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Hydro proposal at St. Anthony Falls lock tries again

Posted by: Steve Brandt 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. 

Minneapolis schools taking first steps in superintendent search

Posted by: Updated: March 25, 2015 - 1:57 PM


Star Tribune

The Minneapolis school board is planning its next steps in hiring a permanent superintendent, months after Bernadeia Johnson’s abrupt resignation in December.

Since her December announcement, school board members — most of whom are new to managing this type of hiring — have been mapping out their plan for permanently filling the position, which includes selecting a search firm and planning community engagement.

“It was a fairly unexpected resignation, so it’s not like we had a plan ‘B’ in our back pocket ready to whip out,” Board Chairwoman Jenny Arneson said. “We really needed to come together as a group.”

The board is wading through applications from search firms that would help the group with planning community events and facilitating the selection process. School officials are considering four bids right now, and it is potentially opening the application process again so it can review more.

The board is looking for a firm that has a successful history of working with diverse districts with active communities, similar to Minneapolis’. Members hope to finalize the pool of search consultants by the end of April, select one shortly after and work with the party for the following months.

At a full board meeting on Tuesday, members said they’d like to fill the position by the start of the 2015 school year, but the timeline is loose. Some board members said they don't want to leave open such a crucial leadership position for too long.

“I’m worried about our declining enrollment, I’m worried about our kids who aren’t making it,” Board Member Carla Bates said at the meeting. “We can’t go forward with our initiatives without a leader.”

While board members agreed that it’s important they move quickly with filling the position, many said they don’t want to rush the process. The main focus, some board members said, should be selecting the ideal candidate – not meeting deadlines.

Interim Superintendent Michael Goar, who formally served as the district’s chief executive officer, wants to keep the job permanently.

Board members said Goar is not a lock for the job and insisted they are conducting a wide search for the best candidate.

“This would be a lot of work if this was a forgone process,” Arneson said.

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

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:

Mayor asks governor for bonding help on bridge

Posted by: Erin Golden Updated: March 20, 2015 - 4:11 PM

David Joles / Star Tribune

Long-delayed repairs to Minneapolis' 10th Avenue Bridge were at the top of the agenda Friday in a meeting between Mayor Betsy Hodges and Gov. Mark Dayton, who is preparing a bonding proposal.

Hodges is seeking the governor's attention for the city's $42.5 million request for the bridge, which received its last significant update in the 1970s. The city had previously received $3.3 million in federal funds for a repair project, but returned the money after learning that the project would be far more expensive -- and wouldn't be completed before those funds expired.

Hodges said the bridge sustained considerable wear and tear during the period when the Interstate 35W Bridge was under construction and is a top priority.

"It's critical for the city and for the University of Minnesota," she said. 

Both the mayor and Matt Swenson, a spokesman for the governor, said the meeting was productive. Swenson said the governor appreciated hearing about the city's specific needs and plans to have his bonding proposal ready in the next few weeks.

Still, Swenson said, there are plenty of proposals to consider.

"There are always more requests than there are resources," he said.


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