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

Pumps go off at luxury Uptown apartment

Posted by: Steve Brandt under Parks and recreation, People and neighborhoods, Politics and government, Urban living Updated: March 31, 2015 - 6:07 PM

The pumps have been turned off for the first time in four years at an upscale Uptown apartment building, meaning that the illegal pumping of millions of gallons of groundwater into nearby lakes will cease.

The pumps were turned off late Tuesday afternoon, meeting a deadline of that day set in a legal settlement reached several months ago, according to Charles Nauen, an attorney representing the city of Minneapolis.

The settlement was reached after the city and Park Board filed several suits to end the pumping. Developer Lake and Knox LLC was permitted initially to drain the site at 1800 W. Lake St. for construction. But it kept on pumping after construction ended because the lower of two basement garage floors was below the area's water table. A judge ruled in November ruled that violated city ordinances after the city sued.

Lake and Knox built the 57-unit luxury building in 2011. It consists of developers Nick Walton and Daniel Oberpriller, plus other unnamed investors. They still have financial claims pending against engineering firms that provided studies for the project.  Pumps sucked about 90 million gallons per year of water into the nearby lagoon separating Lake of the Isles and Lake Calhoun, including an estimated 75 pounds per year of algae-feeding phosphorus.

Lara Norkus-Crampton, who opposed zoning variances granted the project and resigned from the planning commission in protest, praised former City Council member Meg Tuthill and park Commissioner Anita Tabb for doggedness in ending the pumping. She also said citizens sometimes have a false sense of security that the many jurisdictions responsible for water quality are monitoring such violations.

Council Member Lisa Goodman, who now represents the area, said in an e-mail: "It’s good to see that the developer is abiding by the consent decree after years of pumping water into the lake.  I’m happy to see this part of the larger issue resolved."

To comply with a settlement reached in December to cease pumping by Tuesday, the developers removed mechanical and electrical components from the lower parking level, filled it with sand and gravel, and then sealed it off from remaining basement parking. The firm said that careful fill-in work was crucial to ensuring the building remained stable. It estimated the work would cost $1.2 million, while new parking it plans next door is expected to cost $2 million.

Target Center funding plan moves forward, after debate

Posted by: Erin Golden under Politics and government Updated: March 31, 2015 - 12:22 PM

The Target Center from First Ave., last week. The Minneapolis City Council is considering adding $24.5 million in public contributions to a renovation of the city owned facility. David Joles / Star Tribune

A proposal to up the city's contribution to upgrades on the downtown Target Center arena has cleared another Minneapolis City Council hurdle, though some council members say they're opposed to more spending.

The city has already agreed to spend $50 million on a project now expected to cost $129 million. But last week, a council committee heard a recommendation to boost the support by another $24.5 million because of rising construction costs.

That committee approved the higher spending on the city owned facility, which hosts concerts and home games of the Minnesota Timberwolves, among other events. On Wednesday, that vote was forwarded along to the council's Ways and Means Committee, where members approved more spending with a 4-2 vote -- but only after some debate over the Target Center's value to the local economy.

City officials say the higher contribution -- which would amount to about $500,000 to $1 million more each year in debt payments -- would be covered by sales tax revenue. The city also pays for the facility with parking revenue and rental payments from the Timberwolves. If the facility makes more than is needed in a given year, extra revenues can be used for other city expenses.

Meanwhile, the new proposal would drop the city's contribution for long-term repairs from $50 million to $20 million.

Council Members John Quincy, Linea Palmisano, Blong Yang and Jacob Frey said they believed the adjustments would ensure the city is taking adequate care of an important resource.

"We own the Target Center and we have an obligation to fix it and make it better," Yang said. "If this extends the life of the Target Center and makes it a more world-class facility, I'd be all for it."

Council President Barb Johnson, who is not a member of the committee, joined the discussion to offer her support. She noted that the Target Center last year was ranked as the No. 17 arena in the world for ticket sales by Pollstar, an agency that tracks such facilities.

"It's not like nobody's going there," she said. "We are going to put dollars in that will make it a more viable and vital piece of downtown."

Council Members Andrew Johnson and Lisa Bender disagreed. Johnson said he's concerned about skyrocketing construction costs that could be pushed higher by another major project with high demands on materials and labor.

He said that could cause private developers to hold off on other projects around the city. Johnson also questions the amount of money the Timberwolves plan to contribute to the project and said he'd like to see the city refocus its spending on other priorities, like road repairs.

Bender, meanwhile, said she's not convinced stadiums and concert venues do enough for cities' economies. She said she supports maintaining the building in its current form through its useful lifespan -- perhaps another 10 years -- and then reassessing the value of the property. She suggested that a residential or office development could be a better use of the space.

"I disagree with that underlying premise that this is a good investment for the city," she said.

The revised spending plan will still require the vote of the full council. 

Missing U of M student went off bridge into Mississippi River, police say

Posted by: Erin Golden under Public safety Updated: March 30, 2015 - 3:43 PM

A vigil for missing University of Minnesota Student Jennifer Houle was held March 29 at Stillwater Area High School. BRIDGET BENNETT /SPECIAL TO THE STAR TRIBUNE 

Minneapolis police said Monday that they've located video of a missing University of Minnesota student entering the river off of the 10th Avenue Bridge, near the university's campus.

Jennifer Houle, 22, a Carlson School of Management student, was last seen early Friday morning at the Blarney Pub at 412 14th Av. SE in Minneapolis. Police said they are not seeking suspects and are now beginning a water recovery mission with the help of the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office. 

