Squatting art park could face demolition

Ronald “Arjo” Adams sits beside some scrap metal he salvages to make sculptures for his art park.

A view of the park at 680 Wells St.

Adams hauled bricks one-by one from demolished homes down in the valley below 'the People’s Park' to build a retaining wall for the place.

A couple of metal sculptures hang from a tree at the art park.

Ronald “Arjo” Adams stands atop a retaining wall he built himself using of old rail ties.

A wind vane sits high up in a tree at the clandestine art park at 680 Wells St.

The park at 680 Wells St. is a strange, charming spot.

With quirky sculptures, picnic tables and gardens terraced into the steep hill, it’s a place familiar to many in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood.

It’s in many ways an extension of its maker, 60-year-old Ronald Joseph Adams, who goes by the nickname Arjo.

Adams started building the park on a whim about 10 years ago, without anyone’s permission, on the bare, unused city-owned lot. He spent years lugging stones from the limestone foundations of demolished homes down the hill to construct retaining walls for the terraced art garden.

The spot is decorated with Adams’ curious iron sculptures, as well as some salvaged items turned into artwork, such as half of a wooden boat sitting atop bowling pins. The fencing is made partially of old headboards, and small ceramic statues litter the garden beds. It’s got three picnic tables for anyone who so pleases to sit down. He calls it “the People’s Park.”

To some it’s a charming curiosity, a place to walk through on the way up to Greenbrier Street from the Bruce Vento Regional Trail.

To others, it’s a derelict nuisance that’s unsafe and needs to be torn down.

And that could be its fate, in short order, along with the house Adams lives in right next door.

Retaining wall, bike path

The retaining walls on both properties were deemed unsafe by the city’s Department of Safety and Inspections (DSI), says spokesperson Robert Humphrey. That’s on top of a myriad of problems cited against the house. This came to DSI’s attention after plans to put in a bike path solidified.

St. Paul Parks and Recreation has been in the process of installing a bike path right behind the properties, to connect the Bruce Vento Regional Trail with Payne Avenue. They broke ground last October on the short little patch of bike path, but have since stated that the project has to be put on hold due to structurally unsound retaining walls near the planned path. Adams built the walls without obtaining city permits, he said, but claims they are structurally sound.

“Creating a bike path at this time would not be safe ... due to the condition of this wall,” Humphrey says.

City officials appear to be addressing this -- DSI condemned the house at 676 Wells last June, and on June 7 of this year moved it to a category 3 vacant building. This means it’s subject to demolition as soon as July 19, if repairs are not made to the satisfaction of city inspectors.

The needed repairs required “run the gamut,” Humphrey says. An inspection report given to Adams on June 19 is four pages long and describes structural issues with the house, electrical deficiencies, improper plumbing in the basement, and retaining wall issues, among others. It’s an exhaustive list.

Adams, who’s been left as the caretaker of the house, admits he’s been slow to make repairs and didn’t always get permits for work he did on the house, but says he intends to address the issues cited by the city. He feels singled out, and says he doesn’t plan on letting the place go without fight.

The homeowner, Beth Woolsey, says Adams “probably wasn’t pulling permits when he should have.”

She left Adams with the house to take a job in Kansas -- when DSI discovered she wasn’t living on the premises after an anonymous complaint, inspections were triggered.

Woolsey says she would consider putting more money into the house to save it, but worries it’s doomed for demolition regardless of what repairs are made. She says she’s overwhelmed with the city’s approach.

“They’ve thrown the book at us, basically,” she says. “They’d rather just tear it down.

“We’re not going to go out quiet,” she adds.

Community treasure, or safety hazard?

As for “the People’s Park” which sits on the city-owned lot, there’s not really anything stopping Parks and Rec from bulldozing it right now, aside from the fact that it would probably be a fairly involved endeavor.

“The bottom line is that the sculpture park is probably going to go bye-bye,” says John Vaughn from the East Side Neighborhood Development Company, and “the community is going to be divided.”

East Sider Stephanie McCorkell has been visiting the park for more than four years, and says she’d be sad to see it go.

“There are a lot of people that it has meaning to,” she says. “The community has adopted it as this public art space.”

She’s unsure why the city might be moving on the property now.

“The curiosity here is that the city has been letting him do it (for years),” she says, adding that the park “grew out of the city just ignoring it.”

Leslie McMurray, director of the District 5 Council, says if the park is to be torn down, “there should be open public community discussion.”

Some residents are quite taken with it, she says.

So, as part of a community planning meeting, residents and District 5 board members discussed the park and city-owned plot on Tuesday, July 2.

As of now, the community council doesn’t have an official position on the fate of the park, McMurray says.

Whether it’s charming, hazardous, or both, “it’s in the eye of the beholder,” she says.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com.

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