(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.)
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)
Minneapolis park officials are recommending a change of course for a hotly opposed operations facility they earlier recommended for the upper Mississippi River in northeast Minneapolis.
The earlier plan called for two park operations yards in northeast and north Minneapolis to be consolidated for an indeterminate on the riverfront land bought in 2012. Residents want a park there and dozens of them testified against the plan last fall.
Now, park staffers are recommending to the Park Board that the riverfront property at 1720 Marshall St. NE be used for equipment storage and maintenance only on an interim basis for five or six years. That's while the the north and northeast facilities would be renovated to meet long-term needs.
That development is “definitely positive,” said Joy Smallfield, president of Sheridan Neighborhood Organization, who said that park staff presented the change of course to that organization recently.
The land involved includes 354 feet of riverfront lying between the Nurlingotn Northern Sanfa Fe railroad bridge and Psycho Suzi's bar-restaurant.
The neighborhood group wants a park constructed on the site, which is the second-largest bought by the Park Board on the East Bank riverfront in the 15 years since a master plan was adopted for the upper riverfront calling for more parks and trails up that shore. A park on the site would require demolishing a large commercial building that covers about half of the partially contaminated site.
The Park Board last fall proposed spending at least $4 million to upgrade the building for use as an operations center, plus some beginning steps toward park use. Residents said that plans for storing forestry and parkkeeping equipment wasn’t the highest use of riverfront property.
“Since we don’t have support from the community, we don’t want to spend any more money on that building” said Cliff Swenson, director of design and project management. The proposed change of direction will be discussed Wednesday by the Park Board.
Swenson said that park staff would then look into the feasibility of renovating the two existing operations centers. Park officials had earlier said that was impractical because the two facilities are landlocked by railroads, parkland or roads. They said that buying bigger forestry equipment that requires fewer works means that more storage space is needed, and that indoor space would prolong the life of those machines.
It’s not clear yet how soon and to what extent the space on Marshall would be developed as a park after the interim period. But park commissioners indicated in discussing the original proposal that the renovated uilding and parking lot could have been used for decades as an operations center.
(Photo: The site at 1720 Marshall St. NE includes a large former factory building that would be demolished once the riverside site is ready for a park. Photo by Steve Brandt)
Minneapolis and St. Paul will have an opportunity to show off their winter biking prowess by hosting the International Winter Cycling Congress in early 2016.
The Twin Cities are the first city in the United States to host the four-year-old event, currently being held in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands, and previously in Winnipeg and Oulu, Finland. The Twin Cities event is expected to occur next February.
The event is billed as a three-day professional development conference for several hundred planners and engineers, but also draws bike advocates, public health and tourism officials, and journalists.
“It’s the full gamut of winter biking,” said Nick Mason, chair of the Minneapolis Bicycle Advisory Committee, describing the conference. That includes technical discussions of maintaining bike routes in the winter as well as guidance for planners in designing winter routes.
“This is an opportunity to show that in Minnesota we can stay active and happy outdoors doing things all year,” said Ethan Fawley, staff director of the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition advocacy group.. “This conference is still relatively new and growing. We’ll have people coming from around the world.”
According to monthly counts conducted by Bike Walk Twin Cities, a nonprofit advocacy group, 20 percent of those who commute by bike in warm weather continue to do so even on the worst winter days. On clear winter days, that number rises to 36 percent, the group said. Its counts also found that winter commuting by bike is growing at a faster rate than summer bike commuting.
The host committee for the event consists of the city of Minneapolis, Visit St. Paul, Sports Minneapolis, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, the University of Minnesota, Minnesota Department of Transportation, and bike advocacy and industry groups.
Photos: Star Tribune file
Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges was at the White House Thursday morning, attending a summit of community leaders participating in the president's "My Brother's Keeper" initiative.
The mayor was invited to share information about the work Minneapolis is doing on the project, which is aimed at improving the lives of boys and young men of color. The city is one of more than 145 cities and tribal groups that have agreed to collect data and come up with plans for improvements like boosting graduation rates and decreasing incarceration rates.
The other Minnesota communities involved in the challenge are St. Paul, Brooklyn Park and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
Hodges attended a morning session with presentations by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to the president.
In a statement, the mayor said she's been working with St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman to review local programs and intends to have a formal launch in April.
"We simply can't afford the stark disparities our young men and boys of color face," she said. "They have so much to contribute to our city and our region; It is imperative to fully include boys and young men of color in our success."
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