Rehab restores landmark, builds on track record of success

NEIGHBORS SPEAK OUT 

by Dave Thune
The historic stone and brick complex atop a bluff high above the Mississippi River has lived many lives—a Japanese language and intelligence school during WWII and a place for veterans to recover after that, it is now known by many as a pastoral park in which to exercise or spend a day with family and friends. For me, Fort Snelling is also a place I once spent many afternoons as a graduate architect in the 1970s, painstakingly making measured drawings of the historic Officers’ Quarters for the Minnesota Historical Society. 

Now, with the Twin Cities-based developer Dominium implementing a plan for rehabilitating the crumbling buildings into affordable housing for veterans and others, I rest easier, knowing that the history of this unique site will be preserved. I trust Dominium to do right by this landmark, under the oversight of local leaders, and not just because, as I should disclose, I have a contract with the company in my semi-retirement. Rather, I have chosen to work for Dominium because I’m a fan. While I was on the St. Paul City Council, I worked with it for four years to help bring about the neighborhood jewel known as Schmidt Artists’ Lofts. 

Preservation projects like that one have played a crucial role in the revitalization and continuing success of the West Seventh neighborhood. Irvine Park, the West Seventh Federation’s housing rehab, Historic St. Paul, Schmidt and our latest landmark, Keg and Case, have collectively raised property values in our community and offer us a source of pride, housing and jobs.

Recently, a number of affordable housing advocates have begun to pit the value of preservation against that of creating more affordable housing. I argue that this is debate is not useful, since the goals of preservation and housing are not mutually exclusive. We can build affordable housing and invest in preservation where it is appropriate. 

Here in West Seventh, a community that we often describe as stretching from Seven Corners to Fort Snelling, we should be delighted by the restoration of the century old Fort Snelling Upper Post buildings. And we can be proud of how it is being done—turning them into affordable housing targeted to veterans.

One observer has implied that the high cost of restoring the historic Fort’s 130-year-old housing units is wasteful and doesn’t meet the needs of our poor. The corollary to this argument leads one to presume that quality and character should not be offered to folks like us here in the “inner city.”

The cost of restoring historic buildings is higher than run-of-the-mill new construction. For that reason, our federal and state governments have made a financing program available to developers willing to take on historic restoration. These programs provide tax credits that allow other investors to support the development. A similar program of bonding and tax credits exists for projects that offer housing to people within an income range.  Investors participate by buying the tax credits.  The bonds are paid back over time by the developer.  This financing is not intermingled, specifically so that money targeted for affordable housing is not diminished. In keeping with this model, the Fort Snelling apartments will offer affordability and, when coupled to Section 8 vouchers, provide quality housing to lower-income families. 

Dominium’s experience in historic and affordable developments makes it one of the few developers willing to take on the risk of projects like these, where regional landmarks might otherwise be razed.  Our Schmidt development was scheduled to become an asphalted used car lot before West 7th partnered with Dominium and the City.  

While developments like Schmidt and Fort Snelling do not provide housing for the homeless, they successfully create more housing in a market that needs it, make our communities stronger and benefit us all by preserving an important piece of our history for future generations.

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