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

Proposed app-based transportation rules unveiled

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: April 18, 2014 - 1:30 PM

Council Member Jacob Frey's office has released a final draft of proposed regulations for app-based transportation companies like Lyft and UberX.

A hearing on the new rules is expected on April 29, with an initial vote slated for early May. Lyft and UberX are currently operating illegally, since existing city ordinances require them to register as taxicabs. The services allow people to sign up to essentially become chauffeurs of their own vehicles, locating passengers through a smartphone app.

The proposed ordinance specifies that so-called transportation network companies (TNC) are distinct from "rideshare," defined as carpooling and other modes of shared transportation where payment is not expected.

Unlike taxicab drivers, who must be individually licensed with the city, TNC drivers will be "endorsed" by their companies.

The primary distinction between TNCs and taxicabs is how they pick up passengers. TNCs may only accept prearranged trips, whereas taxicabs can pick up random passengers on the street.

The companies must have commercial liability insurance with limits of at least $1 million per occurrence. The policies must cover all vehicles that are "active," meaning a driver is logged into the dispatch system.

Inspections must be performed at a facility approved by the city. Vehicles must at a minimum be "rust-free and damage free" and pass an inspection of components outlined by the city.

TNC vehicles must be newer than 10 years old, whereas taxicabs must be replaced every five years.

Ten percent of taxicab fleets must be wheelchair-accessible vehicles. If a TNC company receives a request for a wheelchair-accessible vehicle, they must direct them to "licensed provider of such a service."

Finally, the number of rides requested in each zip code must be recorded by the company. The city will also require them to document any accidents, the hours and miles each driver is logging and the number of people requesting wheelchair-accessible rides.

The proposed ordinance is below. Click on the highlighted boxes to see some comparisons to taxicab regulations.

 

Healy house that drew preservation fight headed for demolition

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: April 18, 2014 - 8:11 AM

A run-down rooming house that was once a grand example of master builder T.P Healy's handiwork is poised for demolition after an extended fight over historic preservation.

The property owner plans to sell the 120-year-old house on 24th Street and Colfax Avenue South for development
of a four-story, 45-unit building on the site (see rendering below). The city's zoning and planning committee voted 5 to 1 Thursday to approve an appeal of the heritage preservation commission decision to block demolition. That vote must be affirmed by the full council.

The proposed demolition has attracted significant attention from neighbors, preservationists and even TV host Nicole Curtis, who lives in the area. Council Members received a barrage of e-mails Wednesday night after Curtis made a plea on her Facebook page.

Testimony at a public hearing Thursday hinged largely on whether the building could be viably restored and whether the older, low-income people inside should be displaced out of the chic neighborhood bordered by Hennepin and Lyndale Avenues.

'These are truly affordable units that allow lower-income people the opportunity to live in the Wedge neighborhood," said Paul Ryan, observing that the building's inhabitants add valuable diversity to the area.

The building itself has been significantly altered from its original design; the interior looks more akin to a dormitory than a historic home following several fires and conversion to a 16-unit rooming house.

Preservationists argued that it could be restored, but owner Michael Crow and others said no one has stepped forward with an offer to buy it. Crow has grown weary of running the rooming house after a series of health problems.

Council Member Lisa Bender, who represents the area, said she could not imagine someone paying $500,000 or more to restore the house to a single-family home.

"Is it a policy directive to legally mandate preservation of his home and restoration to a single-family home in a neighborhood that has a mix of housing types, where we want to see a density of people living close to downtown in a vibrant, mixed-use neighborhood?" Bender asked. "I don't think it is."

The lone 'no' vote came from Council Member Lisa Goodman, who represents part of downtown. She said the house will see an 'untimely death' because of its location in densely zoned area where mixed-use housing is very popular.

"I think we should be standing by what we believe in, which is preserving affordable housing in our city. That's an equity issue. Standing up for our zero-waste policies, that's an equity issue," Goodman said. "And trying not to be the council that says density is at the expense of preservation. And I sadly fear that that's the direction we're moving in."

As a master builder, Healy oversaw everything from the design to construction of his homes, which are peppered throughout Minneapolis. His great-grandson, John Cunningham, said the building could have a second life.

“I believe in my professional opinion it can be restored to a very very good facsimile of the pictures that you see [today]," Cunningham said.

Scott Shaffer testified that so much of the original building was gone that a restoration would not actually be preservation. "We’d be doing historical restoration. It would be a replica, it wouldn’t be an original historic building," Shaffer said.

The full council will vote on the project at their meeting next week.

