Whittier opposes plan to convert historic Pillsbury-Snyder mansion

Another controversy over a historic property in south Minneapolis will come before the City Council's Zoning and Planning Committee on Thursday.

Early last year, NuWay purchased the historic Pillsbury-Snyder mansion at 2118 Blaisdell Avenue. The organization wants to convert the mansion into 22 transitional housing units that could accommodate 47 patients recovering from addictions.

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But because Whittier's concentration of housing for those patients already far exceeds the maximum allowed by City Code, NuWay needs special approval to proceed with its plan. The organization has already won that approval from the city's Zoning Administrator, but opponents appealed that decision, and their appeal will be heard by the planning committee tomorrow.

NuWay's conversion would involve a significant renovation of the mansion's interior, but largely preserve the exterior. But opponents of the plan argue the mansion's interior -- featuring a double marble staircase, Honduran mahogany paneling, quarter-cut herringbone floors, and crystal chandeliers from Czechoslovakia -- is of historical value in its own right.

Marian Biehn, executive director of the Whittier Alliance, says neighborhood officials are primarily concerned about the clustering of transitional housing.

"There is an overcrowding of this type of housing in one area," Biehn says, adding that the NuWay facility would be the neighborhood's 30th licensed transitional housing facility. "We would like to see something [at the property] that would offer more of a public use."

Biehn says Pinecrest Doors operated out of the Pillsbury-Snyder mansion until shortly before NuWay purchased it in January 2014. As a nonprofit, NuWay wouldn't pay property taxes, which project opponents estimate would cost the city about $75,000.

One of the project opponents we spoke with -- Noah Rouen, president of the Rouen Group -- expressed concern about drug dealers coming to Whitter in an attempt to prey on all the recovering addicts living there.

Asked if the neighborhood shares those concerns, Biehn says, "When we look at the crime stats, there's a number of narcotics offenses... part of the speculation is that with a number of [transitional housing] facilities that help people in recovery, they're also a vulnerable population, and people get targeted."

Rouen, who lived in Whitter for seven years, says his home was actually broken into in the middle of the night by a recovering addict while he lived in the neighborhood.

He also shared emails written by activists detailing some of the mansion's history:

The Pillsbury-Snyder Mansion was designed by one of the leading Minneapolis architects of the 20th Century, Ernest Kennedy, who also designed the Gale Mansion, the Alfred Pillsbury Mansion, several significant homes around the lakes, the entry building at Lakewood Cemetery, Shevlin Hall at the University of Minnesota, and the Essex building in downtown Minneapolis, which houses The Local and the architecture firm Perkins & Will.

The Mansion was built as a wedding gift for the only MN couple to survive the Titanic disaster, John and Nelle Pillsbury Snyder, who were returning from their European honeymoon aboard the doomed ocean liner. John Pillsbury Snyder was the grandson of John S. Pillsbury, Governor of Minnesota and co-founder of the Pillsbury Corporation. While in Italy, the Pillsbury-Snyder's sourced marble for the mansion's floors from the same quarry that supplied marble to the Vatican. According to its previous owner, Russ Underdahl Sr., who gave a tour of the restored mansion to the elderly Mrs. Pillsbury-Snyder in the 1980s, Mr. John Snyder Sr. told his future daughter-in-law that he wanted to build for her "the finest home in all of Minneapolis."

Lisa Bender is the City Council member representing 2118 Blaisdell and also the chair of the planning committee. She didn't respond to messages seeking comment, but city documents indicate officials who support NuWay's project cite the 1988 Federal Fair Housing Act, which says disable people must be granted equal access to housing "if the required findings of disability, necessity, and reasonableness are met."

But Rouen argues the act can actually be interpreted as prohibiting projects like NuWay's proposed conversion of the Pillsbury-Snyder mansion.

"The city is saying they can't deny NuWay because of the Fair Housing Act, and our attorneys are saying they must deny it because of the Fair Housing Act," Rouen says. "The Fair Housing Act specifically says you can't have a clustering of this sort of housing... it's 'the other side of the tracks.'"


:::: UPDATE :::: The NuWay redevelopment was green-lighted by the planning committee this morning.

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