Florence Court update irks longtime tenants

The renovation would give the historic site an upbeat, chic new look.

Florence Court

Ian Larson

Florence Court

by Ian Larson and Lolla Mohammed Nur

Interior renovations are giving one University-area apartment building âÄúsexy, spa-like bathrooms,âÄù built-in iPod docks and flat-screen TVs, but some longtime residents are making noise as they lose the battle over the fate of their 120-year-old apartment building. Residents say the 33-unit Florence Court apartments at University Avenue Southeast and 10th Avenue Southeast need renovation. But many disagree that rebranding it FloCo Fusion and giving it an upbeat, chic attitude is the answer. Matthew Olson, an eight-year resident at Florence Court, said the IKEA amenities and chic red cabinetry are at odds with the culture of the historically protected apartment building, one of the oldest in the Midwest. That protection, however, covers only the brick exterior, not the units within. âÄúWhatâÄôs currently offending us is not [property owner Clark GassenâÄôs] plans directly,âÄù Olson said. âÄúHeâÄôs fully within his rights to give his property a cheap face-lift and trick some college studentsâÄô rich parents into footing the bill for overpriced dorms âĦ It would be nice to see the apartment redone with a nod to the historical significance of the place and the look, the way the exterior is being protected.âÄù Property manager Brad Roberts contended that the renovations will be tasteful. âÄúWeâÄôre restoring the old craftsmanship of the old door frames and the fireplaces,âÄù Roberts said. âÄúWeâÄôre keeping the integrity of the whole property and upgrading it âÄî weâÄôre trying to keep it traditional.âÄù He pegged a deteriorating interior as the reason for the renovations. He added that the city of MinneapolisâÄô Heritage Preservation Commission guidelines âÄî like maintaining the brick exterior and the door frames âÄî are being met. Gassen declined to be interviewed for this story. John Stephenson, one of GassenâÄôs business associates, spoke on his behalf. âÄúEveryone doesnâÄôt like change,âÄù he said. âÄúI understand the resistance, but there are some things you just canâÄôt fix.âÄù Residents have stymied GassenâÄôs past moves to modernize and renovate Florence Court. Their cloak-and-dagger feud came to a head in 2008 when Gassen unsuccessfully attempted to demolish five ramshackle adjacent houses to construct modern housing. With outspoken lobbying, the residents won historic status for the apartment building and several adjacent houses. The move halted the construction. Becky Dombrovske, a 34-year-old resident of Florence Court, lamented that the current project seemed unstoppable. âÄúCompared to two years ago, it does feel hopeless. I feel [the renovations] are inevitable,âÄù Dombrovske said. âÄúThereâÄôs no way to stop the process from going, but thereâÄôs also no way any of us would want to live here anymore, and I think thatâÄôs the real tragedy.âÄù The tenants have their grievances: construction on the apartments will take place seven days a week, little notice for inspections will be given by planners, and some fear theyâÄôll be moved out early so contractors can renovate their units. Only a handful of the units have been renovated, but FloCo Fusion is advertising that all 33 will be ready to rent by the 2010 rental year, though current tenant leases end in August. University of Minnesota political science junior Catie Shawley said the renovations have become far more extensive than tenants had expected. âÄúWe didnâÄôt hear any answers to questions like, âÄòWhat if I want to stay here, where do I have to go during the remodeling process?âÄôâÄù Shawley said. She says Gassen intends to kick out the crowd of artists and musicians who can afford only modest rent. Although property manager Brad Roberts said the projected rental prices have yet to be determined, Shawley said that after the renovations, her rent will double from $750 to more than $1,300 per month. âÄúFor $750 I should have a dishwasher and linoleum on the floor thatâÄôs not ripping up,âÄù she said. âÄúThatâÄôs almost $17,000 per year; I could put a mortgage on a house for that.âÄù Dombrovske said the projected cost of the new apartments will force her out of the building and will attract âÄútrust fundâÄù tenants from the University. Stephenson said the apartments were aimed at undergrads, graduate students and young professionals, but he maintained that the pricing was fair. âÄúWe think weâÄôre pricing fairly and even under-pricing for apartments with the amenities we have,âÄù he said. âÄúI mean, thereâÄôs free parking, free cable, free heat. Who has free heat? WeâÄôve been getting hits off the roof. To me, the number of interested students shows that weâÄôre doing something right.âÄù Shawley said when she came back after winter break, concrete had been poured over the original cobblestone driveway and an old sign with the buildingâÄôs historic name on it was replaced with a sign displaying the apartmentâÄôs new name. âÄúItâÄôs awful, itâÄôs so corny and disgusting,âÄù she said. âÄúThereâÄôs a difference between restoring a building and completely redoing it in a way that doesnâÄôt make sense. ThereâÄôs so much beauty and history in the custom-crafted woodworking and the hinges on the double doors. ItâÄôs beautiful, and heâÄôs taking it away.âÄù Nick Bochek spent six years as a resident and caretaker at Florence Court. He said he moved out from the only place he could really call home because he was âÄúupsetâÄù by the extensive renovations. âÄúItâÄôs important to keep places like Florence Court preserved, which have a lot of history and a strong community within the city,âÄù he said. âÄúIt had a rich history, and when that history gets thrown out the door, itâÄôs a concern.âÄù Despite tenant angst, the renovation will go on, and âÄî according to some tenants âÄî a small niche community in Marcy-Holmes will disappear. University student Emily Maple said the eclectic community at Florence Court is what first attracted her to the site. Now, as she looks for a new house, she said âÄúitâÄôll be hard to find that same community.âÄù A sign outside the apartment parking lot is an appeal to future tenants, but for some current residents, it speaks an unfortunate truth. âÄúIf apartments were dates, these would be out of your league,âÄù it reads. âÄúI just know that [the new tenants] are not going to be the kind of people that I want to sit and talk to on my porch,âÄù Dombrovske said. âÄúI donâÄôt think IâÄôll be out on the porch, having a beer with a bunch of underage kids. I wouldnâÄôt even be able to afford it, so itâÄôs a moot point.âÄù