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A more than 100-year-old legal document has St. Paul City Hall and a Summit Avenue property owner trying to figure out who pays for a new $1 million staircase and retaining wall. The historic stairwell threads the bluff from downtown up to Summit Avenue. The entry point up top is adjacent to the J.J. Hill House. A century ago, the property owner gave the city an easement but agreed to foot the bill for the stairs. The James J. Hill mansion is at right.

Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

The historic stairwell threads the bluff from downtown up to Summit Avenue. St. Paul City Council Member Dave Thune said the city wants a “common- sense” solution to the dispute over who should maintain the stairs.

Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

Who pays for historic stair repair in St. Paul?

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON
  • Star Tribune
  • December 30, 2011 - 3:59 PM

A 110-year-old agreement between railroad executive James J. Hill and St. Paul City Hall is the basis of a costly conundrum for 2012.

The city and a Summit Avenue property owner disagree over who must pay to restore a retaining wall and a historic public stairway from Summit Avenue into downtown.

The project could cost as much as $1 million, given the historic designation of the passage.

At the top of the hill, the so-called "Walnut Street Stairway" begins between the Hill house, at 240 Summit Av., and the $3.1 million home of Richard and Nancy Nicholson, at 260 Summit. The stairway ends near United Hospital.

Council Member Dave Thune, who represents the area, said the city seeks a "common-sense" not a "legal precedent-setting" solution to the stairway reconstruction. Most of the discussions are happening quietly between the lawyers. Thune said he expects the council to take a public vote in 2012.

Years of back and forth

Neither the Nicholsons nor their lawyer Michael Fleming returned calls, but the city's file is stuffed with years of letters between them and city attorneys.

On behalf of the Nicholsons, Fleming wrote that the city must pay to repair the wall for the public stairway.

City officials counter that the Nicholsons have a responsibility to help in part because the wall is less a retainer than a privacy fence.

Both Fleming and city attorneys refer to a document signed by Hill and his wife, Mary, on Aug. 23, 1901. The Hills bought the property on the hill next to their home in the late 1890s to build a house for their son, Louis Hill. The Nicholsons now live on the Louis Hill property.

In the deal with the Hills, the city allowed them to use what was platted to become Walnut Street between the two houses.

In exchange, Hill allowed a public easement on Louis Hill's property and paid to build a stairway as a public thoroughfare.

Right or a duty?

Fleming's correspondence said the deal also gave to the city the "right to maintain said stairs." That position is supported by the "general principle of law" that the city "has a responsibility to repair and maintain a public" amenity on an easement, he wrote.

But, countered an assistant city attorney, the city's "right" to maintain the stairs is not the same as a "duty."

Nowhere in the 1901 agreement did the Hills give up their own rights to maintain nor was the maintenance reserved only for the city, the city's letter said.

In a 2009 letter to Mayor Chris Coleman, Fleming noted that the city aided in maintenance on the wall and stairway from 1990 to 2008. The Nicholsons paid $182,687 for repairs to the stairwell and wall in 2008, expecting to be reimbursed for part of it but were not, Fleming said. The city contributed about $47,000 in debris removal from the collapsed wall at that time.

Fleming also said in the letter to Coleman that the Nicholsons would "pay no additional costs" related to the repair of the stairway unless there is either a reasonable agreement with the city on costs or a court ruling.

Thune said the city doesn't want the matter to go to court. He called the passage a "public thoroughfare" and said the maintenance costs shouldn't be thrust solely on the property owners "regardless of what was said 100 years ago."

In the meantime, he issued a cautionary warning to those who endeavor to use the stairs. "Just remember if you walk down it, you have to walk up it to get to your car."

Rochelle Olson • 651-925-5035 Twitter: @rochelleolson

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