I-TEAM: Depot Dream Now Homeowner Headache

ST. PAUL (WCCO) — Nearly a century ago, the Union Depot in St. Paul was a big part of the city’s plans to move forward. A $250 million renovation aims to restore the old goal to turn the iconic train station into a regional transportation hub.

For the last five years, dozens of lofts and condos have been sold inside, but the I-TEAM’s uncovered a paper trail derailing dreams of city living for the Depots’ loft owners. The community room and rooftop deck are off limits after a developer dodged city code.

Five years ago — years before all the pomp and circumstance to celebrate Union Depot’s historic step forward — Eddie Walker and his wife wanted to be a part of it.

They sold their Minneapolis home for a new loft at Union Depot. They were the first of 39 families to buy a loft.

“It was just a great place where we saw ourselves being,” Walker said.

The views from the community room and rooftop deck were a big point of sale. Now, they can’t see any of it.

“This is what should have been built and it never was,” Walker said, pointing to blueprints of the plan.

The I-TEAM found plans approved by the city of St. Paul in 2005 call for two stairway exits from the community room, in case there’s a fire.

“There’s a door here that goes out to the roof. That’s it. None of this was completed,” Walker said.

For months, the city of St. Paul has said homeowners must pay the $300,000 it’s going to cost to get it up to code. That’s about $8,000 per family.

“It’s unreasonable for us to have to pay for this. We should not have to pay for this,” Walker said.

For almost five years, families moved into the Union Depot until it was filled. All along, the city missed the problem and residents used the community room and deck not knowing anything was wrong.

At the time, apartment and condo developer, Steve Frenz owned the property. The I-TEAM found St. Paul didn’t raise the stairwell issue until March 2010 in a letter to Frenz. Month after month, the city says its letters went unanswered.

So did the I-TEAM’s phone calls to Frenz. When confronted him at work, he told the I-TEAM he wouldn’t comment.

Property records show Frenz sold the space to the loft’s owners last January, which was when residents finally heard about the danger they were facing.

“We want to know why did the city take so long to take action?” Walker asked.

Four more months passed before St. Paul inspectors shut down the community room and deck, a full year after finding the problem.

Angie Wiese, with the city’s Department of Safety and Inspections, admits most people involved in this project aren’t sitting in a great light right now.

“As far as timing-wise and knowing who has the ownership and missing the timeline, I think it could have been better,” Wiese said.

A temporary permit was issued, Wiese said, but the city couldn’t exactly say what happened after that was allowed to expire after six months. Wiese said contractors reported they weren’t being paid, but there’s no record the permit was ever renewed. Wiese also told the I-TEAM the city had to give Frenz time to make the fix.

“If we’re communicating with the owner and they’re not communicating with their ownership group, that’s a problem and that’s not something that we can do anything about,” she said.

The trash chute also isn’t up to fire code, and it too is off limits to Union Depot loft owners. That will be another $60,000 repair.

Robin Kavitz is the first owner trying to sell. Despite all the upgrades she’s made to her penthouse loft, it hasn’t moved. She says buyers simply aren’t interested without an outside option.

“With the real estate market like it is anyway, you don’t need any more challenges,” Kavitz said.

Loft owners have spent a lot of their summer indoors. They won’t pay for someone else’s mistakes. They will wait for a better option and wait to get their lives back on the track they paid for.

“As a community, we’re just here scratching our heads saying what do we do now?” Walker said.

As of right now, the homeowners association hasn’t filed a lawsuit against Steve Frenz but they are still considering it.

A few days after the I-TEAM’s interview with the city of St. Paul, inspectors have said they may be willing to work with loft owners. The community room could be made smaller to hold fewer than 50 people. That way, only one exit would be necessary. No final decision has been made.

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