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

Park Board seeks help for possible Southwest fight

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: September 17, 2014 - 8:55 PM

Gearing up for a possible legal fight over Southwest light rail, Minneapolis' Park Board voted Wednesday to seek advice from attorneys with transportation expertise.

The board asked Stinson Leonard Street to research their legal options under a section of the federal Department of Transportation Act that protects parkland. That section, known as "4(f)," requires that transportation projects have minimal impact on parklands unless there are no feasible and prudent alternatives.

Another group of private citizens has already filed a separate lawsuit over the line against the Metropolitan Council and Federal Transit Administration because the line was approved without an updated environmental impact statement -- due out early next year.

The $1.6 billion Southwest line would run from Eden Prairie to downtown Minneapolis, following an existing freight rail corridor through the city's prized Chain of Lakes. The board has previously expressed it's opposition to the shallow tunnel needed to squeeze freight rail, recreational trails and light rail through a pinch point near Cedar Lake (see full explanation below).

"I just don’t believe you can build this thing and it’s not going to impact those lakes," Commissioner Annie Young said through tears on Wednesday. "If nothing else, for seven generations. And the kids. It may seem like nothing now, but 50 years from now it’s going to mean a lot.”

The law firm is expected to update the board on October 1. Several commissioners said retaining their advice amounted to using heavy artillery after being ignored by project planners.

"We’ve really exhausted every polite avenue that we could to try and get across our concerns," said board President Liz Wielinski, saying the project will create the equivalent of "a freeway bridge" above the canal.

“This is like we’re drawing a line in the sand," said Commissioner Meg Forney. "We have gotten the short end of the stick on numerous occasions….So I look at bringing on legal counsel as an investment for more future conversations, as well as this conversation.”

Commissioner Brad Bourn expressed concern about the cost of the contract, $22,000, in relation to the amount of work the firm will do. The Park Board already has an in-house attorney.

But Young said money should not be the primary issue, citing citizens who have written in to offer their help. "They’ll throw us a fundraiser. They’ll do whatever," Young said. "We have a foundation that will help protect us. We have lots of resources outside of this system that will rise up and fight in this struggle.”

Here is the section of the board's August 2013 resolution focusing on the shallow tunnel concerns. While two tunnels were under consideration when the resolution was passed, only one was included in the final plan.

Whereas, The shallow tunnel option would be constructed by open trenching, essentially removing all existing vegetation within the current trail corridor;

Whereas, MPRB, SWLRT project office and City of Minneapolis staff have recently had significant conversations about the shallow tunnel option and specifically about the crossing of the Kenilworth Channel and vegetation removal;

Whereas, The shallow tunnel option would construct a significant amount of infrastructure directly adjacent to and over the Kenilworth Channel including concrete portals, safety fencing or walls and widened bridge decks as necessary to bring the light rail back to grade and over the Channel;

Whereas, After deliberating on the SWLRT options, the MPRB believes the shallow tunnel option as currently proposed will permanently damage the recreational, cultural, and aesthetic experience of MPRB parklands and assets at a particularly fragile and critical location that would be overwhelmed by the proposed co-location of light rail and freight rail infrastructure;

City board clears tax levy hike

Posted by: Erin Golden under Politics and government Updated: September 17, 2014 - 5:05 PM

Mayor Betsy Hodges' proposed 2.4 percent property tax levy increase cleared a first hurdle Wednesday, winning the approval of the city's Board of Estimate and Taxation.

The board, which has members from the City Council, Park and Recreation Board, along with Minneapolis residents, considers changes to the levy before they are forwarded on to the council for approval. Hodges' plan calls for the tax levy to bring in an additional $6.7 million, for a total of $288 million.

Most of that money would be spent on debt payments for a stepped-up street repair program implemented by former Mayor R.T. Rybak. The impact of the levy increase will vary; an analysis presented to the board showed about 57 percent of properties will end up with a smaller tax bill, while 43 percent will pay more.

"More than half of this proposed increase is simply to account for inflation," Hodges said in a statement. "Even with this modest increase, half of Minneapolis' residential properties will see no increase -- or will even see a decrease -- in the City portion of their property taxes."

Minneapolis police settle excessive force suit for $50,000

Posted by: Libor Jany Updated: September 17, 2014 - 2:59 PM

A woman whose lawsuit against Minneapolis police alleged that she was beaten and dragged by police after falling asleep in the lobby of her downtown apartment building, settled the case last month for $50,000, her lawyer said Tuesday.

Attorney Paul Applebaum, who represented Alicia Joneja in the federal lawsuit, said his client was “happy that the cops were held accountable” and that she was ready to put the incident behind her. The city has admitted no guilt in settling the case.

Joneja said in the suit that following a night of drinking with friends she fell asleep in the foyer of her building after she was locked out of her loft. She alleged she was awakened a few hours later by two officers, one of whom kneed her repeatedly in the stomach, grabbed her hair and handcuffed one of her hands.

