What’s making news in Minneapolis, reported by the Star Tribune’s team of city reporters. Send news tips to baird.helgeson@startribune.com.

NAACP, Urban League call for outside probe of Flowers' arrest

Posted by: Matt McKinney Updated: July 29, 2014 - 4:41 PM

The arrest of Al Flowers at his house early Saturday morning deserves an outside investigation, said leaders of the local chapters of the NAACP and the Urban League.

Speaking to a crowd of about 100 people gathered at the Urban League offices on Plymouth Avenue North Tuesday morning, local NAACP president Jerry McAfee said an independent investigation is necessary after Flowers was arrested and charged with assault on a police officer and obstruction. Flowers was hospitalized after the arrest with cuts to his scalp and face; an officer was bitten during the arrest and required medical attention as well, according to a police union spokesman.

"We want to sit at the table and we choose that investigator together," said McAfee. "Then I think we can begin to talk about establishing some trust with the police department."

Flowers has not yet been charged with a crime; he was released from jail pending the outcome of a police investigation.

The arrest has thrown Flowers, 55, into the spotlight once again, a position he's held off-and-on over the years while running for mayor in 2009, suing (and losing) a city council member for free speech violations, hosting a city-cable television show and publicly criticizing the police department. He has served on the Police Community Relations Council, a group formed by federal mandate to improve communication between the police and the community. It disbanded in 2008 after five years of work.

Several people who spoke Tuesday said the fallout from Flowers' arrest has damaged relations between the black community and the Minneapolis Police Department.

"For a man to be beat down in his own home like that is a reminder of how far we haven't come as a community and as a country," said Scott Gray, president and chief executive officer of the Urban League. "We will walk with Al to the end to be sure that justice is served."

"This is old in our community," said Spike Moss, who ran the meeting. "We have suffered from the brutality of police across this country."

"The majority of [Minneapolis police officers] are nice people who protect and serve," said Abdizirak Bihi, who represented the Somali community. "But the problem of a few others that are not weeded out of the department continues to drive the department down the road of fear and lack of trust."

Flowers himself had spoken about the need to restore trust between the black community and the Minneapolis Police Department at a series of recent meetings of his organization, the Community Standards Initiative. At a meeting earlier this month, several people who attended the meeting had hoped to help the department find more black candidates for the MPD's recruitment efforts,among other things.

Three Minneapolis police officers were at that meeting, and one of them, Lt. Rick Zimmerman, was also present Tuesday morning at the Urban League. Zimmerman spoke to Flowers directly Tuesday during a portion of the meeting that was broadcast live on local radio station KMOJ. Keeping his comments brief, Zimmerman said "I'm sorry this happened," before shaking hands with Flowers and getting a hug from him in return.

Speaking to a reporter after the meeting, Zimmerman said the head of the assault unit, Lt. Art Knight, is overseeing the investigation of Flowers' arrest. Knight was also present at Flowers' CSI meeting earlier this month.

"We need time to work through it," Zimmerman said of Flowers' case. "It’s going to take a long time. I just hope that the community realizes that Lt. Art Knight, Commander Johnson, Deputy Chief Arneson are all fair, I mean really fair," Zimmerman said, speaking of the police officials who are looking at the case. "They’re going to make sure that it’s a complete investigation. I wanted to personally tell Al that I’m sorry this happened, but I’m not a department spokesman."

The department has had no official comment on the case beyond a statement from Chief Janeé Harteau at a press conference on Saturday, when she twice referred to the arrest as a "distraction" from the work she's done to strengthen public safety. Her handling of the case has been heavily criticized by Flowers' family and supporters, including his son, Al Flowers, Jr., who told people gathered at the Urban League on Tuesday that the arrest has been hard on their family. He then thanked several city council members, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek for their support over the past several days before singling out Harteau for criticism.

"To the chief," Flowers Jr. said, "you seem to have a problem with saying my dad's name whenever you give an interview: his name is Al Flowers, he's a father of five and a grandfather of six. Me and my family find it very disturbing when a vicious beating such as this is described with words such as 'distraction.'"

Flowers spoke last, thanking people for their support as he stood at the front of the room where posters on the wall read"We love you, Al!" and "Hands off Al Flowers!"

"I'm still in disbelief of what happened," said Flowers.

Tighter limits on new home sizes clear initial hurdle

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: July 29, 2014 - 11:55 AM

New rules tightening restrictions on the size of new single-family homes throughout the city are heading to the City Council after passing an advisory body unanimously on Monday night.

The laundry list of zoning changes arrives months after the council passed and then lifted a controversial moratorium on home demolitions in southwest Minneapolis. While the moratorium was largely aimed at improving construction site problems, the new changes are intended to alleviate some resident concerns that new homes are dwarfing old ones.

This has largely been a problem in southwest Minneapolis (see photo above right), but the new rules target one- to four-unit homes citywide.

Residents in southwest Minneapolis in particular had expressed concerns about homes taking up too much lot space, having steep roofs that reach too high, featuring poorly placed garages and first floors that are out of sync with neighbors.

