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Developer razes one of longest-vacant Mpls homes

Posted by: Steve Brandt Updated: March 25, 2015 - 6:20 PM

A large backhoe began ripping apart a developer-owned duplex a block off of Lake of the Isles on Wednesday, erasing one of the longest-vacant homes in the city from a neighborhood that usually doesn't have them.

A crew from All-Metro Excavating began demolition of the 107-year-old duplex that developer Ross Fefercorn has owned for 16 years. It has been vacant for at least 10 years, and has been on the city's list of vacant building registration list since 2007. That extended period drew complaints from the property's East Isles neighbors.

Fefercorn told the Star Tribune last fall that he was debating whether to sell, rehab or raze the property at 2208 Irving Av. S., for which he paid he paid $360,000 in 1998. He said he bought the duplex with the idea that he might live there some day, but he ran into unforeseen structural problems after he began to gut it.

Fefercorn said via e-mail Wednesday that he was tied up in meetings and not immediately available for comment on future plans for the lot.

The house was a personal project for a developer who lives a few blocks away in the Wedge area.  He's developed commercial and residential projects from north Minneapolis to Mendota Heights. They include single-family housing along the Humboldt Greenway and Track 29 apartments along the Midtown Greenway.

Neighbors complained to City Hall about the house, but city officials said the house was secure and its condition didn't warrant them ordering a demolition.  The property drew complaints of unkempt vegetation, peeling paint and trash issues, attracting 22 inspection citations in 11 years.

Frustration over the property among neighbors boiled over at a East Isles Residents Associaiton meeting two years ago, where some neighbors suggested the city not approve any more deals for Fefercorn until the property was fixed up. 

The city registration fee for boarded housing doubled Fefercorn's annual property tax for the property to $16,000. The city said that Fefercorn took steps toward demolishing the building in 2009 but didn;t folow through.

(Photo: Fefercorn at the site of the Track 29 housing in 2012. Staff photo by Bruce Bisping.)


Record eight Open Streets on tap for 2015

Posted by: Steve Brandt Updated: March 25, 2015 - 6:17 PM

A record eight Open Streets events featuring car-free streets will be held in Minneapolis in 2015, and they'll feature three first-time corridors and the first loop circuit.

But as the event is growing, so is the projected hit to taxpayers.

The fifth year of Open Streets will feature a loop route in northeast Minneapolis stretching between Central Avenue NE and NE 2nd Street. Parts of downtown, East Lake Street, and the University of Minnesota area will also get more complex routes that represent a departure from the event's typical segments of straight streets.

Open Streets events shut down a segment of one or more streets to motorized traffic, giving priority to people-powered transport by foot, bike or other wheeled means, such as wheelchairs or skateboards. The first Open Streets event in Minneapolis was held in 2011 on Lyndale Avenue S.

City departments will absorb an estimated $194,007 to put on the events this year, under a plan submitted to a City Council committee this week that drew some council questions Tuesday. That's up from $104,433 spent on six Open Streets events in 2014, a total that was 39 percent over the council-authorized estimate of $75,000.

That spending covers such city costs as signs to control detoured traffic, providing extra police. The estimated city cost is budgeted at an average $24,250 per event, compared with $17,400 in 2014. Ethan Fawley, executive director of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition, which runs Open Streets, attributed that to more conservative budgeting, and also to more complex routes.

(Update: City spokesman Casper Hill said that one reason for the higher numbers is that more costs that departments absorbed in their 2014 budgets are being explicitly tracked in their budgets this year, such as event permit fees, food booth permit costs or amplified sournd permits. He said that the more complex routes on Lake Street and northeast Minneapolis require more traffic control workers. The university and downtown routes also involve hooding parking meters, Hill said.) 

The coalition separately raises money for arts and music programming at the events by lining up paying sponsors from neighborhood and business associations, individual businesses, and nonprofit organizations.

