St Thomas must be a better neighbor

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October 8, 2002 // UPDATED 1:31 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Terrell Brown
Terrell Brown

The home of the Ethical School of Law needs to do right by its Downtown neighborhood

Sometime back in the 1980s, Downtown welcomed what was then called "College of St. Thomas." This started with a few graduate-level business classes in an abandoned department store, followed by a single building at the corner of 10th & LaSalle. Over the years, the college became a university and expanded to what is now at least 7 acres of Downtown real estate.

In its home city of St. Paul, St. Thomas has long fought with its neighbors. The neighbors say that St. Thomas does whatever it wants, without any consideration of how it affects the neighborhood. Wander down St. Paul's Summit or Grand avenues someday and you will see a number of signs saying "Stop Campus Sprawl."

St. Thomas vs. St. Paul may be one of the reasons that the buildings for the new St. Thomas law school are being built in Minneapolis. In this case, it is the University of St. Thomas Ethical School of Law. I think they've taken a page out of the politician's book and begun referring to themselves as ethical to suggest that everyone else isn't.

But how ethical is St. Thomas? They've been on a land grab in Downtown, buying up some of the most valuable real estate anywhere in Minnesota. Did I mention they don't pay real estate taxes? Did I mentioned that at least one UST-owned Downtown parcel, the former H.A. Holden building, is for sale at over three times the amount St. Thomas paid for it only 3 years ago? I guess you can afford to be a land speculator when you can hold real estate without paying the taxes.

Before starting the law school's construction, St. Thomas made a commitment to sell all of its property located south of 12th Street, the theoretical southern boundary of the campus. That was a condition for support from Citizens for a Loring Park Community, Loring Park's neighborhood group, for the law school building and parking ramp currently being built. Part of the Loring Park objection is that St. Thomas was again buying property and taking it off the tax rolls.

UST's relationship with the Loring Park neighborhood has been hurt because of some of the businesses the school displaced, including longtime auto service company Auto Pros, which was unable to find replacement space Downtown. Other businesses that served the neighboring community were in the same predicament.

So what is UST doing to sell the Holden building? They're pricing it so no one in their right mind would buy it. The price is high. The property has been listed at $2.1 million. Hennepin County real estate records show that the parcel at 1206 Harmon Place was purchased for $377,000 during April 1999, the neighboring parcel at 1214 Harmon Place was purchased for $253,000 at the same time. Total purchase cost $603,000; total gain a cool million and a half.

UST makes it look like they are living up to their agreement to sell by offering the building for sale -- but to whom, at that price?

Councilmember Lisa Goodman, who represents the area, tells me that several interested parties have contacted her about the building, but when they find the asking price, they back off immediately.

To their credit, some of UST's neighbors, including the Billy Graham Evangelical Association, voluntarily make payments to the city in lieu of taxes for some of the valuable land they own Downtown and for which they receive city services. Same with Ebenezer, St. Olaf and Shelter Care. Not UST. Its neighbors in St. Paul have never accused St. Thomas of being a good neighbor, either.

Terrell Brown works Downtown and lives in Loring Park.