Station 19 fights to stay in historic building

TCF Stadium is raising property values and some are struggling to keep up.

Meghan Holden

In the 1970s, Darrel LeBarron fought to save the old fire station on University Avenue Southeast.

Now, he’s struggling to keep the property he’s owned there for more than three decades.

Because of his love for the building’s design, LeBarron helped to make Fire Station 19 a historic landmark in 1982.

Since then, LeBarron has put more money into the building than his company, Station 19 Architects, can recoup.

Because the property taxes for the building have gone up so much in the last decade, LeBarron said he might be forced to sell.

From 2011-12, the building’s property taxes increased by more than 9 percent.

After TCF Bank Stadium opened in 2009, property taxes were too high for tenants to afford. Office spaces had to be gutted to make room for Buffalo Wild Wings — a $700,000 loss for the company, LeBarron said.

“I love that building,” LeBarron said, “but I’m not sure we can economically stay there.”

Because the city’s historic requirements only apply to the fire station’s exterior, University of Minnesota assistant architecture professor Greg Donofrio said the remodel kept the required historic integrity of the building.

The utilitarian-style firehouse opened in 1893 during the city’s industrial movement, according to the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission. The building is also the birthplace of kittenball, a form of softball a firefighter invented.

Nicole Thompson, LeBarron’s daughter, now runs the architectural firm but doesn’t know how long the company can survive in its current location.

“When you watch your father go through it and see him fighting,” she said, “Iit’s not an interest to hang on to it.”

Donofrio said most business owners wouldn’t want their building to be historic, because the costs of upkeep outweigh the benefits.

“As a rational investor,” he said, “that doesn’t look good.”

After the stadium went up, area properties became much more valuable, causing property taxes to increase, said Chris Ferguson, Stadium Village Commercial Association member.

“I think this will be an ongoing issue,” Ferguson said, adding that the light rail will further increase property taxes for area businesses.

For local business owners, like LeBarron, it’s more difficult to keep up with the rising taxes, Ferguson said.

“It would be a shame to lose all the locally owned businesses,” he said.

If they decide to sell, the 120-year-old building won’t have a problem finding a new owner.

When plans began for TCF Stadium, LeBarron and community members were worried about the University exercising eminent domain over Fire Station 19. As a state institution, the University can legally seize private properties for projects benefitting the public.

Legislators added a provision to the stadium funding bill preventing the University from acquiring Fire Station 19 for any stadium construction, in order to protect the historic property.

University Chief Financial Officer Richard Pfutzenreuter said the University wasn’t planning to exercise eminent domain on the property, but always has an interest in buying buildings near campus.

If Fire Station 19 goes up for sale, the University would definitely look into buying it, Pfutzenreuter said.

“The University’s always looking for places in the boundaries of campus,” he said.

Pfutzenreuter said the University wouldn’t tear down the building if it did buy it because of its historic significance.

Thompson said she will be evaluating the space and deciding if they can stay when their lease is up in December.

“It’s something we need to consider,” she said, “in order to stay alive as a small business.”