Does anyone remember when the Summit Hill and Ramsey Hill neighborhoods of St. Paul were in decline and their rundown houses had gone begging for new owners?
Ironically, the popular Summit Hill and Ramsey Hill house tours, which now attract thousands of people, started out in the early 1970s as an attempt to lure families back from the suburbs by demonstrating how an investment in restoring these homes to their former glory would yield houses distinctive in character while providing a valuable link to the past. It’s difficult to imagine that block after block of beautiful, well-preserved historic homes and the charming, vibrant commercial districts along Grand and Selby Avenues that followed might not exist if the focus on neighborhood character and historic preservation had been ignored 40 years ago.
That’s why a recent commentary by Bonnie Blodgett, who is living in and preserving a historic Summit Hill house on a historic block (though not part of the local historic district), was both puzzling and alarming (“This old house vs. history,” March 22). Ultimately, she argued for the right of owners to do whatever they want with their properties — regardless of the impact on the character and integrity of established neighborhoods (historical or otherwise) or the decades of loving care and investment that have made these areas such desirable places for families to live.
Blodgett’s perspective flies in the face of the very things that hold neighborhoods together, not to mention the compelling rationale that led to preservation districts, zoning and design guidelines, and other actions being implemented by cities across the country.
Additionally, her commentary appeared at a time when little is being done by the city of St. Paul or the City Council to address a growing trend of teardowns — and when neighbors of such projects have become fed up. That’s why a coalition of residents from across the city has formed Save Our St. Paul Neighborhoods (https://www.facebook.com/NeighborsForCommunityFocusedDevelopment).
Some background: In 1973, the Legislature designated the Ramsey Hill and Summit Hill neighborhoods as historic districts, and in 1976 large portions of these neighborhoods were listed in the National Register of Historic Places as the Historic Hill National Register District. In 1980, the neighborhood organizations succeeded in having the Historic Hill District become the first locally designated historic preservation district in the city. The purpose, according to the St. Paul Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC), is to “protect the historic character of the neighborhood through HPC review of city permits” for new construction and remodels in order to ensure they are “compatible with the historic character of the area.”
These neighborhoods are now a magnet for home buyers and thousands of annual visitors. Contrary to early fears that the HPC review would be restrictive and onerous, the entire area has flourished and property values have soared, spurred by neighbors eager to preserve the beauty and historical integrity of the housing stock. Other neighborhoods in the city, such as Dayton’s Bluff and Irvine Park, have mirrored these early successes, preserving their own unique character and heritage.
More recently, the city of Minneapolis passed a Conservation District Ordinance in response to the growing epidemic of teardowns, lot splits and other unfettered redevelopment occurring in its established neighborhoods.
In St. Paul, the significant increase in teardowns and the negative impacts caused by the outsized and out-of-character replacements have become an issue of great concern in many neighborhoods, including Highland Park, Mac-Groveland, Hamline-Midway, Summit-University, Frogtown and, yes, even Summit Hill. Amazingly, neighbors have more protection and input over a 5-foot setback variance request than they do if the owner of the house next door simply wants to tear it down — and almost no say over the replacement.
Neighbors who have raised families, paid taxes, made considerable investments in maintaining their homes and property — while creating stable, attractive, and cohesive communities in the process — are being blindsided by actions that undo everything they have worked for. What happened to the right of peaceful enjoyment of one’s property? That’s virtually impossible when a new structure towers over its next-door neighbors and blocks out the sunlight and the view, or disrupts the existing drainage system, leading to erosion and water displacement on neighboring lots where before there was none.
Existing regulations are an open invitation for insensitive developers and wealthy buyers to push their suburban sensibilities into urban neighborhoods that so many have worked long and hard to build. It’s doubly aggravating because in our large metropolitan area there are many more appropriate options available for development and redevelopment that don’t come at the expense of established and healthy neighborhoods.
A McMansion doesn’t belong on a block of houses which are half its size, and a modern home, whether designed by an award-winning architect or a beginner, is still out of place next to an 1888 Victorian or 1920s Tudor Revival. And it’s important to remember that every teardown or significant rebuild results in many tons of debris and hazardous materials ending up in a landfill — further polluting the atmosphere as toxins and carbon are released into the air.
The goal of Save Our St. Paul Neighborhoods is to preserve and protect the unique character of St. Paul’s neighborhoods by ensuring that any future development is sustainable, respects the integrity of the existing neighborhood, and enhances the quality of life of the surrounding community.
We encourage everyone in St. Paul who values their neighborhood and what makes it special to learn more about this issue — and to become involved. Tell your City Council member and candidates your concerns as we approach this next election season, and contact Mayor Chris Coleman’s office to let him know this is a priority. Preserving our neighborhoods needs to start now.
Don Arnosti, Lori Brostrom, Tom Dimond, Tom Goldstein and Linda Winsor are members of Save Our St. Paul Neighborhoods.