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

Corps to reopen upper Falls lock this spring

Posted by: Steve Brandt under Local business, Politics and government Updated: February 25, 2015 - 5:36 PM

The feds have decided that the Upper St. Anthony Lock in Minneapolis will reopen with ice-out this year until a congressionally mandated closure date of June 10.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced its decision Wednesday. Col. Dan Koprowski said that reopening the lock for an expected two and one-half months would give river shippers additional time to stockpile materials. That follows one of the shortest navigation seasons ever recorded by the corps on the upper river in 2014.

“We fully recognize that this decision will be applauded by some and criticized by others,” Koprowski said in a statement.

The chief beneficiary of that decision is likely to be Aggregate Industries, which operates a sand and gravel yard about two miles above the lock at St. Anthony Falls. It ships those materials from its quarries on Grey Cloud Island, and they are used in concert with other nearby companies to supply concrete and other building materials to the Minneapolis area market. Another beneficiary is Northern Metals, which collects metal at its upper riverfront scrapyard for shipment to southern mills by river or rail.

A coalition of groups opposing the spread of invasive carp up the Mississippi River advocated for closing the lock permanently with the closure of shipping for the winter. They say the upper lock is the last barrier acting as a defense against carp.

Congress mandated the closing by June 10, citing the carp threat.  But the corps said it concluded that the risk for the short period this spring was minimal compared to the benefit to businesses.

The reopening will occur in the spring, when flows down the river are generally high, making it harder for carp to move upstream. But those same flows can also hamper navigation; last spring the corps closed its three locks in Minneapolis when the current hit 40,000 cubic feet per second.

When the upper lock closes, the corps will cut locking hours at the Lower St. Anthony Lock and Lock No. 1 (Ford) from 19 hours to 10 hours daily.       

(Photo: A barge locked through the upper falls in 1968.)

Conservatory decision missing from sculpture park revamp

Posted by: Steve Brandt under Parks and recreation, People and neighborhoods, Politics and government, Urban living Updated: February 25, 2015 - 2:58 PM

There were plenty of thumbs up this week from an advisory committee for a planned redesign of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden – even with a cost-saving scaleback of an earlier version.

But the issue of what happens to the garden’s Cowles Conservatory remains undecided.

The latest iteration of the revamped garden proposed by a consultant team trims a $15.1 million version of the renovation to $10.6 million. That’s closer to a project budget estimated at $10 million.

The budget cut means changes like more concrete and less crushed granite for the garden’s footpaths. That’s good for people in wheelchairs but some advisory committee members dislike the aesthetic impact. Other examples of budget-balancing cuts are the deletions of a set of granite steps from a Lyndale Avenue stop, and one of two sloping walks from Lyndale.

The advisory committee to the Park and Recreation Board met thinking the meeting was its last. But the fate of the conservatory and a potential narrowing of Vineland Place will bring them back again next month.

No one expects the conservatory to vanish. But under a mandate to make the park more sustainable, major changes to slash its energy use are likely.

The two options discussed this week would keep glass in the conservatory tower with minimal heat but make its wings open-air, or alternately, remove the glass from the entire structure.

According to the Park Board, the entire garden produces about $30,000 in income, much of it from rentals for weddings and other events.  But the conservatory alone costs $80,000 to $100,000 to heat.

One option would be to cut the amount of space heated to just the tower, and cut the heat to about 50 degrees. Or the building could be stripped of all its glass, reinforced against wind and used seasonally. Panel member Craig Wilson said some neighbors are distressed at the latter possibility because they see it as a winter oasis. He also wondered if a metal skeleton would rain bird droppings.

Project planners have hired a consultant to help them determine potential use of the conservatory, which they hope will help the group make a decision on how much it should be deconstructed. Some $1.5 million has been budgeted for the conservatory, part of which would likely be used to improve the stability of the building’s floor.

Margaret Anderson Kelliher, who chairs the advisory group, said she’s captivated by the potential of an open building, which she said could be wrapped in fabric to increase its utility. “I think it it is incredible, and puts us on the map in the new North,” she said.

One change from the previous design is the addition of a concrete walkway southwest of the park’s signature “Spoonbridge and Cherry” sculpture where aerial photos show the heaviest foot traffic. Consultant oslund.and.assoc. also added more north-south walkways between the three sculpture pads they propose in the far northern section of the garden.

