Sunday, June 1, 2008

Vacant And Unsecured Building Response: St. Paul Versus Minneapolis (Photo One)

Photo by John Hoff

A recent incident in St. Paul gave me an opportunity to compare that city's response to vacant, unsecured buildings with similar situations in Minneapolis.

I've always considered Minneapolis superior to St. Paul in almost every category of human endeavor, but what I observed first-hand really made me reassess my outlook...

Bottom line, in case you don't have time to wade through the whole story: St. Paul sends a guy out RIGHT AWAY to secure a building, and this time that guy walked in on a copper thief PREPARING TO CUT OUT THE GAS PIPES and chased him a few blocks.

(But he got away)

In Minneapolis, it takes 5 or 6 weeks to get a building secured. So, in the meantime, "bye bye copper."

Now here is the long version of the story...

Ever since Gopher Laundromat closed (weep, wail, mourn) I do my laundry at "Spin Cycle" in St. Paul. For the last year or so, while waiting for my laundry to get done, it has been my habit to walk around outside and paint over graffiti in the alley behind the old M&L Motors Building, which has long been vacant. (It beats sitting around reading frayed copies of Good Housekeeping and watching the hypnotic red towel go round and round and round and...)

No, I didn't ask anybody for permission. I don't need no stinking permission. I just painted over the graffiti, like my hero Ed Kohler. And I'm not the only one who was doing it, judging by what I saw in the alley. Somebody long ago gave up on trying to match paint, even hitting white walls with PURE BLACK in open, bare-knuckle war against the taggers. Who wouldn't want to jump into THAT?

Hi, I'm Johnny Do-Gooder

A few months ago, there were some workmen in the building. I introduced myself to the foreman and explained how "some of us" go around painting over graffiti. (Meaning me and whoever else was doing it in that alley, who knows?) I wanted to know if it would be OK to continue my volunteer graffiti abatement activity, now that somebody was here I could actually ASK.

The foreman said that would be fine. He had the contract for the interior but was hoping to get the contract for the exterior. He figured he had enough authority to give some random neighborhood do-gooder permission to do something which made perfectly good sense, for no monetary charge.

After this conversation, (and waiting for my clothes to dry) I actually ran to Menards to buy some paint of a matching color and I took care of some graffiti on the wood over the boarded-up windows, in order to "nail down my permission."

Sudden, Shocking Destruction

The very next time I did laundry...and, well, it was almost a month later because I was busy and had plenty of clean clothing...I was shocked to see the M&L Motors Building had been gutted in a fire. The smell of the fire was still strong, and pigeons were making forays into the windows. The productive, optimistic foreman was gone.

After that, the building became quite a problem. On one occasion, boards were pried off the windows in the front. I called it in and an officer showed up right away to make a report. I told him I had a hammer and nails in the trunk of my car, and I could secure the window. The officer hesitated to give me the go-ahead. I pressed my point, resting on the thin grant of permission I had to take care of graffiti, and saying, "If the owner of the property himself were standing here, don't you think he'd be grateful for me to go ahead and hammer a few nails in to secure that window?"

"Fine," the officer said. "Go nuts."

An Ongoing Problem Building

Sometimes after driving around on the North Side looking for prostitutes and drug dealers to call in to 911 ("patrolling," I call it) I'll drive around St. Paul's Midtown and Frog Town a little, especially if I haven't had much luck at my "regular fishing holes" in North Minneapolis.

I always go through the alley behind M&L Motors, looking for fresh tagging, and if I see any fresh tagging, I hit it with paint.

About two weeks ago, the doorway behind M&L was swinging open in the breeze. My cell phone battery was dead, so I approached a cop working security nearby at Rainbow Foods and made a report. I decided the building was becoming a problem, so I contacted Ward 4 City Council Member Russ Stark.

