Protecting a natural legacy

Eden Prairie / Minnetonka, Minnesota
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By Stuart Sudak Eden Prairie News,
November 18, 2004

As Mona Hanson sees it, those who go to the historic Cummins-Grill House for such annual events as Sunbonnet Day do so because they're interested in history.

Those who frequent the Dunn Bros. Coffee shop housed inside the historic Smith-Douglas-More House do so for a hot cup of (flavored) Joe and a little fellowship.

But Hanson contends the biggest difference between two of the city-owned historic properties comes down to what stays with Dunn Bros. customers long after they finish their last cup of coffee.

"They leave with a sense of ŒI didn't know what I was driving by all the time,'" she said. "When I drive past the Cummins-Grill House at night it's usually dark. There are no lights on. My mission hasn't yet been accomplished to try to preserve it and have people (using) it."

Hanson made her sentiments known during an Eden Prairie City Council workshop meeting last week. The council was weighing its options for rehabilitating the city-owned, 1880-built Cummins-Grill House on Pioneer Trail across from Flying Cloud Airport.

Council member Ron Case asked Hanson, a fellow teacher at Oak Point Intermediate School, to attend. Hanson had been instrumental in saving the house from the wrecking ball in the early 1980s and getting it placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

During her impromptu talk, Hanson made it clear she wants the house transformed in much the same way the 1877-built Smith-Douglas-More House on Eden Prairie Road was two years ago.

A process called "adaptive reuse" was used to turn that farmhouse into a Dunn Bros. Coffee shop. That allowed the house to be privately renovated and restored while the city retained ownership.

Doing the same for the Cummins-Grill House would allow more people to appreciate "the richness in its walls," Hanson emphasized.

"It's a great location for a bed and breakfast, a book store," she said. "Call it the Cummings Grill for a little place to eat. Anything. We're still honoring history. And then think about all those people who will be driving home or on their way to work or whatever and say ŒOh, let's stop here. Wow. Did you read on the wall what (original owner) J.R. (Cummins) wrote in his diary about the Indian battle. I guess when I was driving by I didn't know what I was driving by.'"

According to Case, the city has three alternatives in dealing with the house: 1) tear it down, 2) let it rot and fall down, or 3) pursue adaptive reuse.

Case, noting the house isn't in the best shape, favors the last option, emphasizing he doesn't see any other viable one. He said adaptive reuse pumps private dollars into restoring a historic site and allows more people to enjoy it. That also increases historical awareness, he added.

"If we keep going without any investment, we'll have a pile of blocks with a beautiful plaque on it that says National Historic Register," he said. "That's just not an alternative."

Adaptive reuse After an hour of exploring options, the council agreed to eye adaptive reuse for the Cummins-Grill House.

City Manager Scott Neal said he will draft a general policy for the council to vote on Tuesday. He said the policy will not include specifics on which types of businesses would be allowed or not. That "field will be honed down as we go," he said a day after the Nov. 9 meeting.

One key difference between the Smith-Douglas-More house deal and this could be how the financing is structured.

Council member Philip Young said he did not want the city to put in any upfront money as it did for Dunn Bros. Coffee. Case also favors such a scenario, but emphasized that staff found it was the only way the deal could be done.

It cost Eden Prairie $793,576 to fund the Smith-Douglas-More House renovations. That cost is to be paid off in time through the rent Dunn Bros. is paying. The shop's current lease runs through 2007, with two five-year options after that.

"I would share Phil's preference for that option if it is possible," Neal said. "And that would be the way we will be pursuing this. And that is to absolutely minimize the amount of public improvement dollars that go into making that deal work."

However, Neal admitted it could be tough to get a business to put its own dollars up front to renovate a property it will never own. That was what city officials found when trying to work out an adaptive reuse deal for the Smith-Douglas-More House.

Young said late last week that the city should do whatever it can, short of spending tax dollars, to preserve the house.

He hopes the city would encourage residents to take an interest in preserving the house, and supports public-private partnerships, provided they do not as the Smith-Douglas-More House did have the city spending tax dollars to renovate it.

"I do not support the city, under any circumstances, using tax dollars to finance the hundreds of thousands of dollars of repairs which this house needs," he said. "The city of Eden Prairie has spent more tax dollars on the preservation of old houses than all other metro suburbs combined, and this needs to stop."

Land swap To make any public-private option on the land a possibility, a hurdle must be overcome.

In 1976, the city used outdoor recreation grant money from the federal Land and Water Conservation Program (LAWCON) to buy the land the house and its outbuildings and garden sits on.

By requesting and getting those funds, the city promised the land would be used for outdoor recreation "forever," Parks Director Bob Lambert said.

Although the house was there when the property was purchased, Lambert said original plans called for the land to be cleared for additional ball fields. Allowing the homestead to continue standing was OK since it was publicly owned and had a public recreational use, he said.

But he said if they change that original use, whether the house is sold or leased, then the city has to get approval from the Department of Natural Resources (for the state) and the Department of Interior (for the federal government).

"Their concern isn't the preservation of that historic home," Lambert explained. "It's maintaining the same number of acres and the same level of outdoor recreation that was in that original grant."

That's where the possibility of a land swap comes into play. Whatever land is deemed for historic preservation use has to be replaced for outdoor recreation use somewhere else in town.

Neal thinks that's possible. "Our argument is we believe nobody is really out anything in this case," he said. "In fact, we think the experience we create at the Cummins-Grill House will be better than what is there now. And we can argue there is a gain in public benefit with what we're going to propose to do. That's the argument. We just have to see if we can convince people."

Neal admits such a scenario will cost the city money to obtain the replacement land. He anticipates it could cost a couple hundred thousand dollars, depending on how much property is earmarked to be replaced.

He noted that Lambert indicated what he would like to see benefit from such a swap (land for a trail corridor in the Lower Purgatory Creek Valley) while several council members have talked about another possibility (4.04 acres next to Birch Island Woods).

"We've also looked at a couple other locations as well," Neal said. "So we'll get to that particular issues as we go along here." is Stuart Sudak's e-mail address. He also can be reached at 345-6474.

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