In a statement, the department issued condolences to Houle's family and friends and thanked people who provided information after her disappearance.

A police spokesman said the video footage was captured by a police surveillance camera in the area. It showed that Houle was alone at the time she went in the water. 

Houle, a native of Lake Elmo, graduated from Stillwater Area High School.

Danita Brown Young, the university's vice provost for student affairs and dean of students released a statement Monday morning, saying the university was "deeply saddened" to learn the news about Houle, a member of the Pi Beta Phi sorority.

The university is offering counseling services to students, faculty and staff members, especially for Houle's fellow Carlson students and her sorority sisters.

Hydro proposal at St. Anthony Falls lock tries again

Posted by: Steve Brandt under Parks and recreation, People and neighborhoods, Politics and government, Urban living Updated: March 27, 2015 - 2:45 PM

Symphony Hydro has reapplied for federal permission to generate hydroelectricity in the St. Anthony Falls lock after a federal regulator last month denied its initial try.

The firm submitted its plan for twin turbine-generators in the Upper St. Anthony lock that would roll up on tracks like a garage door when the lock is needed for flood control.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) on Feb. 5 denied a preliminary permit application by Symphony to install the generating equipment in the lock. It cited opposition from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which owns and operates the lock. The lock will close to watercraft after June 10 under a congressional mandate intended to halt the spread of invasive carp up the Mississippi River.

The corps will still operate the locks for flood control, opening gates during high-flow periods.  The corps earlier expressed concern that the ice and debris would damage the compact and lightweight generating equipment. The latest proposal from Symphony, which lists a Raleigh, N.C. address, is more explicit in describing how the framework holding the turbine-generator would roll up above the lock. 

Symphony said in its application that it met with corps representatives last month to discuss how the power generating equipment could be operated without interfering with corps operations.The corps said it won't formally comment until FERC accepts Symphony's application. 

"I believe they are making an effort to address the concerns the Corps' had with their previous proposal," said Nanette Bischoff, the lead corps person for permitting matters in its St. Paul district, in an e-mail.

Symphony is one of three firms seeking FERC approval to produce power at  the upper falls. Xcel Energy long has operated a larger hydropower generator there.  Symphony and Crown Hydro each has proposed generating up to 3.4 megawatts when they can draw 1,000 cubic feet per second of water at the falls But park and other advocates have opposed diverting enough water to affect the appearance of the falls, and it's unlikely both would win approval. A much-smaller proposal would generate power on the river's eastern shore in the bowels of a housing development that is renovating the historic Pillsbury's milling complex. 

Symphony said in its latest application that if there's not enough water to go around and the Crown proposal advances, it would stand aside.  Crown is fighting to keep the license that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) granted it in 1999, after unsuccessful efforts to win local approval. It wants to amend its plans to install generators in tunnels just outside the lock on Corps of Engineers property. 

Reps. draw attention to oil train dangers

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: March 26, 2015 - 5:16 PM

Fearing that the influx of oil trains through the Twin Cities may one day lead to catastrophe, legislators and residents met this week to discuss best methods for holding railroad companies accountable.

Adding to the urgency is a proposal to route oil trains through downtown Minneapolis and the northwest suburbs, multiplying the number of people who would be impacted by an accident. That plan involves diverting oil trains south from Crystal through Theodore Wirth Park.

Five legislators, a county commissioner, a MnDOT representative, Minneapolis' fire chief and two city council members attended the meeting at Theodore Wirth Chalet on Tuesday night.

Rep. Frank Horsntein, DFL-Minneapolis, noted that a number of oil trains have already derailed and exploded across the U.S. this year.

“This is not a hypothetical problem," Hornstein said. "We know that this is going to get worse as more oil comes across our region.”

Hornstein and others touted a number of bills related to rail safety working their way through the legislature this year. One clarifies that railroad companies cannot exercise eminent domain powers over Hennepin County land. Another would annually assess railroad companies to pay for improved rail crossing safety.

Several speakers noted that St. Louis pushed successfully to stop oil trains from traveling through the city.

“I hate to say that we want to follow St. Louis, but it looks as if that’s a good way to start," said Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis.

Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel said his department would need additional help in the event of an oil train fire. He said he spoke with the St. Louis chief about how they pushed for a rerouting.

“He was very clear and told me it all started at this level right here," Fruetel said. "That it means a lot at the grassroots level for people to get organized.”

The Minnesota Department of Transportation recently estimated that about 326,000 residents live within the half-mile evacuation zone of oil trains -- half of them in the metro area. About six or seven oil trains pass through the Twin Cities every day, largely through the Como Park area, said MnDOT freight planner Dave Christianson. They also travel through parts of Northeast Minneapolis.

“If that oil train comes down Theodore Wirth Park, through Crystal and Robbinsdale and in downtown Minneapolis, we will increase the exposure in the state by 50,000 residents," Christianson said. "That doesn’t count the employees in downtown Minneapolis."

Christianson said the new connection -- intended to relieve rail congestion -- would mean about one and a half oil trains moving through downtown Minneapolis every day.

Gov. Mark Dayton sent a letter to the Surface Transportation Board last month requesting a full environmental impact statement on the proposed rerouting.

"This traffic would travel through downtown Minneapolis and residential communities that have not previously been exposed to such traffic," Dayton wrote.

Hennepin County recently spent $1.8 million to purchase a key parcel of land they hope will thwart the reroute plans.

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