Feds join probe into fire at problem Minneapolis property

A damaged brick building
The entrance to an apartment building at 2312 Lyndale Avenue S. in Minneapolis is seen on Monday. Federal officials from the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives joined the investigation on Monday, after Minneapolis fire crews extinguished a blaze at the apartment on Saturday morning.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has joined the probe into a weekend fire at an apparently vacant apartment building in Minneapolis, one of two gutted by fire and listed to the same Minneapolis property owner that has become the focus of concern by city officials. 

The building at 2312 Lyndale Ave. S stands next to the landmark Leaning Tower of Pizza restaurant, at Lyndale Avenue S and W 24th Street in south Minneapolis. 

Firefighters were called to the four-story building around 6 a.m. on Saturday and pulled up to what appeared to be a vacant and boarded building on fire, Minneapolis Fire Department officials said.

“The building was occupied by squatters,” the fire department said in a statement about the blaze. 

Fire damage to a building
Damage to an apartment building at 2312 Lyndale Avenue S. in Minneapolis is seen on Monday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

One person jumped from a second story window and suffered non-life-threatening injuries, the department said. 

Federal officials announced Monday they are joining the probe into the origins of the fire, which caused the building to partly collapse. The ATF estimated damage at about $1.8 million – nearly the $2 million market value listed for the property in Hennepin County tax records. Fire officials said the building had partly collapsed into the alley, and firefighters had to abandon an interior attack on the fire and turned to protecting nearby buildings from catching fire as well. 

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It is the second major fire at an abandoned building owned by landlord C. David George, a reclusive property owner that has become a focus for city officials. 

Mayor Jacob Frey's office did not offer any details on his administration's response to the fire, but did issue a statement on the incident:

“The city’s Regulatory Services Department has been actively working to educate the property owner of their responsibilities, including around security requirements at the condemned and vacant building in question. City leadership will continue to monitor and assess this property and will explore enforcement actions as necessary.”

Police and ATF stand near a building blocked off with orange fence
Minneapolis police speak with federal officials from the bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives outside the entrance to an apartment building at 2312 Lyndale Avenue S. in Minneapolis on Monday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The city’s Regulatory Services Department provided MPR News with a timeline of the safety issues at the property. In May, the city received a complaint about a lack of water at the property and notified George of their intent to condemn the property. City officials said they met with the owner to discuss property management expectations, including securing doors, installing flood lights, and monitoring the building for trespassers.

In July, the building was officially condemned due to lack of maintenance. “The property was uninhabitable and in disrepair,” a statement from the Regulatory Services Department said.

From September through November, the city shared its concern with George that the building was not secure and was open to trespassers. According to the report, George’s attorney told the city he was working on securing the building.  

A screenshot of a list
A screenshot from the Regulatory Services Department to MPR News. The following outlines incidents at the address.
Courtesy photo

George could not immediately be reached for comment; he is not listed as a tenant in the building he lists at his home address, 2515 Blaisdell Ave., a few blocks from the fire. Another tenant in the building said he does not speak to outsiders or prospective renters. His attorney did not immediately return a phone call or email about the fires or George’s plans for his properties. 

“The city is tracking the issues at various buildings he owns and is in contact with Mr. George,” said a statement from the office of City Council member Aisha Chughtai, who represents the area around the most recent fire. 

City officials have worked on boarding up and securing condemned buildings George owns, “so people don’t end up living in them,” the statement said. “That hasn’t worked since we’ve seen a few examples where people take the boards down and break into the building.” 

That’s what happened on Sept. 19, when another building owned by George, near Loring Park, caught fire early that morning. Again, firefighters reported arriving at an apparently boarded up and vacant four-story building.

“Fire crews found fire showing from a third-floor window and 8-10 people running from the building,” a release from the fire department said later in the day. 

City officials reportedly met with the Hennepin County Attorney’s office about the fire today, and the ATF said its investigators are joining the effort to determine how the fire started, although the release noted that extensive damage, partial collapse and winter weather will make the investigation difficult. 

Records show the two most recently burned buildings were current on their taxes, giving city officials little leverage in otherwise addressing the properties, since they weren’t being rented to tenants. 

Chughtai’s office said she has scheduled a meeting with George, who they say has expressed an interest in selling at least some of his real estate portfolio, although no sales have been recently recorded. 

Chughtai’s office encouraged neighbors to call 311 with their concerns, and 911 in case of emergencies at vacant properties like George’s.  

“A big part of accountability and city intervention is having a documented pattern. Having a documented pattern gives city staff the leverage they need to intervene, or at minimum be quick to act when a crisis point happens. It also gives policymakers the leverage they need to intervene with policy and creative solutions,” the statement said. 

Minneapolis police and ATF vehicles parked on the street
A bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives truck is parked on Lyndale Avenue S. in Minneapolis. On Monday, federal officials announced they would join the probe into a fire that damaged an abandoned apartment building at 2312 Lyndale Avenue S. on Saturday.
Ben Hovland | MPR News