Charlotte Berres took advantage of a sunny day last week to step out of her 1886 home and stroll through the history — and memories — of her St. Paul neighborhood.
There, on her block and an adjacent block on Iglehart Avenue in Merriam Park, are 10 homes, places she remembered from childhood in the 1950s, homes filled with Tierneys and Torkelsons, Ryans and Brennans. She pointed out places built in the 1880s, 1890s and early 1900s, and while some have fallen into disrepair, Berres is most concerned about developers intent on knocking them down to make room for multiplexes.
“I think these properties need to be protected,” she said. “For me, it’s more important to save the character of a city than to have another 10,000 people live here.”
The concerns of Berres and others are resonating at City Hall. On Wednesday evening, the St. Paul City Council will hold a public hearing on a proposed moratorium to prevent demolitions or lot splitting in an area soon to be studied as a possible historic preservation district. If approved by the City Council, the moratorium would last nine months.
While preservationists praise the idea as a way to buy time against tear downs and save historic homes, some area property owners and developers worry that such restrictions will put a popular neighborhood out of reach for growing numbers of people who want to live there. Not every old house is historic, they argue.
Developer Jon Schwartzman wants to replace two houses on Marshall Avenue with a five-story apartment building, but he’s being challenged by neighbors in court.
“There is a housing crisis in St. Paul,” Schwartzman said. “A lot of people don’t want to see old houses get torn down. I get it — if they had been kept up. But old doesn’t necessarily mean good.”
People want to rent in an area near four colleges and close to Interstate 94, the Green Line light rail and the A Line bus rapid transit. But the pickings are slim, Schwartzman said. Citywide, the rental vacancy rate is about 2 percent, while “70 percent of the apartment buildings in St. Paul are 50 years old or older and a lot are more than 80 years old,” he said.
Yet, when Schwartzman previously proposed tearing down two Iglehart Avenue homes — at 1905 and 1911 — and replace them with apartments, neighborhood opposition was so vehement that he backed away. Kaleab Girma, another developer who wants to raze those homes and replace them with multiunit housing, stepped forward. But a temporary moratorium passed last week has blocked those plans, which could be shelved if the council approves the 9-month moratorium. Girma declined to comment for this story.
At a neighborhood meeting last week to discuss the possibility of an area of Merriam Park becoming a historic preservation district, some neighbors voiced support. Others did not. To them, such designation could mean restrictions on what they can do to their home’s exterior — or chase away buyers who may want to tear it down. The moratorium also is a concern.
Teresa (Tierney) Mauer, whose parents own the houses at 1905 and 1911 Iglehart but who have since moved to a senior community, wrote City Council Member Samantha Henningson to oppose the moratorium.
“I must tell you we feel we are being unfairly singled out — targeted if you will — by your moratorium proposal,” she wrote.
Jean Holt, another Tierney daughter, wrote: “Please do not do this to my aging parents ... We convinced them to move to the Highlands because the home is unsafe to live in. They need the money from the sale to live what is left of their lives ... please let them sell this to the buyer who has plans to tear it down because that is what it is ... a tear down.”
Henningson, who represents Merriam Park and said she is “not a preservationist,” suggested the moratorium as buying time to gain more information about the neighborhood and the pros and cons of historic designation before more homes are razed. Rather than fighting tear downs in “Whac-A-Mole fashion,” the moratorium and surveys — St. Paul also is in the midst of studying the Hamline-Midway neighborhood — can help the city develop a balance between housing market pressures and preservation concerns, Henningson said.
Local historian Christopher Keith said historic designation is a valuable tool in preserving a city’s architectural history. Merriam Park was one of St. Paul’s first suburbs in the late 1800s, an enclave of Victorian homes featuring distinct architectural details.
“Each of those lots were built by an independent person thinking about what they wanted,” he said of the uniqueness of dozens of homes in an area that, over the years, has already lost many — first to freeway construction and later to a wave of apartments being built. “But once they’re gone, they’re gone.”
St. Paul currently has nine local historic districts, said George Gause, a staff member of the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission. The work to study Merriam Park as a potential historic district will begin at the end of April, weather permitting, he said. To be considered a contributing property to a historic district, a building could be associated with someone who contributed to the city, embodies elements of significant design or architecture or is a unique feature of a neighborhood.
Historic designation can also add to a home’s value, Gause said.
Donna Drummond, St. Paul planning director, said the city is trying to find the right balance.
“That heritage is a big part of St. Paul’s identity,” she said. “On the other hand, we want to be able to continue to grow. How do we accommodate both of those? The survey work helps that.”
Berres, who has seen much change in her neighborhood over the decades, said she isn’t against change. Nor does she think every home can be saved.
But, she said as she pointed to houses now occupied by young families, Merriam Park’s historic character has fueled its popularity.
“It’s the reason everyone wants to live here,” she said.