It was either later that day or the very next day when I had some laundry to take care of at Spin Cycle, and as per my well-established habit, I went in the alley to paint over any graffiti. I was hardly surprised to see the alley door open AGAIN. A new hasp had been installed on the door, but was now pried off. On the ground, there was a bike lock, cut in half. The bike lock appeared unrelated to the security of the door. It was just THERE.

Apologies to 911 (No Apologies Necessary)

I opened the door and stuck my head inside, but I didn't see anything out of the ordinary. The building was burned, gutted. I think I heard pigeon wings. Nothing out of the ordinary. I actually apologized to the 911 operator, saying I didn't have the non-emergency number for the St. Paul police department.

She said "We also direct the non-emergency calls." I described the situation and gave the cross streets since I didn't know the address of the building by heart. I said a few things about the ongoing problems.

It must have been 45 minutes later when I walked back outside with my laundry. There were two squad cars in the alley, and some civilian with a work truck. I caught part of their conversation about "chasing" somebody out of the building. At some point, I quietly introduced myself and explained my minor role of calling 911 about the unsecured door.

Copper Thieves Are A Menace To Society

The bald officer, pictured above, asked me detailed questions about what I had seen and when. He wanted the whole story of the building, everything I knew. He seemed a bit surprised at all the effort I poured into watching the M&L Motors Building as a side project while doing laundry, but he readily accepted my explanation of being an involved citizen who normally does this kind of thing in North Minneapolis, and blogs about it.

"Keeping an eye on this building is like my little hobby while I do laundry," I explained.

Near the door, the bald cop spotted the pried off padlock and part of the hasp on the ground near the bike lock. I hadn't seen those in the dirt, before.

"You found a clewwwwwwwwwww," I laughed.

He just frowned. Nothing funny about a pried-off padlock.

I managed to piece together the story as I snapped pictures, which I explained to the officer were for my blog. About 20 or 25 minutes after my 911 call, a guy with a blue pickup truck (sporting the same "Mr. Clean" look as the senior officer) had come out to secure the building. He was not a cop, but some kind of contractor working for the city. He went inside the check the building--I wasn't clear if he heard something of if he was just being Chuck Norris--and surprised a copper thief in the very act of preparing to cut gas pipes.

I say again, GAS PIPES.

I didn't catch much of the description of the thief, except he had dirty shoes. The thief had dropped or left a backpack, which was covered in dusty filth, and the bald contractor presented it to the officer like a bloody trophy of the conflict. The contractor--who apparently attended the same school of "aggressively good citizenship" as me--chased after the thief and pursued him down the street.

I remember him saying "a few blocks" but the thief ended up at 503 Asbury, which is only one block away. (I got the sense the thief may have doubled back) I also seem to have heard something about how the thief yelled, "You run pretty good for an old man!"

The cops went over to 503 Asbury and surrounded the building, which was some kind of adult group home. The folks in charge of the building were at a loss what to do, and had to make calls to their "director." There was some speculation about whether a security camera in the building may have captured an image of the copper thief, but it wasn't looking hopeful.

At one point there were four squad cars and a car from Wolf Protective Services. Citizens gathered on the sidewalk, wanting to know what was up. I told them, but my story produced disappointment. Four squad cars? For a guy stealing pipes? Must be a slow day. Police must not have anything better to do. I made a stirring verbal defense of the police, and called copper thieves "a menace" who "cause buildings to explode."

A Critique of Minneapolis

At some point I had a conversation with the bald guy who had arrived to board up the door. I told him how amazed I was to see a building secured within the hour, when it takes five or six weeks in Minneapolis, if it gets secured at all.

The bald guy said he knew the situation all-too-well. He claimed to have helped personally write the "specs" which became the Minneapolis boarding contract. He said something about how the people currently boarding buildings were not in complete compliance with "the specs."

"Well," I offered. "All I know is you were out here right away to secure that building, and in Minneapolis it takes forever. Thanks to you, those copper pipes are still in that building. In Minneapolis, they'd be converted to money for crack by now."

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