A cluster of abandoned grain elevators in Prospect Park has become a battleground between the neighborhood and the University of Minnesota, which wants to tear down the century-old structures to make way for an athletic complex.

It’s the latest example of the U’s expansion into the neighborhoods surrounding its southeast Minneapolis campus, and has raised questions about how much power the land-grant institution has to alter the land it buys.

“There seems to be a difficult dance going on between the university and the city ever since I got here,” said Minneapolis City Council Member Cam Gordon, whose ward includes Prospect Park. “There seems to be a lot of gray area.”

The university bought the Electric Steel property for $1.5 million in November 2015, as part of an ongoing effort to acquire land along on the eastern edge of campus. The following October, the Board of Regents voted to demolish the grain elevators.

The U hasn’t applied for a city demolition permit. Spokesman Evan Lapiska said the U’s own permitting office would oversee that process because the property is university-owned — and the U effectively operates as its own municipality when it comes to decisions about campus.

In a statement, Assistant City Attorney Erik Nilsson said the U “does have to comply with City of Minneapolis land use requirements for property outside the constitutionally and legislatively-established campus.”

But city spokesman Casper Hill, who provided the statement to the Star Tribune, declined to say whether city officials consider the Electric Steel complex to be outside campus.

Ultimately, it may not matter. The U has legal powers, granted before Minnesota was a state, that allow it to operate autonomously. The regents have authority to manage the U, although the courts can step in in some cases.

This fall, a group calling itself Friends of the Electric Steel Elevator sued the U, seeking a injunction to prevent the grain elevators from being demolished.

A hearing is scheduled for Thursday afternoon in Hennepin County District Court.

Unique structures

The grain elevators, located on the 5-acre Electric Steel Elevator Property, were designed by C.A.P. Turner and date to the early 20th century — a relic from the city’s industrial past. Though they were deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, they never made the list.

“This is the only example remaining of steel grain elevators in the country,” said Denis Gardner, national register historian at the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office. “That’s kind of a big deal.”

The U typically consults with the state preservation office when dealing with historic properties, said Sarah Beimers, manager of government programs and compliance for the state’s preservation office. In this case, she said, the U sent a letter saying it had found “no viable alternative uses” for the grain elevators, without input from the state.

“It hasn’t really been a very open process,” Beimers said. “The U, I think, still believes that they’ve consulted with us, though it’s quite a bit different from any other project where we actually do sit down and talk and work through some of the issues.”

In a statement, Lapiska said that “the University engaged multiple community stakeholders, including the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office” and “analyzed all financially feasible reuse options” before deciding to move ahead with demolition.

The state preservation office can’t do much more than offer advice for how to treat historic structures — “we’re not the preservation police,” Beimers said — but the city can.

In the case of the grain elevators, though, what happened at the city level was also unusual.

In July 2015, the City Council denied Electric Steel’s previous owner permission to demolish the grain elevators, and directed staff to conduct a historic designation study. The study was never completed.

Expanding campus?

Prospect Park residents worry that if the U tears down the grain elevators, it could set a precedent for the campus expansion into their neighborhood.

Architect Eric Amel, a Prospect Park resident and member of the local neighborhood association, said he would like to see the grain elevators’ unique structure used for something else — maybe data storage, an arts center or a sports facility — that could be integrated into the surrounding area.

“We have a vision for an innovative work [and] living environment that is given character by some of the heritage structures in that industrial zone,” he said.

“And the university is not playing along.”