St. Paul's innovative program saves historic houses

Saving St. Paul history

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The City of Saint Paul's innovative housing rehab program has rescued many older abandoned homes that otherwise would face demolition. And planners go out of their way to save structures in historic districts such as Dayton's Bluff.

"Every house has a history, and I think they all should be given a chance," Karin DuPaul of the Dayton's Bluff Community Council told KARE.

Her group sponsored a tour of six vacant buildings the owned by the city, all in jeopardy of being razed if they can't be redeveloped.

"I firmly believe the material in these older homes, the old wood, is much higher quality than what they're using today. So even though these homes have had a rough life, they deserve a last chance."

The Dayton's Bluff historic district is a diverse, urban neighborhood on the rebound, just a stone's throw from downtown Saint Paul.  And all six of the properties are eligible for the city's innovative Inspiring Communities housing rehab program. 

"We're asking folks to come in with an offer to rehab and re-purpose the buildings," Jonathan Sage-Martinson, the city's planning and economic development director, explained.

"We're offering these for $1, and we're offering addition some of the city subsidy to take care of work that needs to be done."

The program has already revitalized 160 properties in the city, including 16 in the Dayton's Bluff District. Most of the previous buyers on Dayton's Bluff have been professional contractors, because of the complex nature of the construction work.

But, as a condition of the grant money being used to leverage these projects, the homes must be sold to people who will live in them rather use them as rental properties.

"Demolition is an option but we always look to rehab first. We especially look to rehab in our historic districts, because it’s so important to keep the historic fabric," Sage-Martinson remarked. 

So far the city has received offers on the four of the houses, built between 1879 and 1884. The city council, acting as the Housing Rehabilitation Authority, will review the bids June 8 to determine if they're financially feasible and could be viable.

"It doesn't take a whole lot of imagination to see what the possibilities are," Dayton's Bluff resident Barry Madore told KARE.

He should know. His family bought an 1879 house on Maria Avenue after a contractor revived it through the city's program.

"Best decision we ever made, and we make that decision rather quickly when we came here for an open house."

Madore's home was built in 1879 by German immigrant Peter Bott who was cigar maker, among other things. Over the years the two-story Italianate style house fell onto hard times. It was subdivided into apartments, and had been abandoned when the City of St. Paul bought it.

"A lot of what happened in the house things had been covered over, so it wasn’t a lot of construction. There was a little bit of a deconstruction," Madore explained.

"Mostly they pulled some walls out and found the original walls. They pulled the siding off, and the original wood siding is there. They were able to find the footprint of the original porch that had been removed at some point."

But no all old structures can be saved.

And, according to Sage-Martinson, there are times when an empty buildable lot is preferable to a crumbling, unsafe structure.

The city still hasn't fielded any offers yet on a commercial building at 216-218 Bates Ave.,  or for old storefront a few doors down at 208-210 Bates Ave.  Both were built 120 years ago, and have lived many lives.

It's unclear what the next chapter will bring.


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