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

Minnehaha Park opens two new play areas, increases accessibility

Posted by: Liz Sawyer under Parks and recreation Updated: July 31, 2014 - 5:42 PM

Minnehaha Falls Regional Park held a grand opening for two new play areas Thursday, one of which marked the first universally accessible playground in the Minneapolis park system.

The universal access play area, located at the Waburn Picnic Area, includes significantly more options for disabled children to be involved, with more ramps, paths and rubberized surfacing throughout.

Every park board playground in the city meets requirements set by the Americans with Disabilities Act, but universally accessible play areas have far more features – at least 70 percent – designed for use by disabled children.

The second playground, located near the band shell at the North Plateau, underwent renovations to create a safer environment for children, while complementing existing equipment. Built in 1906, it was one of the first sites to receive swings and a merry-go-round in the park system, according to a park board press release.

Grand opening ceremonies for the play areas included a ribbon cutting at North Plateau with activities, snacks and dedication speakers to follow at Wabun. A commissioned dance is set to close the festivities.

Wabun play area was designed to mirror its Auto Tourist Camp roots, which was once located at the site. The playground boasts a 1930’s-inspired play car and camper, as well as tents and “cabin-like” spaces. Other features include sand play and a quieter space surrounded by a sensory garden.

Volunteer committee Falls 4 All helped raise more than $450,000 through grants, donations and fundraisers to help build the universal play area. Other funding for the projects was provided the Parks and Trails Fund, as well as a host of other agencies.

Ridership projections reveal tricky calculus for transit planners

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: July 31, 2014 - 7:25 PM

Above: The view of Linden Yards East, a public works storage facility, and downtown from the Van White stop.

How many people will board the five proposed Southwest light rail stops outside of downtown in Minneapolis? Depends on how optimistic you are about transit-oriented development.

Take the two stops closest to downtown, Royalston and Van White, where the Metropolitan Council has said that 2030 average weekday ridership will be just 273 and 310, respectively.

Those are very low numbers, reflecting the fact that those stops are currently hard to access and surrounded by little more than industrial land. Despite that, developers have expressed interest in transforming the areas with new housing and offices.

"Other than the 21st Street station, we expect some level of development at each of the Minneapolis stations," city spokesman Casper Hill said a statement, cautioning it will be less than what's anticipated along Central Corridor.

But under guidance from the Federal Transit Administration, forecasters focus on the current population and employment data rather than development goals, said Mark Filipi, who oversees forecasting for the Met Council. That's because the FTA has been burned in the past by overzealous development projections in the 1960s and 1970s.

Above: The Metropolitan Council's ridership forecasts, excluding the 21st Street station.

“They’re saying you have to be able to justify the use of the line, the ridership, based on just the normal growth you would anticipate before we’ll fund it," Filipi said. "And then if you can prove that, and you get more development and more population, households or employment in the corridor, then it’s a win-win for both sides."

So the agency makes its best guess based on a model that factors the number of likely trips to and from the area, where people want to travel, the time difference of taking transit and how people make transportation decisions. They also factor where the city has previously said growth would occur within so-called "transportation analysis zones."

The Royalston stop is currently a parkway lined by industrial buildings, in the shadow of Target Field and a short walk from the city's farmers market. The city's transit-oriented development director, David Frank, said recently that developers are already talking to local property owners like Stark Electronics and United Noodle Wholesale about likely residential development.

Robert Salmen, who owns a property on the corner, has received some of those calls. "There’s a lot of people that are sniffing around looking for development opportunities," said Salmen, who won't be ready to sell for another five or 10 years because several of his tenants have long-term leases.

"I think there’s going to be apartments and mid-rise office where those buildings sit in five years," Salmen said.

Above: The Royalston stop, featuring a view of Target Field.

The Van White stop is even more barren, now featuring little more than a dumping ground for the city's public works department and the city's impound lot.

But Ryan Companies has a development agreement to build offices and residential properties on a massive city-owned parcel there known as Linden Yards West. The city is also planning to reduce the footprint of its impound lot to make room for development, and residents hope that new bus routing will bring riders from West Broadway.

The city identified the Van White area as a "Growth Center" in its 2009 comprehensive plan. Filipi left it unclear whether that was factored into the forecasts, but said existing travel patterns could still have dampened ridership figures.

Russ Adams with the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability, which fought for extra stops in low-income areas along the Central Corridor, said the low Van White ridership figures ignore the neighborhood's long-term plan for the Basset Creek Valley area. The plan envisions office buildings and civic uses on the eastern portion of the site.

“I can’t tell you why they have to stick to the FTA rules, list that number and not give it an asterisk," Adams said. "Or when they publicly talk about it, say, 'We expect a catalytic transit oriented development scenario there.' They’re saying it in other places.”

Prof. David Levinson, a transportation expert at the University of Minnesota, said there is a valid reason for the conservative projections.

"All the forecasts that were done in the 70s, and 80s and 90s…most of them overestimated transit ridership," Levinson said. "The forecasts that have been done since the new rules have been implemented have gotten much closer to expected ridership numbers.”

That helps federal funders, he said, but also creates some confusion about what exactly the forecasts represent.

