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

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

Proposal: Create new neighborhood by capping 35W

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: April 11, 2014 - 5:02 PM

A group of graduate students at the University of Minnesota has proposed creating a new neighborhood east of the new Vikings stadium by putting a lid on top of Interstate 35W.

A conceptual model of that concept was on display this week at the IDS Center's Crystal Court. The project area spanned a 24-block area including 35W southwest of Bobby and Steve's Auto World.

The students at the College of Design proposed capping the freeway with a green open space, then surrounding it with high-density residential buildings.

The freeway lid would also serve as a parking structure for the new district. Existing streets such as 4th Street and 3rd Street -- that were severed by 35W -- would travel through the structure.

"The lid would serve as a backbone for new development by raising local property values. Covered with a green roof, it would create a new park for Minneapolis and the neighborhood's new residents, providing year-round recreation opportunities," read a placard attached to the model. "Buildings next to it would have skyway connections directly to the LRT stations nearby."

The ideal result would be an environment "in which people would like to both live and work." There were many topographical challenges, however.

The model is hard to envision on first glance, since several of its streets do not currently exist. Click on the pushpin icons in this map to see photographs of the model from the perspective of the adjoining red arrows.


View 35W Lid in a larger map

Earplugs will soon roll out to Mpls. clubs

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: April 11, 2014 - 2:34 PM

Expect to see earplug dispensers rolling out at clubs across the city before May 1.

That’s the result of a new ordinance passed by the Minneapolis City Council on Friday, mandating that clubs carry the free devices. They will be paid for by a coalition of local companies: 3M, apparel maker Locally Grown, Globally Known, and the Miracle Ear foundation.

The new rules apply to about 198 businesses in Minneapolis, which have licenses that allow amplified music for things like concerts and dancing. They were authored by Council Member Jacob Frey.

The effort is intended to raise awareness about hearing loss, which is a growing problem among younger Americans.

The brainchild behind the effort, Brian Felsen, said they are putting the final touches on wall-mounted dispensers which will eventually be rolled out to bars and clubs across the city. Patrons will twist a knob to dispense the earplugs.

“There is no requirement exactly where the facilities have to put them,” Felsen said. “But they do have to be handicap accessible and in an area where people can see and get them without having to ask anyone or be embarrassed about it.”

Photo: Patrons watched Sharief perform at the 7th St. Entry in Minneapolis (CARLOS GONZALEZ )

City Council creates "Somali American day"

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: April 11, 2014 - 1:59 PM

The Minneapolis City Council voted Friday to mark July 1 as “Somali American day” in the city, which is home to many immigrants from the east African country.

The date holds significance among Somalis, who celebrate independence day on July 1 both in Somalia and the United States diaspora.

Abdi Warsame, the first Somali-American on the Minneapolis City Council, praised the resolution at a council meeting on Friday. A gathering of Somali-American men were in attendance.

“This is a very important resolution for me,” Warsame said. “And it actually came from the elders and the community leaders who wanted to highlight the contributions, the culture, the values of the Somali-American community, which is a large and growing population in the city of Minneapolis.”

The July 1 independence day commemorates when the Somali Republic was created by uniting two territories previously controlled by Italy and Britain.

Photo: Warsame hands the resolution to Osman Mohamed Ali, founder of the Somali Artifact and Cultural Museum, where it will be housed.

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