The search for the Downtown single-family home

Updated: April 26, 2007 - 1:59 pm

Nearly extinct, one neighborhood still boasts these central-city residential dinosaurs

Over the past 100 years, Downtown has seen some dramatic changes. Around the early 1900s, most single-family homes disappeared amid rising property values and increased commercial zoning.

Yet one neighborhood, Elliot Park, has withstood the test of time.

One of the last residential areas in the shadows of Downtown high-rises, Elliot Park is also one of the city’s first neighborhoods. Homes began popping up in the late 1800s, and many still exist today.

Some of these people, looking to move closer to Downtown — whom Elliot Park Neighborhood, Inc. (EPNI) staffer David Fields refers to as “urban homesteaders” — will try to find an older home that is in disarray and fix it up.

Once such “urban homesteader” couple, Nancy and Brian Nasi, recently purchased property in Elliot Park. “We saw this big, boarded-up, old beautiful building, and it just piqued our attention,” Nancy Nasi said.

The Nasis, who currently live in Prior Lake, believe that Elliot Park is an up-and-coming neighborhood. Said Nancy Nasi, “This neighborhood is charming…and in a few years it’s going to be just fabulous.”

Why do the Nasis want to move out of the suburbs and closer to Downtown?

“I can rollerblade or ride my bike to work…I just can’t drive in the traffic anymore, gasoline is outrageous. I’ve always loved the city; I love Minneapolis,” Nancy said.

Although the area was always labeled as Elliot Park, resident and archeologist Kent Bakken said, “there was probably a loose definition of an Elliot Park neighborhood in the early 1900s…the modern definition of the city’s neighborhood was probably around the 1960s.”

Bakken is also a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. Noting the recent condo boom, he said, “Until just very, very recently, this was just kind of a forgotten corner of Downtown.”

Fields, the director of economic development for EPNI, the designated neighborhood group, described Elliot Park as “like a South Minneapolis neighborhood sitting inside” Downtown.

According to the late Calvin F. Schmid, author of “A Social Saga of Two Cities,” in 1934, 25 percent of the structures near the center of the city are of the “one-family” type. The figures today of one-family structures in Downtown would be closer to 5 percent or less.

Back in the late 1800s to early 1900s, wealthy people’s homes were close to business districts. However, as encroaching business and noise drove them further to the city’s edges, these homes became apartment houses, Schmid said.

Downtown’s single-family homes started to disappear around the turn of the 19th century, making way for larger, more-efficient apartment complexes. As the buildings began to rise, so did the land values of property Downtown.

Even in the mid-‘30s, Schmid noted the residential outflow: “Since 1920, the trend is more and more for the population to seek the outer edge of the city.”

During the 1950s, Americans began moving out of Downtown apartments and into the outlying areas that created suburbs. That decade, the city’s population peaked, and the rapid decay of the inner city accelerated.

However, in the past few years, Elliot Park has seen an increase in the number of people looking for a home in their neighborhood. The Grant Park complex, the under-construction Skyscape and the on-the-drawing-board 1010 Park four high-rises are the most visible signs, but the neighborhood’s single-family homes are also getting renewed interest.

“It’s a new phenomenon of wanting to live Downtown,” said Fields.

Judith Martin, the chair of the Minneapolis Planning Commission and a University of Minnesota professor, explained that today, only someone with a whole lot of money could build a single-family home Downtown. A half-block of prime Downtown real estate could be $5 million or more.

“It would take someone like Bill Gates,” Martin said.

Rich or poor, the vast majority of Downtown is no longer zoned for single-family dwellings. However, there are some areas where such housing is allowed; Elliot Park is one of them.

Fields believes the residents in the neighborhood want to be there and, no matter how much the land will be worth to developers in the future, aren’t likely to sell their property.

Said Bakken, “The people here are really attached to the neighborhood, and they want to see it as an affordable place, a place where basically anybody can live.”

Back in 1999, when the City Council rezoned Downtown’s borders, Elliot Park was included. If the city had decided to rezone Elliot Park from residential to commercial, landowners in that neighborhood would have been able to sell their property to commercial developers and earned more doing so.

However, EPNI and other residents fought to keep the neighborhood residential. And today, Elliot Park retains its diverse mix of incomes and renters despite rising condos and rising land values.