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Drive-in a piece of the past group wants to live on

Bulletin file photo1 / 2
Bulletin photo by Jon Avise2 / 2

Is an old drive-in theater a piece of history worth saving? State and national preservation advocates say the Cottage View Drive-In is, but Cottage Grove officials and the drive-in's owner are still aggressively pursuing commercial development for the city's most lucrative piece of undeveloped land.

The bulldozer's bull's-eye planted squarely on its gravel lots and faded white screen for years, the 43-year-old theater was mentioned late last month during a gathering of preservationists in Minneapolis by Christine French, the Director of Modernism and Recent

Past Initiative with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a preservation advocacy group, as a piece of mid-century American architecture worth preserving for future generations.

Its iconic red sign hanging over East Point Douglas Road for almost a half-century, the Cottage View is historically valuable, French said by phone from her San Francisco office, because it's an example of a slice of American life from the 1950s and '60s that is quickly disappearing across the country.

To understand why the Cottage View is important, French said "we have to think in a bigger context, 'What is it really about?' It represents a whole period in American history that is now disappearing, is now gone. It was a critical part of how people grew up, of their lives."

City, landowner want development

Myron Bailey gets it. The city's mayor, a Cottage Grove native, spent countless summer nights underneath the stars in south Cottage Grove taking in a flick at the Cottage View, he says.

The Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, a St. Paul-based historic preservation advocacy group, has considered placing the drive-in on its "Ten Most Endangered Historic Properties" list it releases each year, said Bonnie McDonald, the alliance's executive director.

But the site, at the convergence of U.S. Highway 61 and busy county Highway 19, represents the tract of land most primed for large-scale commercial development in Cottage Grove that would represent a boon to the city's tax base.

"That's a very expensive piece of land," Bailey said. Gerry Herringer, the landowner and president of Columbia Heights-based Herringer Companies, is a more-than-willing seller.

Herringer, who could not be reached for this story, contributed $500 last week to the Economic Development Authority to help cover the costs of attending a conference of retailers and commercial real-estate brokers last month.

There, city officials met with developers interested in the opportunity -- and potential dollars -- offered by the drive-in site.

"As times change, we lose a little piece of our past," Bailey said. "The reality is: you've got a willing seller, and the only reason the drive-in is still running is the projector is still working."

And once that goes, Herringer has said previously, the drive-in is done. Herringer has declined to invest much money in the aging theater, unwilling to pour a large amount of cash into an operation that has teetered on the brink of being sold to developers twice in the past four years before development deals fell through.

Dollars and sense

With both city hall and landowner intent on developing the site, any efforts to preserve the Cottage View Drive-In are made more difficult, said McDonald of the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota.

McDonald said last week the alliance intends to reach out to Herringer and Cottage Grove officials to discuss the possibility of preservation and "take the temp to see how interested they are."

Not very, the answer seems to be.

The city's Economic Development Authority last week voted to submit a request for proposals for three sites in the city, including the Cottage View. Requests for proposals are intended to identify interested developers in the site.

And, officials for the first time publicly discussed phasing the development of the Cottage View site. In the absence of a strong commercial real-estate market, Bailey said, the city, Herringer and a developer could move forward with a piece-by-piece approach to developing the site to get the project moving.

Howard Blin, Cottage Grove's community development director, said he is surprised the drive-in is on the National Trust's radar screen. City officials -- who have acknowledged the Cottage View's historical and nostalgic value --  have discussed ways to preserve the theater, Blin said.

But, he said, "the use has to make economic sense. And whether the drive-in makes economic sense is a question up for debate."

'A significant piece of cultural history'

Minnesota has some 1,500 sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places, according to the Minnesota Historical Society.

Some are more traditional: the Foshay Tower in Minneapolis; the Aerial Lift Bridge in Duluth; the Stone Arch Bridge in Minneapolis' St. Anthony Falls Historic District.

Others, at first glance, don't look at home on the list: St. Paul's greasy spoon Mickey's Diner, or the White Castle Building No. 8, a throwback hamburger joint in south Minneapolis.

The Cottage View Drive-In is an example of that type of architecture, its neon sign associated with a style that came about with the rise of America's automobile culture, McDonald said.

That car culture, in part, is what makes the site so attractive to developers -- thousands of vehicles whiz past on Highway 61 each day, and its perch just off the highway offers prime visibility that retailers crave.

Herringer's property tax bill for the land has soared in the last decade, making it tough for the businessman to hold onto the land, he has said.

McDonald said there are financial incentives available for preservation, including preservation easements or eligibility for federal tax credits.

But the lure of big development dollars and a needed tax base boost for the city might be too much to save what McDonald called a "significant piece of cultural history in the Twin Cities."

"The Cottage View is a wonderful focal point for how (Cottage Grove) has changed and developed from a mostly rural area to a bedroom community for St. Paul," she said. "I think they're also losing a community gathering place."