The new rules, which the city planning commission passed unanimously on Monday night, must now be debated by the City Council. They feature a number of detailed changes, some of which expand on changes that were made by then-council member Betsy Hodges in 2007:

  • The maximum massing of homes, known as the floor area ratio, was not decreased. But one-car garages and raised basements will now count toward that calculation.

  • Raised basements can only be 2.5 feet above ground before they are counted toward the building's mass, down from 4 feet.

  • The maximum height of homes was reduced slightly, from 30 feet to 28 feet, measured at the midpoint between the peak and eave. Because of problems with steep roofs, a new rule bars houses from reaching higher than 33 feet at any point.

    • To put that in perspective, the average midpoint height in a sample of 256 recently approved homes across the city was 24.5 feet. Seven percent were higher than 28 feet at the midpoint.

  • Exemptions can be granted for massing and height if owners are building an addition to an existing home or if nearby homes already exceed the height limitations. Other waivers might be granted if the rules cause "practical difficulty," according to a staff presentation.

  • New regulations also address the space between homes, requiring larger lots to leave more undeveloped land between the house and the end of the property line.

  • Changes were also made to the point system that determines whether projects meet an acceptable design standard. New incentives were added for keeping height consistent with neighboring homes, planting trees, and locating a detached garage in the rear of the lot.

  • The new language also reduces the maximum lot coverage from 50 percent to 45 percent, and clarifies that basement-level garages count toward a provision limiting garage space to 60 percent of the front facade.

Reaction so far appears largely supportive, particularly since almost no one appeared to testify at the sole public hearing on the changes Monday evening.

“For the most part we have a document that everybody is really supportive of,” said Julia Parenteau, a lobbyist with the Minneapolis Area Association of Realtors, which opposed the teardown moratorium. Parenteau said the industry has concerns with eliminating the garage exemption when calculating the mass of a building.

Architect Tim Quigley was less supportive, noting that when coupled with the 2007 changes, houses are being downsized by 30 or 40 percent. “The downsizing proposals that are being discussed here tonight I think are too extreme, too coercive, too shortsighted and a gross overreaction,” Quigley said.

He said new height limitations apply too broadly across the city and would outlaw building homes that are already common in Kenwood, Lowry Hill, the Lakes Area, Prospect Park and Tangletown. “We’re saying, ‘No that’s not good.’ These are some of the most desirable neighborhoods in the city. So I really wonder, do we know what we’re really doing here?”

The City Council is expected to take up the issue next month, starting at the zoning and planning committee.

Flowers shares crime scene pictures from his home after his arrest

Posted by: Matt McKinney Updated: July 29, 2014 - 9:39 AM

As Al Flowers waits to learn whether or not he faces criminal charges following his arrest early Saturday morning, his family has released photographs of the Flowers home taken moments after the incident.

The pictures show evidence of a struggle, with a plant and furniture knocked over and two blood spots on the wood floor. Flowers was taken to Hennepin County Medical Center after the fight for treatment of cuts to his scalp and face. A Minneapolis police officer also required treatment for a bite wound, according to the police union.

Flowers insisted Monday that he didn't resist when officers came to his home in the 3100 block of Chicago Av. S. at about 12:40 a.m. Saturday to pick up his teenage daughter over an electronic home monitoring violation. Flowers said he repeatedly asked to see an arrest warrant. A police union official said officers aren't required to show a warrant in such situations. The union official added that Flowers wouldn't get out of the way as officers attempted to arrest his daughter.

Open data policy heads to the Council

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: July 28, 2014 - 3:58 PM

Reams of public data addressing everything from restaurant inspections to city spending may soon become easier to access under an "open data policy" under consideration at City Hall.

The policy, which will be presented to a committee this Wednesday, would create a new portal where departments can upload raw public data about different metrics they are tracking. To access that information now, inquiring citizens and journalists must formally request it from the city.

Other cities like Chicago and New York have already created similar portals, allowing developers and journalists to illuminate trends and create tools for public use. Chicago's portal contains more than 1,000 datasets, from historical crime data to a map of abandoned vehicles.

If passed, Minneapolis would be the 16th city in the country to have such a policy. "This is really positioning us for being up there in the nation in terms of transparency," said Andrew Johnson, a former systems engineer who has helped lead the open data initiative.

The policy (below) says that the portal must be available within 120 days of enactment, meaning late 2014. What data is uploaded will largely be left to the discretion of departments, however.

Johnson said some departments are more interested than others, particularly Health and Regulatory Services. They control a range of datasets including health code inspections and landlord violations.

"I think that by being champions of it and showing how they can utilize open data to work better and achieve more of their goals, other departments will see the value and follow suit," Johnson said.

Other departments have expressed concerns about committing staff resources, releasing inaccurate data or having data misinterpreted, Johnson said.

The policy says there are many benefits to increasing data transparency: "By making its data available online, the City will enable the public to: (1) assist in identifying efficient solutions for government, (2) promote innovative strategies for social progress, and (3) create economic opportunities."

Starting in 2015, all new contracts must include provisions to ensure data can be published when appropriate. Each department must also assign an open data coordinator to facilitate uploading data and serve on an advisory group.

Photo: A map of abandoned vehicles in Chicago, from the city's data portal.

Open Data Policy Final


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