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Council passes $400 million plan for downtown east

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: December 13, 2013 - 4:27 PM

The City Council unanimously passed a massive plan Friday to transform the east side of downtown by building Wells Fargo office towers, apartments, retail, a park and a parking ramp next to the new Vikings stadium.

The $400 million development would take shape on five blocks of land currently owned by the Star Tribune. Friday's approval from the City Council was joined by earlier approval from the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, which is contributing money to the deal.

The development is not completely wrapped up, however. A Hennepin County judge is weighing a last-minute legal challenge, which he is expected to rule on next week. (UPDATE: The judge dismissed most of the arguments Friday afternoon)

The city portion of the deal involves borrowing up to $65 million to fund the parking ramp and part of the nearly two block public park. The Authority is also paying $10 million for skyways, and about $16 million for the parking ramp.

"We stand at the brink of doing something I believe is quite remarkable, which is to literally transform a part of town," Mayor R.T. Rybak, the primary champion of the deal, said before the vote. "I love a lot of things in this city, but I don't love vacant parking lots in places where there could be vitality."

The debt to pay for the park and parking ramp is expected to be paid back by parking revenues from two parking ramps. The plan proved much more popular among the council than the polarizing Vikings stadium legislation.

"This is the type of development that happens once in a political generation," said Council Member Gary Schiff, the most vocal stadium opponent on the council. "And it only happens because the timing comes together with the financing. This is being financed right."

A key remaining question is how to pay for improvements in the park beyond basic elements. That effort is expected to rely on fundraising, though Mayor R.T. Rybak said Friday that the sale of development rights above the new parking lot could garner more money for the park.

A last-minute snag to the project concerned whether Wells Fargo would be able to install two square signs atop its office towers, likely viewable during aerial shots of football games. The Vikings, who had to sign off on the deal, eventually relented.

An ordinance change allowing for those signs will have to wait until next year, however, since it was introduced too late to clear several legislative hurdles.

Ryan's purchase agreement with the Star Tribune expires on Dec. 27, which is also Wells Fargo's deadline for the deal to be finalized. Wells Fargo vice president Brent Hanson said Friday they hope to sign the deal with Ryan to own the buildings next week, and won't wait until the judge rules on the legal challenge.

Hanson said they are still in the "planning process" as to where the roughly 5,000 employees expected to occupy the office towers will come from. "Anything is on the table right now," Hanson said.

In his last days in office, Rybak will seek to sell the city's development rights above the new six- or seven-story parking ramp, which will feature views of a stadium, park and river. He envisioned it possibly becoming a hotel, residential building or office space.

"I'll be meeting with a developer who's coming in from out of town today. Another one is coming in Monday," Rybak said. "And there are many from this city that will be looking at it as well."

He added: "If I wasn't an almost-broke former mayor, I'd go bid on it myself."

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