These boardwalks will run over meadows of hydrophytic plants, those capable of standing in water for several days while the precipitation drains into a cistern that will be pumped to water vegetation during dry periods. Consultants portray this meadow as a canvas to be painted in drifts of colorful water-tolerant plants.

Also on the panel’s docket for a final meeting is a discussion of future narrowing of Vineland, which separates the garden from the Walker Art Center. The current width was described as appropriate for emptying the Guthrie Theatre, which had a capacity as high as 1,400 when it was located on Vineland. But a narrower street would make it easier for pedestrians to cross between the museum and garden, the group was told.

The proposal is expected to get a public hearing at the Park Board in April, with construction beginning later this year. 

U raises bar for revealing suspect's race in crime alerts

Posted by: under Public safety Updated: February 25, 2015 - 3:33 PM

Authorities prepare student protesters for transport after their arrests. (Mark Vancleave/StarTribune)

After a wave of student-led protests, including one earlier this month in which protesters staged a sit-in in president Eric Kaler’s office, University of Minnesota officials have agreed to end their policy of always publishing the race of suspects in campus crime alerts.

From now on, the bulletins triggered by serious crimes like robbery and aggravated assault will only include the suspect’s description “when there is sufficient detail that would help identify a specific individual or group,” U vice president Pamela Wheelock said Wednesday in an email to students, faculty and staff.

“For some, knowing they have all the information available about a crime, including the complete suspect description, makes them feel better informed and increases how safe they feel,” Wheelock said. “But others – particularly Black men – have shared that suspect descriptions negatively impact their sense of safety. They express concern that Crime Alerts that include race reinforce stereotypes of Black men as threats and create a hostile campus climate.”

On Feb. 9, about 16 members of the campus advocacy group Whose Diversity? – some lugging sleeping bags – took over Kaler’s second-floor office in Morrill Hall, vowing to stay until their demands were met. The sit-in ended nearly eight hours later with the arrests 13 people.

Among their demands was greater racial and ethnic diversity in university hiring practices and more money for the school’s ethnic studies program, which they contended Kaler had promised would happen by the end of last year.

The university's announcement Wednesday didn't appear to address these issues.

Kaler said in a statement that he reached the decision after conferring with outgoing university police chief Greg Hestness, Wheelock and other school leaders, and reviewing "the practices of a number of other colleges and universities."

"This new approach advances public safety while recognizing the harm caused by using race in otherwise limited suspect descriptions," Kaler said. "While not all will embrace our new approach, I want to assure you that we have heard and sincerely considered the diverse voices and opinions that have been shared."

The protest group didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

Residents eye roads as Downtown East Commons takes shape

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: February 25, 2015 - 6:29 PM

Above: Conceptual renderings of how Portland Avenue may intersect the Downtown East Commons, looking east. The trees and park land are not intended to reflect the actual design of the park (Stantec).

A crowded public meeting Tuesday night imagining the future of the Downtown East "Commons" frequently returned to a topic that has little to do with parks: Roads.

Specifically, Park and Portland avenues. Those three-lane, one-way roads now cut through the two blocks slated for the Commons, which will become downtown Minneapolis’ showcase outdoor attraction. It’s expected that the roads will remain open after the park is constructed, though likely narrowed by one lane in the case of Portland.

Eight of 12 presentations made by tables of residents following brainstorming sessions included concerns about how the roads would divide the park and impact the otherwise the tranquil space. The crowd was also full of other ideas for the Commons, from a sit-down restaurant a la New York City's Tavern on the Green to rock climbing walls and bird-friendly structures.

“We would like some kind of connection over those roads that are in between [the two blocks]," said one group representative, addressing the room. "Whatever could be done so it makes that connect better. Whether it’s a tunnel under or it’s a bridge over.”

The bridge option, raised by three groups, is likely impossible given the project's $15 million budget. Others suggested somehow slowing the traffic and making the roads blend into the park.

The county has opposed closing the two arteries, noting that they serve the nearby hospital, medical examiner's office, juvenile detention center and fire station. City staff is also recommending leaving them open because of commuter gridlock that would result on nearby streets, said Jon Wertjes, the city's director of traffic and parking services.