Fawley justified the city spending by saying that the events build community, promote public health by active living, and allow police staffing the events to build community relations. He said that such events are common in larger cities, and that cities often run them themselves.

Areas that will get Open Streets for the first time are downtown, with a dogleg route connecting the warehouse district with the North Loop, East Lake Street with a detour over the Sabo bike bridge on the Midtown Greenway, and the university area, with a double-dogleg route connecting Dinkytown and Stadium Village.

Council Member Blong Yang noted that the city often makes organizations holding public events pay for city costs.  However, Council Member Lisa Bender, a coalition founder, said, "The costs we are using are very minimal compared to the amount of money we spend to subsidize people to drive."

(Update: The city directly subsidizes some promotional events, rather than requiring departments to absorb them in their budgets. For example, the council approved in February sending $1 million to the Downtown Council to stage year-round programs, such as summer fireworks. Yang noted that other events, such as the North Side's Juneteenth celebration, don't get such breaks. He suggested in an interview that a more even-handed policy is needed.  "We're picking winners and losers, and I'm not sure that's the right thing," he said.) 

As a lame-duck council member in late 2013, Mayor Betsy Hodges offered a budget directive that told three city departments to subsidize Open Streets. Her spokeswoman, Kate Brickman, said that support represents the view that city streets are more than thoroughfares but also destinations.

"Through Open Streets, we choose to both celebrate and re-envision the city street itself as essential community space and a public asset to be enjoyed by all," Brickman said.

The coalition also requested that the city spend $15,000 for a reduced-scope Bike Week this spring, in lieu of federal grant support that helped pay for event costs previously. The event is intended to promote bicycle commuting. Department of Public Works representatives said that the amount will be taken from the budget for more durable pavement markings, which would reduce pedestrian safety markings at about five intersections, a tradeoff that Council Member Linea Palmisano questioned..

The council's Public Works Committee voted in favor of both the Open Streets and Bike Week proposals.  

The planned events are Lyndale Avenue S., June 7; northeast Minneapolis, July 12; East Lake Street, Aug. 2; Franklin Avenue, Aug. 16; downtown, Aug. 23; Dinkytown-Stadium Village, Sept. 12; Nicollet Avenue S., Sept. 20; and Lowry Avenue N., Sept. 26.  

Here are the planned routes:

Minneapolis protected bike lane list for 2015 swells

Posted by: Steve Brandt Updated: March 18, 2015 - 11:46 AM

Four protected bike lane projects have been identified that will be paid for by $790,000 set aside in this year’s budget by Mayor Betsy Hodges. They total 5.6 miles.

The list of projects includes Plymouth Avenue N. and 8th Av. NE between Fremont Av. N. and 5th Street. NE, Oak St. SE between East River Road and Washington Avenue SE, S 9th Street between Hennepin and Chicago avenues, and East 26th and 28th streets between Hiawatha and Portland avenues.

Three of the four are atop previously announced plans to add protected lanes as part of street repaving or park projects. The exception is 26th and 28th, where the money will cover a $160,000 gap in an already planned street resurfacing project that’s also expected to include better pedestrian crossings.

Protected bikes lanes involve separating bike lanes from motor vehicles with a barrier. In Minneapolis, that separation has usually come in the form of flexible plastic tubes, although parked cars are used on 1st Avenue N. downtown.

The new projects represent one on the South Side, one on the North Side, one downtown and one in the University of Minnesota. The downtown and Oak projects will serve higher-volume biking areas. S. 9th now has a narrower bike lane bur Oak has none. Bikers generally eschew 26th and 28th, which have three traffic lanes and no bike lanes.

The Plymouth project will extend the current protected bike lanes on the roadway’s river bridge. Bike traffic on that bridge has shot up since the addition of the addition of protected lanes. The east end of the new lanes will connect with the 5th St. NE bike boulevard, while the west end will connect with bikes lanes on Fremont and Emerson avenues.  Those currently have wider buffered bike lanes, but protected bike lanes are proposed for one or both avenues in the future. Planners will retain narrower bike lanes west along Plymouth from those two streets to Wirth Park.

