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

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26th, 28th each likely to get protected bike lanes

Posted by: Steve Brandt Updated: February 26, 2015 - 2:03 PM

Two major cross-city arteries on the South Side will get one-way protected bike lanes this year under a plan that’s being recommended by city transportation planners.

Adding one-way lanes to E. 26th and 28th streets won out over an alternative that would have installed a two-way protected lane on 26th. They’re part of a street resurfacing planned this year.

The protected bike lanes will offer a seven-foot-wide biking lane plus a seven-foot space lined with flexible plastic posts buffering the lane from motor traffic. The two streets now have no dedicated bike space.

The proposal covers 32 blocks on the two streets lying between Portland and Cedar avenues. That stretch such includes major businesses as Wells Fargo and the Chicago Avenue medical complex.  Additional planning will flesh out the design between Cedar and Hiawatha avenues.

The proposal stops at Portland in part because of a scheduled replacement of Interstate 35W bridges on the two streets. A draft city plan for protected bike lanes recommends continuing the protected lanes west to Hennepin Avenue by 2020.

The bike lanes will be accommodated by removing a lane or travel or by removing parking during peak travel periods.

The resurfacing project has already asked area residents in open houses what other changes they’d like to see on the two streets from the project  The proposed design would add six medians at intersections – four on 28th and two on 26th – so that pedestrians have a refuge partway across.

Simon Blenski, a city bike planner, said the proposed design goes back to major institutions, neighborhoods and pedestrian and biking representatives for a final review. Some who attended earlier sessions with the city opposed removing parking or traffic lanes, but others advocated for making it reach major employers, schools and parks by bike.   

Corps to reopen upper Falls lock this spring

Posted by: Steve Brandt 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.)

Why did city release Graco easement clause?

Posted by: Steve Brandt Updated: February 20, 2015 - 3:20 PM

(Photo: Graco's riverside factory and the rest of its comlex lie just upriver from the former Scherer Lumber property it seeks part of.  Photo by Steve Brandt)

The question of why the city apparently released Graco Minnesota Inc. from a requirement to provide a critical trail easement at its riverfront property remains unanswered a week after the controversy erupted.

The city's Department of Community Planning and Economic Development has yet to respond to a Star Tribune inquiry earlier this week on the topic. The former CPED employee who Graco representatives say orally waived the requirement deferred to his old department for an explanaation.

The issue: Graco was required to provide an easement as part of a 2000 deal in which it received tax-increment financing for the firm's substantial investment in its 20-acre site. Some neighbors were unhappy about the firm building a factory so close to the river, but were mollified by the easement clause for the long-planned trail.

The easement was qualified only by stating that it should be in a form agreed to by the city or Park Board and the company. Graco says that meant identifying the specific strip of land over which the easement for the trail would run. It also said that it had trouble getting any response from the the city or Park Board on the matter.

But the city certified in the waning days of 2009 that Graco had completed "all building construction and other physical improvements" in the redevelopment agreement with the city. A Park Board resolution attributes failure to consummate the easement to "miscommunication" among the city, Park Board and Graco.

Why?  So far CPED hasn't answered a direct request for an explanation. Graco also has said through a spokesman that CPED project coordinator Erik Hansen waived the easement clause orally in a meeting with the company. Hansen, who left CPED this month for a new job heading housing and economic development for the city of Brooklyn Park, said he'd let CPED respond.

Graco now is playing hardball with granting an easement because it wants a portion of the riverside land that the Park Board bought from under the company's nose from Scherer Bros Lumber Co. The Park Board is open to allowing private development on a corner of that site that's away from the river, but probably a more river- or park-oriented use than potentially a Graco corporate office. Scherer didn't respond to an inquiry on whether Graco had ever made an offer to Scherer, and a Graco spokesman said he didn't know.

The board-passed resolution on Wednesday allows room for further negotiation with Graco on an easement, as an alternative to going ahead with condemnation, but tempers will need to cool a bit. Although several commissioners praised Graco's past involvement in local affairs, they excoriated it for the easement issue, which may cost the Park Board a $1 million federal grant it has to build the trail. The Park Board needs to control the entire route of the trail from Boom Island to Marshall St. NE by May 31 to keep the grant.