But Council Member Jacob Frey, who represents the area, said he would like see Portland Avenue closed.

"We’re investing all this money into this beautiful green space," Frey said. "We’ve got the primo architecture and design firm. It makes sense to have one connected green space.”

The city's public works department hired a consultant, Stantec, to develop concepts on how to redesign the streets around the park assuming they remain open. The concept for Portland Avenue, still subject to approvals, would eliminate a drive lane and two lanes of parking, while incorporating some sort of bikeway. The Park Avenue concepts leave all three drive lanes, but eliminate a lane of parking.

Above: A proposed concept for how Portland Avenue may divide through the commons, as seen from above (Stantec).

As for the stadium, Wertjes said that studies have concluded that pre-game closures are viable, but post-game closures are not. “The postgame was difficult because of the exiting all at once of the customer base for the stadium event," Wertjes said.

Mary Margaret Jones, the president of Hargreaves Associates, which is designing the park, told the audience Tuesday night that the streets will be an integral part of the design.

“Sometimes the Commons will be perceived to include the streets. Sometimes maybe even actively including the streets -- where the streets might be closed for special events,” Jones said. “Certainly we want to think about the streets as a part of this public realm.”

She pointed to a project they have completed at the Shaw Center for the Arts at Louisiana State University, which incorporates a road into a plaza. She also cited CityGarden in St. Louis, a similarly sized sculpture garden that features a road through two blocks (below).

Above: CityGarden in St. Louis (from Flickr user clio1789)

The park is now anticipated to cost $15 million to build, most if not all of which is expected to be covered through private fundraising. A conservancy formed by the Downtown Council, Greening Downtown Minneapolis, recently hired New Partners to lead that fundraising.

The primary fundraising won't likely begin until detailed concepts are released on April 8, said Downtown Council President Steve Cramer. The total fundraising goal is $20 million, which includes some reserve funds to cover some operating costs.

Frey said he expects the park will cost about $800,000 to $1 million a year to operate and maintain. Concessions will help cover that, Frey said, "but do we have enough of the prime days to generate adequate funds from those concessions? The answer is probably no."

The city is still wrestling with where the rest would come from, though assessments on property owners are one option. "I don’t anticipate a public [property tax] component going for operations and maintenance," Frey said. "I may be wrong when we run the numbers.”

St. Paul man acquitted in '99 grocery store killing

Posted by: Libor Jany under Public safety Updated: February 25, 2015 - 4:24 PM

By Rochelle Olson

A 33-year-old St. Paul man won acquittal on a first-degree murder charge in the 1999 killing of a man in front of a Minneapolis grocery store.

After nine months in jail in lieu of $2 million bail, Earl Vang left the Hennepin County District Court a free man on Tuesday.

Last year, Vang and Tou Lu Yang were indicted in the murder of Miguel Destiny McElroy in front of a store on the 2300 block of Lyndale Avenue N. on July 9, 1999. McElroy’s father was also wounded in the shooting.

After a trial in front of Judge Tamara Garcia, the jury took less than four hours to acquit Vang. During the trial, defense lawyer Earl Gray strongly questioned the reliability of witness identifications of Vang in police photo line-ups.

"Justice was done and my client was able to go home to see his family," Gray said by telephone on Wednesday.

Vang was indicted only last year because of a twist in the case related to Yang, who was convicted previously of second-degree murder in the death.

In 2014, Judge Bruce Peterson ordered a new trial for Yang based on ineffective assistance of counsel, a new witness statement and new evidence identifying other possible suspects.

After further investigation, County Attorney Mike Freeman won first-degree indictments against Yang and Vang. At the time, Freeman said witnesses “confirmed Mr. Vang was part of the murder.”

But the jury didn’t believe his witnesses.

Freeman expressed disappointment Wednesday. “We would not have prosecuted Mr. Vang if we didn’t think he was guilty. But we respect the jury process and accept their verdict,” he said in a statement.

According to the prosecution, McElroy’s brother met with two men who gave him $60 to buy marijuana. The complaint alleged that the defendants later demanded that McElroy get their money back from his brother.
The complaint said the two men pulled out guns and started shooting.

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