According to Joneja, the officer, identified in the suit as Heather Sterzinger, dragged her across the floor by her handcuffed hand, injuring her shoulder.

The incident happened in June 2012, according to the suit.

Sterzinger and the other officer, Sundiata Bronson, contended that Joneja became combative after being awakened and threw her shoe at a firefighter who had also responded to the scene, prompting her arrest.

Charges against Joneja were later dropped, Applebaum said.

Police union officials were not immediately available for comment on the settlement.

City mulls tweaked deal for DT East parcel

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: September 17, 2014 - 5:07 PM

Above: The McClellan Block, formerly owned by the Star Tribune, where the parking ramp will be built.

City leaders are mulling a new deal with Ryan Companies allowing the company to develop a key parcel of land in downtown, a week after the Minnesota Vikings offered the city more money for the opportunity.

Ryan would pay the city $3 million for the right to build apartments beside a new parking ramp near the Vikings stadium -- far less than the $5.6 million they had promised in a competitive bidding process. The parcel in question is tucked beside a parking ramp needed for the Vikings stadium, which is being financed partly through city debt.

The deal has changed since a committee discussion last week. New terms presented to a City Council committee Wednesday would allow the city to buy the parcel back if Ryan does not deliver a project within a certain timeline. It also makes $1 million of Ryan's payment reliant on the building's completion, rather than the 70 percent occupancy outlined in an earlier deal.

"Now we are getting that money as soon as the building is up and the certificate of occupancy is issued," said council member Jacob Frey, who represents the area. "That's not a minor change. That's pretty serious."

Ryan's initial proposal, which included both a hotel and apartments, fell through largely due to disputes over parking.

Ryan had hoped to use some of the 1,600 spots in the parking ramp for its residents, but the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority said this was not legally possible. Its subsequent hopes to build an additional level of parking on the ramp to house 200 parking stalls met some resistance from the Vikings, who are worried about the traffic impeding fans on game days.

The team has said that they do not object outright to the additional level, but wanted assurances that residents would not leave during games.

"That egress would account for approximately 30 seconds of additional time," Frey said. "So to get additional economic development, to have eyes on the park, to generate tax revenue, [the Vikings] would not allow 30 seconds."

When Ryan returned to the council to modify its initial offer, the Vikings stepped in with a last-minute $4.6 million offer to build a residential, retail and media tower on the site.

The new terms say that Ryan has 180 days to submit a proposal when the additional parking level is approved or by December 31, 2015 -- whichever occurs sooner. If they do not, the city get the property back for $1.6 million, which reimburses Ryan for extra costs to modify the ramp for development purposes.

The deal remains reliant on the additional parking level being approved. But last week, authority chair Michele Kelm-Helgen was optimistic the issue could be resolved. The authority will eventually own the ramp.

"The Vikings were saying we think it will inhibit our exit times for those 10 games," Kelm-Helgen said at the time. "The authority was very clear that from our perspective we were not concerned about that."

The precise amount of funding derived from development of the ramp because the money is needed to pay for the nearby Downtown East park. That's expected to cost between $6.3 and $10.5 million, according to estimates outlined in a city  request for proposals. Ryan has agreed to help lead fundraising for the park.

The usage of the parking ramp is also significant, since the city is relying on that revenue to pay off the $62 million in debt issued for the ramp and nearby park. Ryan has guaranteed against any shortfalls for the first 10 years, however.

“It is kind of a parking house of cards because its using parking revenue and parking revenue bonds in order to pay off the bonds to do all these other things," said Council Member Lisa Goodman. But she was confident the ramp will be well used, citing Vikings attendance figures and the new Wells Fargo campus across the street.

The reliance on parking revenues in an area where the city hopes to discourage driving was concerning for council member Lisa Bender. “I’m one of these people that hope people will drive less in the future," Bender said.

“My view is this is the best deal that we can get from Ryan," city staffer Miles Mercer told the committee. "And I think that the Ryan team is the best team to pull off this development."

A final vote on the matter is expected on Friday.

Read the proposal below:

Term Sheet Ryan

VIDEO: St. Anthony Falls lab completes renovation

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: September 17, 2014 - 10:48 AM

The Mississippi River is no longer the primary driver of industry in Minneapolis, but its powerful current remains the focal point of the University of Minnesota's St. Anthony Falls Laboratory.

The lab, built as a Works Progress Administration project in 1938, sits just below the falls on the east bank of the river. It harnesses 2,200 gallons of river water per second to drive a myriad of experiments.

"It is unique in its design to utilize the 50-foot drop of St. Anthony Falls," said director Fotis Sotiropolous. "Essentially the same reason that the laboratory is here, for the same reason the city of Minneapolis grew around here."

Leaders at the facility offered reporters a first-person look at their work Tuesday, following a major renovation that was funded with $7.1 million in stimulus funds and another $9.1 million from the University.

Researchers were busy studying how waves can generate energy, the effectiveness of water-based wind turbines, algea growth patterns and how river deltas are formed.

See the video above for a tour of the facility.

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