Top photo: Michael Crow showing the 2320 Colfax house (Richard Tsong-Taatarii). Top right: Photo of the 2320 Colfax house taken by Landscape Research LLC.

Could Minneapolis ban foam containers in restaurants?

Posted by: Maya Rao under Politics and government Updated: April 16, 2014 - 6:12 PM

Minneapolis could soon join dozens of other cities around the country in banning restaurants from offering food in foam containers.

Council Member Andrew Johnson will introduce an ordinance next Friday that would prohibit restaurants from using expanded polystyrene – commonly recognized as Styrofoam – in an effort to protect customers’ health and improve the city’s recycling system.

As Minneapolis considers how to be a “zero waste” city, Johnson said the foam is not economical to recycle.

“And frankly, it only delays the inevitable, which is that society is evolving away from Styrofoam completely,” said the rookie council member from south Minneapolis.

Johnson said the measure builds on an ordinance from the early 1990s that was not enforced.

The Minnesota Restaurant Association says it is unlikely to oppose the move, though some members have concerns about the January 1 effective date.

“Many of my members have reported back that they’ve already moved away from foam packaging,” said Dan McElroy, the association’s president.

The city currently collects recyclable materials from most residential buildings, while businesses contract with private haulers.

City recycling coordinator Kellie Kish said that if Minneapolis were to try to recycle Styrofoam, it would ask customers to clean the containers and put them in plastic bags.

But plastic bags are already the top contaminant in the city’s single-sort recycling program, she said, so doing that “would go against all of the education we’ve been doing.”

Photo: Taken by Flickr user mollyali, used under Creative Commons license.

Tensions growing over Lyft, UberX regulations in Minneapolis

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: April 16, 2014 - 10:43 AM

The city’s taxicab industry is growing increasingly frustrated with a City Council effort to legalize app-based transportation companies like Lyft and UberX.

A group of taxicab drivers and company owners looked on Tuesday as a council committee discussed new regulations governing Lyft and UberX, which essentially allow people to act as chauffeurs of their own vehicles. They said afterward that the rules are unfair, since taxicabs are subject to more burdensome regulations.

The committee decided to hold a public hearing on the proposed regulations on April 28. The city is hoping to hear back from the state’s insurance commissioner and several insurance trade groups, which are reviewing UberX’s insurance policy.

“Within two weeks it’s going to escalate,” said Zach Williams, owner of Rainbow Taxi, surrounded by taxi drivers in a hallway. “You’re going to have a much bigger crowd out here two weeks from now.”

In other cities, like Los Angeles and San Francisco, the app-based companies have spurred taxicab protests at City Hall. Cities across the country are grappling how to regulate the companies, including Seattle, which recently capped the number of drivers.

Council Member Jacob Frey is sponsoring the new regulations, which are being devised by regulators from Minneapolis, St. Paul and the Metropolitan Airports Commission. Lyft and UberX are currently operating illegally in Minneapolis, since city ordinances require them to license their vehicles as taxicabs.

A regulatory outline presented to the committee said they would require the companies, rather than vehicles themselves, to be licensed. The companies would also perform their own background checks and vehicle inspections, meeting city specifications, unlike taxicabs which must submit to city checks. The city would conduct audits, however.

Waleed Sonbol, general manager of Blue and White Taxi, said he was shocked by this provision.

“The way I look at it is, ‘All you guys are worth millions, so we trust you. And you guys aren’t worth millions so we don’t trust you, so we’re going to make sure we hold your hand throughout the entire process,’” Sonbol said. “That’s all this is in the end. It’s another form, in short, of gentrification.”

Lyft and UberX would only be able to make prearranged trips under the proposal. “This will leave a certain type of traditional taxicab ride like street hails, taxicab waiting stands at hotels, for licensed, regular taxicabs,” said Grant Wilson, the city’s head of business licensing. 

Other possible requirements specified on Tuesday include having commercial insurance in effect when the driver is “active on the dispatch network ” and creating incentives – or a surcharge – for the companies to have wheelchair-accessible options.

Williams said taxicab companies serve the entire public, while Lyft and UberX only serve people with smartphones. “That’s no good for neighborhoods or people with so-called dumb phones,” he said.

He added that so-called Transportation Network Companies can do many things at a lower cost than he can because of the different regulations. “I’m going to be the first one in line to apply for my peer-to-peer transportation network license,” Williams said.

The industry’s concerns were raised to the committee by Council Member Abdi Warsame, who says his office has “grave concerns” with the ordinance. “it’s unfair on them,” Warsame said. “Because they have to get licenses, they have to get inspections, and these operations don’t have to do that.”

