The battle for the Lowry Grove mobile home park heads to court

Antonia Alvarez leads a march to the courthouse.
Antonia Alvarez carries a cross while leading other residents of Lowry Grove and supporters on a march to the Hennepin County Government Center for a court hearing Friday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The legal battle over a Twin Cities mobile home park brought its residents to the Hennepin County Government Center Friday afternoon.

They marched the five miles from Lowry Grove, in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Anthony, to the courthouse for the first hearing in a case that has pitted them against the park's previous and current owners.

Antonia Alvarez and her neighbors woke early to make sandwiches in her small kitchen. They packed more than 60 lunches for the residents who made the trek down Lowry and Central avenues into the heart of downtown Minneapolis.

Alvarez, who has spearheaded the fight to keep the park open, led the procession. A devout Catholic, she walked barefoot, carrying a cross the entire way.

"It is my way of asking God to save my home," she said. Dozens of her neighbors and other supporters followed behind her, chanting and calling: "What do we want?" "Our homes!" "When do we want them?" "Now!" A police escort cleared traffic along the route.

The residents of Lowry Grove have been fighting to save their homes since April, when they were notified that the park would be sold and closed. The new owners, The Village, LLC, plan to close Lowry Grove and redevelop the land.

The Village's closure notice gave residents until February 2017 to relocate. For some, that means having their mobile homes towed to a new park. For many, it means accepting a buyout: The park is filled with older mobile homes that cannot be moved, and will have to be demolished.

A young Lowry Grove Resident holds a bell
A young boy holds a bell that he rang while marching to the downtown Minneapolis from the Lowry Grove mobile home park in St. Anthony, a five-mile walk.
Evan Frost | MPR News

But many, including Alvarez, are not ready to accept that. Under state law, residents of a mobile home park have the right of first refusal when a buyer plans to close a park. If they can match the purchase price, or have a nonprofit do so on their behalf, they can buy the park themselves and keep it open.

The residents of Lowry Grove rallied this spring to arrange their own purchase, and Aeon, a nonprofit that develops affordable housing, agreed to act on their behalf. But their celebration was short-lived. The park's previous owners rejected Aeon's offer and sold the 15-acre park to The Village instead.

The sale spurred a lawsuit on behalf of Alvarez and the Lowry Grove residents, who contend that their right to buy their park had been denied.

The Minnesota Attorney General's office agrees: It filed a friend-of-the-court brief earlier this month, arguing that the sale and impending closure violate state law, and that the park — a critical source of low-income housing — should remain open.

Friday was the first time the two sides have met in court. Only a handful of the Lowry Grove residents who made the long march could fit in the courtroom for the hearing: Fifty residents, including children and seniors, waited in the hall.

Antonia Alvarez speaks with a Police Officer
Lowry Grove resident Antonia Alvarez speaks with a Minneapolis police officer outside the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis Friday. Alvarez was there for a court hearing in a case that will likely determine the fate of the mobile home park. "How are your feet?" the officer asked, after seeing that Alvarez had walked from the park to the courthouse barefoot.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Bob and Sherri Wargin, who have lived in the park for more than 25 years, took time off work to be there. They'd planned to retire in Lowry Grove, but now their plans — and savings — are under threat.

"I've never been to any kind of protest," Sherri said. "But when I realized how much it was showing that we're really involved in this, to be here, we were on board."

Judge Joseph Klein heard both sides' arguments on the merits of the case Friday, but made no decision. He said he would rule as quickly as possible. Lowry Grove residents, meanwhile, including about 80 children, remain in limbo as the start of the school year draws closer.

"He said he'd decide as soon as possible," said Jack Cann, the attorney representing Alvarez and the Lowry Grove residents. "He understands the time stress that the residents of the park are under."

Traci Tomas, vice president of The Village, said that without a decision from the courts, the company is continuing as planned with the closure and redevelopment. The Village submitted plans to the city of St. Anthony Friday for what it intends to do with the land, once the mobile homes are gone.

Its proposal calls for mixed-use development, and includes approximately 90 units of affordable housing, Tomas said.

"I just recognize that this is difficult," Tomas said of the park closure and its impact on residents' lives. "I don't take that lightly."

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