University Grove gives faculty and staff members a home upon retiring

Kevin McCahill

From great minds of psychology to classic football coaches, one University neighborhood has collected quite the who’s who of alumni.

Situated along Cleveland Avenue near the St. Paul campus, University Grove is the quiet jewel of the University.

The neighborhood is made of 103 individually designed homes built over 60 years. Each house is built on University-owned land and is available to faculty and staff members eligible for federal retirement.

The neighborhood is an amalgam of traditional Tudor and Colonials and early 1970s modernistic designs, composed of rectangles and circles.

The idea for a faculty housing neighborhood was created in the 1920s, by then-University Vice President William Middlebrook, who said a housing community for faculty members would help bring top scholars to the University, according to the University’s Web site.

Residents of the Grove have included Alfred Nier, a physics professor who helped create the atomic bomb; B.F. Skinner, a world-renowned psychologist; and Walter Heller, who was an economic adviser to U.S. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

Initially, a $10,000 ceiling was put on the amount builders could spend, in hopes of keeping the houses a similar size.

Today, properties have a price tag of about $500,000.

University Real Estate Director Sue Weinberg said the Grove covers more than 32 acres.

Actually in Falcon Heights, there are 103 homes built, with no vacant lots. Typically, a few houses are for sale each year, Weinberg said. In 2004, two homes sold for approximately $300,000; so far this year, five homes have sold, priced from $400,000 to $605,000, according to Weinberg.

Beth Mercer-Taylor is the former president of the University Grove Homeowner’s Association. She and her husband, Peter Mercer-Taylor, a professor known for his rock music history course, moved to University Grove four years ago and live in a house formerly occupied by Bernie Bierman, a famous University football coach.

Beth Mercer-Taylor said that since she moved to the neighborhood, property value has gone up 50 percent. This has become a concern for professors who can’t afford the high costs.

“Prices are completely out of reach right now,” she said. “Unless a couple is moving in with two strong incomes, it’s not possible to buy there.”

Beth Mercer-Taylor said this has reduced the number of humanities professors who can afford to live in the area. There is typically a pay difference between humanities and science positions, Beth Mercer-Taylor said.

The homeowner’s association has no plans to expand the neighborhood, which would require approval by the University.

“It would be more of a benefit if there were more vacant lots to be developed,” Weinberg said.

For the most part, homes are owned by those connected to the University, but some houses have been sold to outsiders.

Known as a hardship, these houses were sold because the homeowner needed to leave, or because of an emergency, had to sell the home to any buyer. Mercer-Taylor estimated 95 percent of neighborhood residents are connected to the University.

Mark Brunberg, who moved to the neighborhood in September, is one resident who doesn’t have a connection to the University, having purchased the home from a former professor. Brunberg said that thus far he has felt at home in the neighborhood.

“I’ve never felt more welcome,” he said. “It’s a very relaxed and open neighborhood.”

Russell Hobbie, who became the association’s president last week, is a former physics professor who retired in 1998. He and his family moved into the Grove in 1960, after building their own home.

Hobbie remembers the $49,000 building expense cap at the time, and how difficult it was to get everything complete, having to choose vinyl flooring instead of hardwood.

Because the University has grown since the inception of the program, the faculty-and-staff-member-only policy isn’t as important to Hobbie.

“I think when they started it in the ’30s it made a lot of sense,” he said. “It was a way to recruit.”

Now that the faculty is much larger and there isn’t as much space available, a faculty-only community isn’t as important, Hobbie said.

Though it’s made up of mostly University professionals, Hobbie said, it’s a neighborhood like any other.

“You have people you know and people you see at work and some that come out of hibernation after the winter,” he said. “It’s a typical neighborhood.”