Few private homes have undergone as much public scrutiny as one on the 4500 block of Arden Avenue in Edina’s Country Club neighborhood.
Over the last five years, the home’s fate was considered on at least five separate occasions by the city’s Heritage Preservation Board. Structural engineers issued reports. City officials inspected the property repeatedly. Renovation plans were proposed, rejected and appealed.
All this was aimed at saving the 1926 home from demolition at a time when each year brings a new record for teardowns in Edina. But in Country Club, the entire neighborhood — some 550 homes — is on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s also protected by a Heritage Preservation Landmark zoning designation by the city, which puts strict limits on teardowns or extensive modifications.
Earlier this year, the city, the Heritage Preservation Board and the owners of the Arden house agreed on a plan to renovate the home while maintaining key elements of its historic character. In an unusual move, the Edina City Council passed a resolution laying out exactly what would happen to the property. Everyone thought the matter was settled.
Then, one day at the end of October, the house was demolished without warning.
“Nobody knew it was going to be a teardown,” said Carol Hancock, who lives next door. “The sign out front said ‘renovation.’ But all of a sudden, the bulldozers showed up.”
City officials say the demolition was legal, citing previously undiscovered structural flaws they say made the building unsafe. But some neighbors are baffled and angry that the long fight to preserve the historic character of their block ended so abruptly.
“I was shocked,” said Joyce Mellom, an attorney who lives across the street and is a member of the Heritage Preservation Board. “The house was torn down in violation of the City Council resolution.
“There are 13,000 houses in Edina, and you can tear down any one of them except these 550. It’s ego and it’s unbridled greed and it should be stopped.”
Lisa Fittipaldi also lives across the street from the demolished home.
“We went through an awful lot to keep that house from being torn down,” she said. “We’re disappointed, and it’s just going to keep happening over and over, until the neighborhood doesn’t look like the neighborhood anymore.
“This is a test case for the Heritage Preservation Board, and we seem to have failed the test.”
City agrees: Handled poorly
The Country Club neighborhood was the creation of developer Samuel Thorpe. Built between 1924 and 1944, the neighborhood was carefully planned and tightly controlled — including covenants forbidding nonwhites from buying or living there, which were later rescinded. The homes were built in a mix of historic styles, including English Tudor, French Provincial and American Colonial Revival.
That sense of historic cohesiveness is what has attracted buyers to the neighborhood, where the classic homes can easily fetch a million dollars. But despite the protection of zoning laws, a number of homes in recent years have been torn down or so heavily modified that, to critics, they no longer fit in with the neighborhood.
The Arden Avenue home was demolished because an inspection found flaws in the foundation that couldn’t be corrected, said Joyce Repya, an Edina senior planner and city liaison to the Heritage Preservation Board.
“After the plan was approved, when [the builder] started moving forward, they determined that it was inferior and poorly constructed,” Repya said. “They called in a structural engineer and he determined it was unsafe. Our chief building official concurred with that decision. Life and safety was involved.”
But nobody told the neighbors, who assumed that the agreed-upon renovation was still in the works. Repya said the city could have handled the situation better.
“We need to take a look at our procedures and notifications,” she said. “The neighbors didn’t think it was coming down. I totally understand their concern with that.
“We don’t want surprises,” she said. “It’s a learning experience for us all.”
Other neighbors supportive
Not everyone is upset at the loss of the house. The owners, Tim and Michele Pronley, have support in the neighborhood. More than a half-dozen Country Club residents e-mailed comments on the demolition, backing the home’s removal.
“It should have been torn down years ago,” wrote Joe Lichtenberger, who lives across the street. The previous owners, he said, “did not keep the home up to any reasonable standard.” Jeffrey Sweitzer, an architect who lives on the block, said the foundation issues were sufficient cause for demolition.
“Once a structure is determined to be unsafe … a new, ‘sound’ foundation is required to start the project,” he wrote.
Mellom doesn’t accept that explanation. If the home was unsafe, she asked, then why were the Pronleys allowed to rent it to families with children during the five years they fought over its future? Mellom also pointed out that city code requires the builder to give a written notice of demolition to all neighbors within 300 feet of a teardown at least 15 days before demolition.
Fittipaldi questioned whether a historically protected home in a place like Boston would be torn down because of foundation issues — or whether it would be repaired. The same standards that apply to a historic home in Boston should apply to one in Edina, she said.
Michele Pronley said the struggle over the home has been “very emotional” for her family. In an e-mail, she wrote that she and her husband are fully supportive of historic preservation. But when they bought the home five years ago, she wrote, “the house could not be listed for sale through normal channels because it was a project house. It was in poor condition, and this was well-known in the neighborhood.”
The long fight with the “unpredictable” historic preservation process, she wrote, and the “unneighborly treatment (by a select few) have left us frustrated.”
Mellom isn’t ready to put the issue to rest. She appeared before the City Council last month to protest the demolition, and said she will continue pushing the council for a post-mortem analysis of how the historic home was allowed to be destroyed.
“We have to put up a roadblock and say, ‘You don’t get a new house in old Country Club,’ ” she said. “I just wish the city would show some backbone.
“Every day that the house stood, in my mind, was a win.”
John Reinan • 612-673-7402