Also proposed for 2015 are protected bike lanes or off-road lanes at other locations in the city.  They include portions of  26th Avenue N., five downtown blocks of Washington Avenue, the Franklin Avenue Bridge, the Intercity Trail leading south from Lake Nokomis, Broadway St. NE between Stinson and Industrial boulevards, the East Bank Trail between Boom Island Park and Marshall St. NE , a new trail on Ridgway Parkway, and a Bryn Mawr trail,

The protected lane proposals are intended to help meet a city-set goal, promoted by the bike lobby, to add 30 miles of protected bike lanes by 2020. Advocates argue that lanes that are wider and bordered by the plastic markers create space that makes timid cyclists more likely to ride, especially in congested areas near downtown. Hodges proposed spending an extra $1.5 million this year and next to jumpstart the effort.

(Photo:  Protected bike lanes on the Plymouth Avenue Bridge will be extended east and west under a 2015 plan by the Department of Public Works. Photo from city of Minneapolis)  

Second round of Hiawatha-Nokomis work moving

Posted by: Steve Brandt Updated: March 16, 2015 - 10:43 AM

A citizen group advising Minneapolis park officials on a second round of improvements at Nokomis-Hiawatha Regional Park showed a decided preference for trails last week in recommending how $400,000 should be spent.

The group’s biggest-ticket recommendation from a list of two dozen possible projects was $129,700 to replace with asphalt three concrete segments of the lakeshore trail that are reputed to date back to the New Deal of the 1930s. Those segments are north of the main beach at Nokomis, east of the north side parking lot and in the lake’s southeastern section.

Another trail recommendation was $80,000 for reconstructing trails just north of the Cedar Avenue Bridge. The group also recommended a $28,200 new trail from Cedar at E. 50th Street across the athletic field complex to the main beach, as well as $20,000 for a safer crossing of  Cedar at 50th.

Also on the group’s first tier of recommendations was $6,000 to install winter access gates at several points around Hiawatha golf course, which is groomed for winter cross-country skiing. It also urged drinking fountains or enclosures for portable toilets at more spots.

The group was advancing second-phase improvements carrying out the master plan it devised last year, and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board approved earlier this month. A first phase of work included beach accessibility improvements and other work in the Sandcastle restaurant concession area.  Another first-phase improvement, rebuilding the Triangle Park playground area at E. 54th Street, was delayed last fall because bids were well over estimates.  The project has been rebid, and a recommended bid of $485,132 is scheduled to be acted on by a board committee Wednesday.

Park planners took several planned improvements from the master plan off the list of possible second-phase projects. In one case, the Park Board is awaiting legislative action on separate funding for $440,000 in state Legacy Fund money to renovate 4,400 feet of shoreline. That would occur where there is not a stone wall, another legacy of the New Deal.

The renovation affects almost half of the lake’s shoreline. The work involves regrading shores to a more gradual slope, removing turf grass and non-native vegetation, and replacing that with a strip of grasses and flowers that averages about 20 feet wide, according to project manager Adam Arvidson.

Also delayed was the start of work to convert much of the regional park’s grassy areas to taller vegetation more closely resembling its original ground cover. Arvidson said there’s concern that park staff lack the capacity to manage the new vegetation, especially in its early years where more maintenance is required.

Also deferred for now are improvements involving the golf course, much of which was ruined by flooding last year.  The park system is getting federal and state emergency funds to restore the course, but hopes to leverage that with Minnehaha Creek Watershed District funding both to protect the course in the future and make water-quality and non-golf recreational improvements, such as trails. The pace of that work could determine when the entire course is playable.

Positions harden in Graco easement impasse

Posted by: Steve Brandt Updated: March 12, 2015 - 1:55 PM

Both sides have buttressed their positions as they prepare for a meeting next week to see if an impasse can be resolved involving an easement for a riverside trail over land owned by Graco Minnesota Inc.

