Century-old complex buildings could be reworked, removed

Development plans for Florence Court are upsetting some residents, but would update the lot

by Clarise Tushie-Lessard

The Florence Court housing complex has stood on the corner of University and 10th avenues southeast for more than 100 years, but it may not stand much longer.

The complex – part of which is considered a historical landmark – and its residents face impending plans by site developer Clark Gassen of CAG Development to remove five of the site’s six buildings and replace them with new housing aimed at young professionals and graduate students.

“I really just don’t want to see a historic house torn down for a new development,” said David Dorman , who has lived in Florence Court for two years.

Dorman, 28, is the leader of “Stop the Destruction of Florence Court,” a Facebook campaign with 172 members.

Gassen is no stranger to conflict. He was at the center of headlines in 2006 while he made a fortune in condo conversions as the head of Financial Freedom Realty.

Eight civil complaints were filed against FFR between 2006 and when it was sold in October . None of those complaints made it to trial and Gassen said he didn’t think cases regarding his old company were relevant to the new project.

The complex’s history stretches back to 1886, when architect Jeremiah Spear designed Florence Court as the first urban planning structure in Minnesota, called so because of its design around a central courtyard.

It’s creates a strong sense of community, Florence Court resident and University student Joe Ward said.

“You know who’s outside most of the time and people are always out on the porches congregating,” he said.

Five apartment houses and one L-shaped row house surround the courtyard. Spear is believed to have lived in a large brick house on the corner of Florence Court still standing and used today, though Gassen said it is beyond repair.

CAG’s latest proposal, which was rejected by the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association’s Land Use Committee, would have put four buildings housing 182 people in place of the five buildings CAG wants to remove. That plan is currently being reworked, and a new plan will be presented to the Land Use Committee Aug. 6.

“A lot of us feel the last design we saw, it was not complementary to Florence Court,” Jo Radzwill , head of the Land Use Committee, said.

“It would block out our sunlight, it would destroy a lot of our green space,” Ward said. “[Gassen] knew it was a historical building when he first got it, and the least they could do is design something that would complement the historic structure itself.”

But Gassen said removing the houses and building new complexes is necessary to preserve the historic L-shaped rowhouse.

“The project focal point is that L-Shaped building: How do we save that L-shaped building? Period,” Gassen said. “Not one person I’ve talked to has disagreed in regard that the L-Shaped building needs major, major work, because it’s deteriorating. And that is why we’re doing this project.”

CAG’s plan is to remove four houses that were moved onto the site in the 1920s, which Gassen said “cannot be economically restored.” Then it would build new complexes in their places and use the new revenue to restore the L-shaped rowhouse. Gassen said he also plans to demolish the 122-year-old brick house on the corner, which was not historically designated, and use the bricks to help restore the rowhouse.

CAG is offering to give the houses away and pay up to $10,000 to help move them.

But to some, the issue isn’t about preserving history.

“Once the building is restored, I won’t be able to afford to live here,” Becky Dombrovske, a 13-year resident, said.

Gassen said CAG plans on purchasing Smart cars for residents with car insurance to use, show movies and have concerts in the courtyard outside on Sundays. He also plans on creating underground parking for the site.

“We’re doing a lot of fun things,” Gassen said. “It’s going to be very pedestrian friendly. It’s going to be awesome.”

Still, some aren’t convinced.

“You don’t have to disguise your ideas of ways to make more money by saying you’re going to help the existing people,” said new resident and history junior Ryan Bandy . “Saying that you’re going to demolish one half to fix the other half doesn’t make much logical sense.”

Gassen said CAG had a historian look into grants and government funds to help restore the rowhouse. He said because the project was small, these funds would be limited.

“Unfortunately, there’s no money to [restore the rowhouse] without gaining revenue from a new project,” he said.

After CAG presents its new designs to the Land Use Committee Aug. 6, the item will go to the Heritage Preservation Commission , which advises the Minneapolis City Council on local heritage matters, Aug. 12. CAG is not bound to the Land Use Committee’s decisions but does have to meet with a city planner and Minneapolis’ Zoning and Planning Committee . If unfavorable, CAG can appeal a decision by the planner or the committee to the City Council .