Teardown and tribulation: Living next door

  • Article by: DAVID BANKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 14, 2014 - 5:49 PM

While Minneapolis’ moratorium may be a step too far, the discussion is needed.

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A teardown site in southwest Minneapolis (not the one referenced in this article). Calling it the most urgent issue in her southwest ward, new City Council member Linea Palmisano engineered an immediate moratorium on the demolition and construction of single-family homes in five neighborhoods.

Photo: JOEL KOYAMA, Star Tribune

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Subject to further action, Minneapolis has placed a one-year moratorium on the teardown and reconstruction of certain residential properties. I’m not sure that calling things to a halt is what I wished would happen, but, oh, how I wish it would’ve happened sooner.

I’m an accidental expert on the matter. One of those procedures — I use the word as an allusion — has been underway for the last four months not 10 yards from where I lay my little head.

It all started a few years back when the widow next door met someone new. She would be moving on from the farmhouse-style dwelling that had been in her family, well, forever. I’m certain she didn’t want it razed, but it wasn’t in prime condition, nor was it suited to today’s lifestyles. Its fate seemed preordained.

At this point, I might have been proactive. I live on one of those rare contoured Minneapolis streets. The neighbor’s house was set farther forward; there’s no alley behind, and my land wraps around the back of the adjoining property. I could have tried to consolidate. But for what? An Olympic-sized pool? A vineyard? Neither seemed terribly feasible, and in any case I favor adding density to the city — not removing it.

Well, what about fixing up the house and renting it out? Nope, cost and liability. Opening the lot informally as a community garden? Well … liability.

While I was dithering, a developer snatched it up.

Funny word, “developer” — it implies progress, but it strikes dread in the hearts of community members. Projects are contested. But then the thing gets built, people get used to it, and some of them eventually come to find its presence beneficial.

But before this can happen, there’s a procedure, as necessary and unpleasant as any involving, say, a dentist and a drill.

Here’s what it’s been like for me:

First, the house sat empty for two summers. Parts were removed, such as windows and siding, and the lawn went unmown, and just after dusk one could verily hear the theme to “The Addams Family.”

So far, so good. Really! I enjoyed the privacy, and I came to feel a certain paternalistic attachment to the place.

Then one morning the backhoe showed up, and a house that had stood against the elements for decades was flattened before high noon.

Soon after that, four wonderful bur oaks came down. No match for the chain saws. At one point, I looked out the window to see a heavy crane parked in my driveway. No one had asked, so I called the number on the truck to complain. The man said he’d tapped on my door and no one had answered.

But of course. Not getting permission to trespass is as good as getting permission.

Early the next day, I woke to a series of earthquakes. The backhoe was tackling a remaining oak stump, right on the edge of the property. The operator would raise the bucket, then pound it down, in an attempt to jar the stump loose. I went out to state for the record that I would not be pleased if he also loosened my foundation. I didn’t mention that he was pummeling just feet from where I lay in bed. I doubt that this proximity would have passed safety muster had we all been out in the open.

Soon after that, I noticed that a part of the hill on my side of the property line had collapsed. It would’ve been possible for a pet or a child to fall into the pit, raking their flesh along the bottom of the chain-link fence that was now hanging in midair. No one had bothered to warn me. The hole is still there.

That’s the big stuff. There’s also the litany of day-to-day annoyances that drag on for months. Minneapolis City Council Member Linea Palmisano, who proposed the moratorium, has cited issues of noise, dumpsters, idling, shoveling and parking.

Check, check, check, check and check.

Like I said earlier, I’m not sure about the wisdom of a moratorium. Timing matters in property decisions, and for some prospective sellers or buyers, the city’s move changes the rules in the middle of the game. But the discussion is important.

Some of the distress around teardowns relates to the lack of communication with neighbors. I can attest, after fruitless attempts to reach the contractor. Other objections are to the “McMansions” that follow. I don’t think the new house next to mine qualifies as that. It does feel a bit like having someone lean in too close during conversation. But I’m sure I’ll get used to it. I hear that the new neighbors are very nice. I might even realize a boost in property value should I sell anytime soon.

Before all this began, but while the project was pending, I happened to tour an open house a few blocks away. (I’m always curious.) There I met a developer, and I asked if he knew anything about the plans next door to me. He didn’t, other than to say that he’d looked at the lot and had found it troublesome. Then we talked momentarily about my house, a midcentury rambler with several unique qualities of which I’m rather fond.

I could have sworn I saw the glint of guillotine steel in his eye.

 

David Banks is at David.Banks@startribune.com

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