Representatives of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, the city and Graco are scheduled to meet next week to try to resolve a situation in which Graco is insisting on buying part of a nearby piece of Park Board property before it grants an easement for a trail that has been scheduled for construction later this year. It's the first meeting involving all three parties in at least a year, Park Board President Liz Wielinski said.

The company faces a high bar in seeking to buy two acres of parkland on the north side of the Plymouth Avenue Bridge in northeast Minneapolis. The Park Board reached a $7.7 million purchase agreement for the 11-acre site in 2010 and plans to recreate as wildlife habitat an island that existed historically

"I don't sell parkland," said Wielinski, the area's commissioner.. There's also a high bar in the law.  Six of the nine commissioners must vote for a land sale for it to go ahead, and a district judge's approval is required in a proceeding in which any citizen can intervene. 

The company has offered a additional argument for why it wants to build corporate offices on a portion of nearby Park Board land that was purchased by the Park Board from Scherer lumber.

Although Graco has large amounts of open space on its campus of more than 20 acres, spokesman Bryce Hallowell said the company wants a strip of Scherer property to buffer the park from its factory and loading dock area. Hallowell said Graco is concerned that developing the Scherer property without a buffering strip of offices could create pressure from park users against Graco's operations.

"What do you think the pressure will be to do something with Graco?" he asked, describing trucks running past the park from the loading dock across the street. "Let's all work to make this the best park," Hallowell said. He said that Graco still sees the Park Board selling part of the Scherer property as a condition for granting an easement.

Graco's concern for a buffer was rejected by Third Ward City Council Member Jacob Frey. "I think that's silly. Nobody's pushing Graco out of there," Frey said. "They've been good neighbors. They made an agreement and they need to live up to it."

Moreover, Wielinski said, concept plans for the Scherer site already outline a building that would shield park users from Graco's closest operations. The idea is that this building would offer park would house recreation-related services and generate lease payments to help finance park operations.

Graco agreed to grant the trail easement in a 2000 redevelopment agreement with the city that allowed Graco to devote some of the taxes generated by its expansion to financing site improvements. Graco argues that commitment ended in 2009 when the city certified that Graco had completed "all building construction and other physical improvements" in the redevelopment agreement. The easement is listed as a public improvement in the agreement.

But the city's development agency asserted in an e-mail to the Star Tribune that it has not waived the easement requirement, although it didn't respond when asked for its reasoning. Graco agency met last Friday with development agency representatives, but not the Park Board, which met Tuesday with agency officials. The development agency didn't respond to an inquiry this week about whether progress was made at that meeting,

Graco's Hallowell said, "The dialog was welcome and constructive as we try to work toward an approach that is holistic on riverfront development." But the firm still wants to buy the Scherer buffer in exchange for the easement.       

One new factor Frey revealed this week is that the easement is also required under the conditional use permit the city granted Graco for its expansion. "That conditional use permit is still enforceable 150 percent," he said. "I'm confident we can work something out, but that doesn't mean we don't have some serious tools in our shed."

The Park Board already has voted to condemn Graco land for the easement if it doesn't;t get that permission through negotiations. But it also needs to weigh the legal cost of doing so, as well as the easement price that could be awarded by a court. Park commissioner John Erwin said he doesn't think that Minneapolis taxpayers should have to bear those costs. Erwin said he's asked Park Board legal advisors whether it would have a breach-of-contract case against Graco.

Graco needs to weigh the public beating it has taken from some northeast residents who charge that it reneged on a deal for an easement that was a sop to those who felt that its two-block-long factory just south of the Broadway Avenue Bridge was too close to the river.

The issue now has some additional time to play out. Park officials said they earlier faced a May 31 deadline under a $1 million federal trail grant for getting control of trail right of way. More recent information indicates that the project must be ready for bids by Sept. 30.    



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