Frey said that the new regulations are necessary because Lyft and UberX can’t operate under existing taxicab rules. “We’ve presently got Lyft and Uber that are operating largely illegally,” Frey said. “So we have to find a way to move forward as expediently as possible.”

But, he added, it’s important that the final regulations are “equitable.” “Perhaps there needs to be sort of a large- or small-scale deregulation of how we handle taxicabs right now,” Frey said.

Just when to hold the public hearing was another area of debate. Council Member John Quincy wanted to wait for stakeholder meetings and an answer from the insurance commissioner.

“I don’t want this committee or the public hearing to be a place of refinement of it and having a room full of people suggesting changes,” Quincy said. “I’d like to have that kind of fully baked before it’s brought out to the public hearing.“

The committee’s chair, council member Lisa Goodman, emphasized the need to be transparent.

“I personally think that the kind of public hearing when the decision’s already been made is terrible,” Goodman said. “I think it’s better to have a public hearing, hear from everyone who has a concern and attempt – to the best that we can – to take another cycle and deal with those issues.”

The committee isn’t expected to take a vote on the matter until the meeting following the public hearing, which will take place in early May. 

Kmart execs respond to Nicollet-Lake plan

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: April 14, 2014 - 3:47 PM

The owners of Kmart are pushing back against the city's characterizations of their store ahead of a vote Tuesday to redevelop the Lake Street and Nicollet Avenue area.

In a letter submitted to the City Council last week (below), Kmart executives criticized a proposed redevelopment plan for referring to the area as "blighted" and said city officials' statements about plans for the area are hurting their business. The company nonetheless supports the vision for the area and would like to keep a store there over the long term.

The council's community development committee is slated to vote Tuesday on the redevelopment plan, which specifies properties the city may try to acquire in order to reopen Nicollet Avenue. Closing Nicollet Avenue at Lake Street to make way for the Kmart in the 1978 is frequently cited as one of the poorest planning decisions in recent city history.

The plan would give the city authority to purchase parcels of land in and around the Kmart site from willing sellers (there are five separate landholders). Transit-oriented development director David Frank said the city must outline blight in order to justify that authority under state statute.

Kmart vice president James Terrell and director of real estate Max Bulbin asked that all references to blight be removed from the document.

"This leaves the public with a negative impression of Kmart when, in reality, Kmart has buoyed the local economy and community for years while the city has failed to invest in the Nicollet corridor's development for decades," they wrote.

They added that uncertainty about the project, including "the specter of condemnation proceedings," has hurt their business and confused customers and vendors. They attributed this partly to statements city officials have made in the media before having a concrete funding plan for the redevelopment.

"The uncertainties created by mischaracterizations in the media surrounding Kmart coupled with the lack of specificity in the current plan -- both in timing and scope -- are manifold and create significant confusion for Kmart, its customers, and the public in general," the letter said. "The city's statements in the press regarding gaining control of the Kmart property has created a cloud of condemnation over Kmart's business and operations, hurting its profitability."

Frank said the redevelopment plan does not give the city authority to take the properties by force, which would require an entirely separate analysis and approval. He said he has tried to emphasize that Kmart is a partner when speaking to the media, but that nuance is not always reflected publicly.

"It's pretty hard to write about this project without describing it as, 'Hey, there's a store in the way of the city's street. And that sets up a looming conflict when ... it gets written about that way," Frank said. "So I understand where they're coming from when they say 'Hey, we're not clear what you're doing here. What are you doing here?'"

Terrell and Bulbin wrote that Kmart supports the vision for revitalizing the area, and that the retailer is interested in remaining at the intersection. They said that the store is one of the company's most successful in the country.

But, they added, "The city has not yet offered Kmart any viable economic proposal or other specified assurances to which we can refer in addressing the concerns of our customers, employees and business partners. We ask that it do so."  

The land beneath the site is owned by New York investor Lawrence Kadish. In their letter, the Kmart executives said they have a long-term lease on the property that is renewable through 2053.

“They have a below-market lease for their store," Frank said. "So it is in their best interest that that lease be allowed to run to the end.”

Frank added that they are in "early conversations" with Kadish and "we'll try to see if there's a business deal that can be struck."

City officials altered portions of the redevelopment plan in response to Kmart's concerns. They acknowledged Kmart's interest in remaining as a stakeholder and eliminated one reference to the store's contribution to "blighting" at Lake Street and Nicollet Avenue. Kmart executives are expected to attend tomorrow's council hearing.

Kmart Response

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