado that ripped apart north Minneapolis a year ago shows in the boarded, empty home where the mailbox is still stuffed with letters. The vacant, overgrown lot where a house once stood. The rooftop draped in blue plastic.

It festers in the apartment building that once housed 11 families, but now hosts mice racing across overturned sofas, discarded clothing and filth.

"It's ugly," said Tara Ram, who lives near the vacant apartment building at Sheridan Avenue and Golden Valley Road. "They should bulldoze it."

Ka Yang, her next-door neighbor, still says to herself, "Oh my God, empty lots, houses that are still vacant."

And this is just on the 1800 block of Sheridan Avenue, one of the many grim snapshots of the struggle to recover from the twister on May 22, 2011, that damaged 3,700 properties and displaced hundreds of people.

The city says 96 percent of properties that suffered serious damage have been repaired, razed or are in the process. But as of late April, at least 250 tornado-damaged properties still had major unfinished repairs or had joined the city's list of vacant and boarded buildings, according to a Star Tribune analysis of inspections data.

Some owners walked away. Some are haggling with their insurance companies, while others had no insurance to begin with. Some derelict buildings have sat on a city demolition list for months.

Whatever the reasons, every vacant or decrepit building is one more barrier to the city's hopes for revitalizing an area that had been battered by foreclosures, property speculation and decay for years before the storm.

City housing director Tom Streitz acknowledged there is more work to do. "It's been really a hands-on, all out effort to get people to respond," Streitz said.

He said city inspectors have knocked on the doors of these homes as many as five or six times and made every effort to contact the owners. And the process of getting an "uninhabitable" building demolished can take six months to a year.

As many as 30 more blighted properties are set to be razed by summer's end. Three are boarded eyesores on Penn Avenue between Broadway and 26th Avenue, an area the city hopes to revitalize.

Meanwhile, Minneapolis expects by fall to begin the process of building 100 "green homes" on vacant lots that litter north Minneapolis, and new developments aimed at rejuvenating hard-hit West Broadway, including a project with retail and housing at Penn Avenue, are set to take off in the next year or two.

Feeling of heaviness

A sense of optimism and opportunity have arisen on the North Side, said Chad Schwitters, executive director of Urban Homeworks, a group that has helped rebuild the area.

But, he said, "There's still this heaviness that I think is pretty prevalent."

That gloom is felt by people like Stanley Powell. Since his house on the 1800 block of Sheridan was destroyed, he cannot bring himself to return. He feels depressed seeing similar blight when driving through other parts of north Minneapolis.

"You can see they're doing a lot of work -- but there's still work that has to be done," he said.

Take 3501 Girard Av. N., where bricks crumble on the roof, and blue tarp slides off the back and green tarp hangs off the front. Grass sprawls in every direction, and at least 15 boards are up.

Then there is the blue and white house at 3450 Humboldt, with ragged boards strewn over the front lawn. Much of the white picket fence is gone, and posts are missing. A window is smashed in.

The green house at 1401 Upton was boarded and empty for nearly a year; neighbors say thieves broke in several times and stole all the copper. Only a few weeks ago did a new family finally move in.

"A vacant house is no good," said Clarion Holloway, who lives on the same block, while clearing away tree stumps for the new occupants.

On the 3800 block of Colfax Avenue, neighbors point out the vacant site where a home was razed, the house that is set to be demolished, and the unkempt property with a wrecked roof under a tarp.

"Some days it's depressing even just coming back," said resident Aundre Roberson, a pastor. "You think, almost a year later and you still walk around and see a lot of stuff isn't fixed yet."

Roberson moved into 3842 Colfax with his two sons three weeks before the tornado. The twister sent a tree crashing through his house and blew off the fence surrounding his front yard. The landlord fixed the property, but he can still see the warped surface of the roof and his dog can't roam freely on the lawn anymore.

His parents sold their tornado-damaged house for a loss last year and went back to Mississippi. Some days he wonders if he should move, too.

Three blocks north on Colfax sits one of the worst-looking remnants of the tornado: a three-story house with a collapsed porch and wooden planks tossed on the yard. There's a wide scar where the porch roof used to be, several boards are hanging loose from the second floor, and a top window is knocked out.

Demolitions delayed

Minneapolis has a process for getting rid of problem properties, but savvy property owners can slow that down. In December, the city ordered the demolition of the crumbling apartments at Golden Valley and Sheridan. But an appeal from landlord Mahmood Khan has kept the city at bay.

Khan blamed his insurance company for the delay in approving the $450,000 to $600,000 he expects it would cost to make 2501 Golden Valley Road habitable again. Khan acknowledged the building is in bad shape, but said that initially he needed to keep everything as it was while fighting for the insurance money. Then, he said, the city prevented him from making repairs -- with the exception of the roof, replaced this month -- while the demolition matter is pending.

He also blames thieves who tore out wiring and stole all the metal, creating further insurance delays because Khan had to file a separate claim for vandalism. They pulled mailboxes out of the wall and walked off with sinks, kitchen appliances, and shower faucets.

"We had radiators, those are 200-, 300-pound radiators stuck on the wall," explained Khan, gesturing around inside the dank building as a mouse dashed over the debris on the floor. "All the radiators in the building are all gone."

Inside, one hallway floor is buried under insulation. The renters' belongings are strewn everywhere. Fridges are tipped over. Khan thinks he might have the place fixed, in six months.

Across the street, a dilapidated day-care center owned by a different landlord is still standing, four months after the city issued a demolition order.

Insurance wrangling

Months later, some property owners are also still wrangling with their insurance companies to cover repairs, and city and nonprofit leaders say they have heard many complaints about difficulties in having claims approved.

Susie Davies said American Family Insurance paid to have an enormous tree removed and make some repairs to the roof of her rental property at 3950 Aldrich.

Davies said she was told by city inspectors that further work was needed -- including electrical wiring -- to bring the house up to code, but the repairs are at a standstill because insurance won't pay for it.

Without tenants, Davies fears she will lose the house. She can no longer afford the mortgage after the company stopped her "loss of income" payments several months ago, and missed her payment for May.

After the Star Tribune inquired about the case to American Family last week, a spokesman said the company would cover the repairs and continue covering Davies' loss of income.

The owner of Clipper Cuts on West Broadway near Penn Avenue has also tussled with her insurance company over cracked walls and leaks. The bigger problem is the 40 percent decline in business after many customers were displaced. Barbers have quit because they can't feed their families just sitting around.

The intersection where the city sees so much promise is bleak for now.

"After the tornado hit, it's like half of [the customers] were homeless and went different places ... you come down here 4 or 5 o'clock and look down on this street, it's just a blank," said Lawrence Battles, manager of the building housing Clipper Cuts. "It looks like a ghost town."

Maya Rao • 612-673-4210

Coming Monday: A year later, the tornado's cost exceeds $80 million, a Star Tribune analysis has found.

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