In September, a neighbor who lived next door to 2312 Lyndale Ave. S. spoke with Southwest Voices, and said they were worried about what would happen to the building — and possibly, where they live — as temperatures get colder.

“I do not feel safe sleeping not 15 feet away from a major fire hazard. And when winter comes and they start trying to keep warm? Explosion or fire is my biggest fear,” said the neighbor next door.

That’s exactly what happened on the morning of December 3. Minneapolis fire crews responded to 2312 Lyndale just after 6 a.m. and found heavy smoke on the second and third floors of the four-story building.

The building sustained $1.8 million in damages, which included a collapsed third floor and roof.

City staff and Councilmember Aisha Chughtai’s office have been meeting with the landlord, C. David George, and his attorney over the past several months to discuss police complaints, plans to secure the building, and selling George's properties.

The City says George is interested in selling his portfolio.

At the same time, the City says their hands are tied over what they can do, saying they can only secure buildings and bill a landlord for it if it becomes an imminent fire hazard.

Chughtai said the City can only act if people help document what’s going on.

“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,” says Chughtai.  

The fire could have been avoided, said Jamey Groethe, the owner of Leaning Tower of Pizza. Grothe spent part of Monday afternoon photographing the hollowed-out building from the roof of the building. Grothe owns both the business and the building. .  

“If the City just put a little bit more time and resources into doing it the right way in the first place, nothing else would have happened after that,” said Groethe, adding the City never added metal grates to the wood boards that would prevent people from breaking in. “It happened almost daily, [people] would come in, [the city] boarded it up again. And [people] would be back the same night.”

The president of the Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association, Jason Garcia, believes the city needs to do better.

“If there was some way that the city could force a sale or use some sort of eminent domain to take over those properties,” Garcia said. “Make sure that they do get rehabilitated and are available as housing that meets standard, rather than just letting them get to the point where they're condemned and sitting empty.”

Garcia said they are disheartened that the building will be demolished.

“It’s tragic that a building was allowed to sit empty during a citywide housing crisis,” Garcia said.

George, a Whittier native, bought the 2312 Lyndale building in 1978 as he began to build a real estate empire. Southwest Voices previously reported on his empire and its gradual decline that led to tenants feeling unsafe. George did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Since 1998, 2312 Lyndale has received 121 code violations. Complicating matters were the building’s most recent manager, who served from November 2012 to 2021 and had a habit of cutting internet and power lines, as well as dissuaded a tenant from calling a plumber to resolve a plumbing issue. George evicted the tenant in 2021 and successfully sued him for back rent.

The building also became inhabited by those seeking shelter, partly because, according to tenants, George decided not to rent units out as they became vacant because he wanted to stop conducting background checks. Those seeking shelter continued to do so even after the building was condemned earlier this year and its residents became displaced. Southwest Voices observed a side door of the building being propped open when we visited on three separate occasions in September and October 2022.

It is unclear how many people were  inside of the 2312 building when it was fully engulfed. The fire department found two people who were treated, including one who jumped off of a second story window.  In November, Minneapolis police discovered a body in the building.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms is offering a $5,000 reward for any information that could help with the investigation. Although they are looking at a couple of possibilities as to how the fire started, they want to move the case along quickly while they have investigators in town from across the nation.

The AFT has assembled a national response team to help the Minneapolis Fire department and the State fire marshal in investigating the fire. The team, which includes chemists, paramedics, and bomb and accelerant-sniffing dogs, have only called out to Minnesota five times since 2004. ATF was previously called to Minnesota four times in 2020 to investigate significant fires in St. Cloud, St. Paul, Grand Rapids, and in Minneapolis days after unrest resulting in George Floyd’s murder by former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin.

George’s other buildings in Southwest Minneapolis remain in various forms of disrepair. The 200 Oak Grove building, where George started his real estate empire, remains fortified with wood boards; metal fencing still covers over the boards on the first two floors of the building. Graffiti occasionally appears on the northeast corner of it.

George's building at 2621 Pillsbury, the first building he bought, is also vacant.

On December 6, Southwest Voices observed that a first-floor window at the back of the 2621 Pillsbury building was wide open with a dumpster below it.

Earlier that day, the landlord who owns a building next door to 2621 tweeted, "Just now my tenants called to report people going into broken boards and told someone out tomorrow to fix? Why not ASAP?" The landlord, Brad Schaeppi, tagged the City of Minneapolis in the tweet.

A back window at 2621 Pillsbury was propped open on December 6. The landlord next to this building had alerted the City earlier that day to the open window. Photo by Melody Hoffmann

After we contacted Schaeppi to let him know that the window was still open that night, his tenants at 2619 called 911, as they feared for the same outcome as 2312 Lyndale, or worse.  Schaeppi said the building has been vacant for almost 20 years.