“To call that the forecast means that everything will exceed forecast if there’s any economic development affects whatsoever, because you’re not accounting for any of them or very little of them when you’re doing this," Levinson said.

It stands in contrast to the city's projections for a Nicollet-Central streetcar line, Levinson said, which has been sold as an economic development tool.

“I would claim that the streetcar forecasts are more in the line of advocacy forecasting. They were trying to get people to buy into the idea of this," Levinson said, noting that they would likely have to be adjusted if the project advances in a quest for federal funding.

The forecasts may be about to change, however. John Welbes, a spokesman for the Southwest project, said new ridership estimates will be released between mid-August and early September.

Council may side with birds in stadium debate

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: July 30, 2014 - 5:58 PM

Updated at 5:55 p.m.

Allegations that the massive, glassy Vikings stadium in downtown will kill thousands of birds cruising into its transparent windows have found sympathetic ears at City Hall.

The City Council, which engaged in a fractious debate over the stadium's construction in 2012, will consider Friday whether to formally support an effort to have the facility bedecked in bird-safe glass.

The Minnesota Vikings have previously rebuffed calls from the Minnesota Audubon Society to shell out an extra $1.1 million for the specially glazed glass at the stadium, expected to cost nearly $1 billion altogether.

A resolution drafted by five council members (below) seeks to apply more pressure, noting that birds frequently use the Mississippi River as a navigational aid and make the metro area their stopover point in the spring and fall. The resolution was authored by council members Linea Palmisano, Cam Gordon, Alondra Cano, Lisa Bender and Andrew Johnson.

"The City of Minneapolis is contributing approximately $150 million in local sales tax revenue to building the stadium, and the interests of the people of Minneapolis should be honored in the design of the stadium," the resolution says.

The Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, which is overseeing the stadium's construction, conceded a year ago that it would turn off lights at night to help prevent bird crashes. The resolution states that is distinct from the calls for different glass, however.

Palmisano noted that the city approved the stadium subject to the conditions of a city implementation committee, which said in its recommendations that the design should be bird safe.

"I hope this starts the conversation in the city that we're asking the Vikings to honor the agreement," Palmisano said.

She added: "Ironically, a thousand years ago, the real Vikings made use of birds for helping with navigation."

They state that the city's stadium implementation committee and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources have both outlined the need to mitigate bird deaths in the stadium's design.

"Ensuring that the stadium is bird-safe will improve visitor experience and be good for the Vikings and Minnesota Sports Facility Authority in the long run," the resolution says.

The City Council will discuss it at their meeting on Friday.

For more detailed information on the types of birds typically involved in building crashes, the Audubon Society's "Project BirdSafe" project has answers on their website.

Photo: A ruby-throated hummingbird, one of many migratory birds threatened by building collisions (Brian Peterson)

Bird-Safe Stadium Resolution

Edina city manager will join Mpls. audit committee

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: July 30, 2014 - 4:29 PM

Edina's top city official is crossing the border to help keep vigil over Minneapolis' finances.

A City Council panel on Wednesday gave initial approval to the appointment of Edina City Manager Scott Neal to the city's newly reconfigured audit committee. Neal, a South Minneapolis resident, will serve as the council's appointee to the six-person body.

The city's internal audit function is expected to restart this fall after going dormant when the city's only auditing employee departed this January.

Neal isn't afraid to speak his mind. He and southwest Minneapolis Council Member Linea Palmisano got in a public spat this January after a blog post concerning parking exposed some tensions between the neighboring communities.

But the two have patched things up, so much so that Palmisano, the chair of the new audit committee, said she asked Neal to apply. The two meet occasionally to discuss topics pertaining to 50th and France, a commercial district that straddles the two cities.

"It’s surprising how many public policy things we’ve disagreed on in the past," Palmisano said Wednesday. "But one of the great virtues of Scott Neal as an add to this audit committee is [as] somebody who understands municipal process.”

Neal presided as city manager of Eden Prairie before coming to Edina in 2010; neither have their own internal audit functions. He has also held that role in Northfield, Minnesota, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa and Norris Tennessee.

His appointment represents a change in direction for the audit committee, which used to rely more heavily on auditing experts than those with government expertise.

The committee was recently reconfigured following the departure of the audit department's sole employee, auditor Magdy Mossaad. They will eventually be responsible for overseeing and reviewing audits from Mossaad's replacement, who likely won't be hired until this fall.

Previous citizen appointees to the old committee included Wells Fargo auditor Darrell Ellsworth and auditing software executive Stephanie Woodruff. Their terms were not renewed.

The new committee features just two citizens, Neal and existing appointee Mark Oyaas, a lobbyist. That's in addition to three council members and a Park Board commissioner.

“I think that the way council member Palmisano describes this committee, the skillset that’s going to be important is knowing what to ask and who to ask and how to integrate and synthesize the information you get," Neal said in an interview, noting he is not volunteering for the job in his capacity as city manager of Edina.

"I think you don’t have to be a CPA or a lawyer to be able to do that. I think I’ve worked in enough cities and seen enough city governments work that I know how to do that and I know how to do it in a comfortable way.”

The Star Tribune wrote a profile of Neal in 2010, when he joined Edina. Read it here.

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.

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