"I always think Gatsby," said David Vennes as he walked past the chandeliers and grand staircases of a stately Minneapolis mansion one recent afternoon.
Once home to a prominent couple who had just escaped death aboard the Titanic, its empty rooms and halls will house recovering addicts if Vennes and his organization, NuWay House, obtain necessary approvals from the city. But the plan has ignited fierce opposition among some neighbors, who say the Whittier area already has too many treatment and supportive housing facilities.
Opponents have thrown up several hurdles, challenging the city's waiver of spacing rules and pushing successfully for temporary historic protection of the building. About 260 people have also signed an online petition opposing the project, saying that supportive housing should be more dispersed.
"I don't think we have a corner on the addicts," said Marian Biehn, executive director of the Whittier Alliance, which tried to persuade a boutique hotel or Norwegian consulate to buy the 1913 mansion on 22nd Street and Blaisdell Avenue S. "It seems to be pervasive throughout society, so there must be other neighborhoods or parts of the city that could benefit as well."
City rules require at least a quarter-mile of spacing between supportive housing facilities or residential treatment centers. NuWay needs a waiver because there are already a number of them nearby, including specialized housing for people with mental illness and chemical dependency.
Defined generally as facilities that require residents to participate in life-improvement activities, supportive housing is difficult to track because not all of them are licensed, but the neighborhood says it has 12 facilities and two emergency shelters.
As for addiction treatment, about half the city's 47 state-licensed chemical dependency treatment centers are clustered in six neighborhoods — including Whittier — surrounding the intersection of Interstates 94 and 35W.
Not granting a waiver may conflict with federal law, however. City staff determined that only 1.7 percent of city land could be developed into supportive housing without a waiver, because of zoning rules and existing facilities. Blocking NuWay could amount to a violation of federal law barring discrimination against people suffering from chemical dependency, according to city staffers.
Council Member Lisa Bender, who represents the area, said while she sympathizes with arguments about having too much supportive housing and similar uses nearby, the city's hands are somewhat tied.
"It's challenging because we're not providing the service as the city. This is a private entity, a nonprofit entity that's coming in and choosing where to locate for a variety of reasons," Bender said.
A citizen panel that decides zoning issues voted unanimously to grant the waiver Thursday night, but the City Council will have final say if the decision is appealed. Among about 30 testifiers was University of Minnesota Prof. Myron Orfield, a prominent critic of clustered poverty in the region. Orfield said in addition to discrimination, federal law protects against concentration.
"They [city officials], also under the Fair Housing Act, have to analyze whether the concentration of a certain type of facilities for handicap people amounts to perpetuation of segregation," Orfield said.
Saved from the Titanic
The mansion was once home to John Pillsbury Snyder, grandson of the milling magnate. He and his wife, Nelle, were returning from their honeymoon aboard the Titanic when it sank in 1912. They were saved after boarding a lifeboat.
The pair lived in the home until the late 1950s, when it was converted into a nursing home, aided by a large addition. It later became the headquarters and showroom for a local company that makes doors and other wood furnishings. It was adorned with the hunting trophies of company founder Russell Underdahl Sr.
NuWay bought the property for $1.2 million in 2014, far less than its original list price of $2.9 million two years earlier.
It plans to convert it into a temporary living space for recovering addicts who have completed more intensive NuWay residential treatment but continue to receive counseling at their main office nearby on Nicollet Avenue. There would be no treatment on-site. Most of the 22 housing units — for up to 47 residents — would be built in the new addition, though the mansion itself would have interior alterations to accommodate several units.
Those interior alterations, particularly a plan to convert a previously remodeled basement ballroom into living units, spurred a heritage preservation commissioner to nominate the property for historic designation Tuesday. That nomination, which in turn spurs a lengthy study, was unusual for covering both the interior and exterior of the building.
Vennes noted that Whittier is, in effect, the birthplace of the modern addiction recovery movement in Minnesota. The state's first Alcoholics Anonymous club began on 22nd Street and 1st Avenue. Members of that group later formed NuWay in 1966 to provide transitional housing to alcoholics. In addition to its headquarters, NuWay's facilities include two residential treatment centers and an outpatient center in Northeast.
"This is the mecca," Vennes said. "I know they [neighbors] don't like that, but it just happens to be."
The mansion's proximity to other services is important, Vennes said, since clients generally lack cars but need a place to "step down" from more intensive treatment.
"Coming out of a short-term residential program can be a pretty steep jump," Vennes told the city panel Thursday.
Vennes himself is a recovering addict who describes himself as a five-time felon and "probably Whittier's worst nightmare" before he sobered up 12 years ago and pursued an education. He now lives in Whittier at the corner of Franklin and Nicollet avenues.
One homeowner who lives next to an existing NuWay facility on 1st Avenue, Colin Gatling, submitted a letter to the city complaining of constant noise and cigarette smoke from groups that gather outside. Ted Irgens, who filed the appeal that spurred Thursday's hearing, said he can't walk his family two blocks from his home to Nicollet Avenue because it isn't safe.
"What we're saying is enough is enough, we have to draw a line," Irgens said at the hearing. "What's happened is there's an extreme gross overconcentration of sober housing, which brings the drug dealers and brings everything else."
Deette Davis, one of about a dozen addicts who testified in support of NuWay, said she has never heard of someone relapsing and hanging outside of a treatment facility. "They usually want to run away and hide," she said.
Vennes said he is discouraged by the opposition. "That's unfortunate that they think we're part of the problem," Vennes said. "I think we're actually part of the solution. I think they've got us mixed up."
Eric Roper • 612-673-1732