Absent an agreement, the city's easement waiver will cost the Park Board both the cost of whatever a court awards in a condemnation and attorney fees.

Graco still has issues it needs to work through with the Park Board even if the easement negotiations were friendly.  They include such matters as how the trail will accommodate the paved fire lane that Graco installed to access the rear of the building, whether large gas tanks will move to better accommodate the trail, and whether there will be a fence between the trail and Graco. The Park Board also plans to install wiring for lights to make the trail seem safer since it will largely be out of public view behind the two-block-long factory. 

(Map: The planned East Bank Trail would swing around the undeveloped Scherer site north of the Plymouth Avenue Bridge and then run between Graco's factory and the river.)

Crews respond to early-morning fire at Alliance Steel

Posted by: Updated: February 18, 2015 - 6:51 PM

By Jessica Lee

Minneapolis crews battled an intense fire at Alliance Steel on St. Anthony Parkway into the early hours of Wednesday morning, amid sub-zero temperatures.

About 40 firefighters responded to the incident at the steel manufacturing plant around 1 a.m., rotating shifts throughout the fire’s one-hour progression.

A cutting tool produced the spark, and when firefighters arrived to the warehouse scene, they responded to reports of an aluminum pile burning inside, according to a release from the city’s fire department.

Combustible metal was too close to where work was being done, the release said.

Water lines and crews’ equipment froze, and Salvation Army staff and a Metro Transit bus arrived to help keep the firefighters warm and nourished.

The incident’s area was cleared around sunrise, 7 a.m., and there were no reports of injuries.

Authorities did not have an estimate for the cost of the damage.

Jessica Lee is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.

Top 2014 Minneapolis building projects escape new park fee

Posted by: Steve Brandt Updated: February 16, 2015 - 6:08 PM

By any measure, Minneapolis had an impressive year for development in 2014.

But it had an unimpressive year for reaping park dedication fees from that development, compared to a number of suburbs.

The total value of building permits issued was a record $2 billion. That would be a near-record for the city even without the Vikings stadium. About 2,000 residential units were permitted, representing about one of every five units permitted in the metro area last year.

But drill down deeper into those numbers, and some significant projects escaped paying the new city-Park Board park dedication fee.

The top five projects that got Minneapolis building permits last year all beat the criteria in the ordinance triggering the fee.

They are the stadium, 401 Chicago Av., $793.7 million; the Ryan Downtown East development, 550-600 S. 4th St., $218 million; Wahu Apartments, 1024 Washington Av. SE, $64 million; 4 Marq Apartments, 400 Marquette Av., $59.9 million; Latitude 45 Apartments, 301 Washington Av. S., $53.9 million.

The ordinance adopted by the City Council and Park Board in late 2013 after years of debate exempts developments that either won approval of all required land use applications or submitted completed land use applications before Jan. 1, 2014.

So for 4 Marq, for example, its application was deemed complete in May, 2014, exempting it from the fee. although it didn’t actually obtain a building permit until last September, according to the city.

Just the three apartment projects that beat the fee would potentially have contributed more than $900,000.
That’s several multiples of the $221,000 that was actually collected in the first year of the ordinance. That yield was much lower than a number of suburbs collected in 2014. That's also partly because of the low fee, because some affordable housing was exempted and because downtown developments pay two-thirds of the normal fee.

Downtown suffers the most from the diminished collections because there's agreement that downtown is one of the most underserved areas of the city for parks.

Council Member Lisa Goodman, who led a successful effort to lower the fee and exempt many affordable housing units from paying it, said she doesn’t believe that developers rushed projects through to escape the fee. Park Commissioner John Erwin disagrees.

One piece of evidence that may support Erwin's point of view is that there was a gap of almost two months after the start of the year before the first fee was paid.

The one developer who returned Star Tribune inquiries last week was Hillcrest’s Managing Partner, Scott Tankenoff. He said that firm’s redevelopment of the former school headquarters at 807 Broadway St. NE had all of its approvals before the fee took effect.

“Fees and costs and taxes, they’re all part of the cost of doing business,” Tankenoff said.     

(Photo above: Ryan's $218 milion Downtown East development was one of the top five permitted in the city last year, all of which beat the deadline for paying a park dedication fee.. Photo by Steve Brandt)

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