Minneapolis developer once jailed for bribes pushes for city reform while the violations pile up.
The murals lining the entrance to developer Basim Sabri's office in south Minneapolis depict a Middle Eastern market where turban-clad men sell their wares under the shade of palm trees. In this idyllic scene, doing business is a simple affair.
In real life, thousands of miles from Sabri's native Palestine, problems have followed profits at 207 E. Lake St. Citations regularly arrive advising, "Make checks payable to: Minneapolis Finance Department." Along with paying thousands of dollars in penalties -- neither Sabri nor the city can immediately tally them all -- he blasts e-mails to the city alleging abuse of power, racism and foot-dragging.
More than a decade ago, Sabri bribed then-Council Member Brian Herron in exchange for help on a development deal. He served a year and a half in federal prison, got out in 2007 and went right back into business in Minneapolis -- showing more contempt for its politicians than coziness.
In recent years, Sabri has started construction without permits, taken the city to court and had enough tangles with inspectors that properties he controls make up half the city's watch list of chronic code violators.
"He has been a repeat offender of disregarding not just our ordinances, but the building code," said Charles Elliot, the city's director of inspections and regulatory compliance.
None of that has stopped the 52-year-old Sabri -- a prominent landlord of businesses owned by East African and Latino immigrants -- from casting himself as a reformer.
To combat alleged corruption, he has submitted proposed amendments to the city charter to reduce the City Council from 13 to five members and halve their terms, along with the mayor's, from four to two years. And he wants residents to elect the police chief and city attorney and coordinator, all currently appointed.
Whether Sabri can round up the 7,000-plus voter signatures to change the system is an open question, but the move highlights the tension between City Hall and one of Minneapolis' more resilient -- and controversial -- players.
He claims to have changed since being nabbed by the FBI. "I reformed. It doesn't matter if someone builds me a house in heaven; I will not give that person a penny."
But given Sabri's description of himself, it is not surprising that he would chafe at following rules.
"I'm a very hopeful person. Very visionary. I like to not give up and try. I don't easily give up on something I believe in. I have a big mouth ... I use profane language, and I say, 'Screw you,' to many politicians, because I have no respect for them."
Fines pile up
While Sabri was in prison, his sister along with his then-wife, Rochelle Barrett, kept his business empire running. They maintained E. Lake Street's corridor of immigrant stores and a bustling Somali mall, Karmel Square, named after his daughter. He expanded his work there after returning to Minneapolis.
Sabri has since divorced Barrett, but she works as his assistant and he says he and his ex-wife are "best friends." He lives in Shorewood with his wife, Sahar, and two daughters.
In recent years, fines have piled up for infractions large and small -- and with them, ill will.
They include one building on Bloomington Avenue that racked up more than $2,000 in fines between 2008 and 2009, as well as at least $9,750 worth of citations, mostly for building without a permit and violating stop-work orders, at Karmel Square in 2010; at least $750 at 417 E. Lake St. -- a plaza of Latino shops -- for failing to obtain rental hall licenses last summer, and about $2,800 in December 2011 and last month for obstructing exits at several Lake Street properties.
He accused the city of intentionally targeting him and his tenants because they are minorities. Once he e-mailed a city official saying he was banning one inspector from his properties who he felt made "racially unwarranted" remarks.
Elliot denies any racial motivation to the city's enforcement. The repeat violations landed Sabri's developments on the city's "guided compliance" list, a roster of eight properties as of September 2011 that were hit with numerous violations over one year and require stricter monitoring. Budget cuts have since prompted the city to suspend the program.
Other instances of Sabri's recent hassles with the city include his decision to build a roughly 190-square-foot ticket booth at Karmel Plaza without first seeking city approval. Only this month did he file the required paperwork with Minneapolis, according to his assistant. Minneapolis officials also caught some of his ire when a tenant's restaurant application appeared to languish for more than six months. He accused them in numerous e-mails of stalling, but a city spokesman last week said the application was incomplete.
Some of the worst troubles occurred several years ago at Karmel Village, a 77-unit housing complex on Pleasant Avenue where he did significant work without building approvals. In 2009, the city ordered him to stop work immediately, issuing a $2,000 citation. "Note you now owe $6,000 in (additional citation) fines plus $400 in late fees and you still need to take care of violations," a building official scribbled on the paperwork.
Sabri said that because Minneapolis takes so long to grant him approvals, sometimes his philosophy is "to hell with the permit ... it's a process to get a permit. It's cheaper for me to give the fine."
He plans to seek approval for another nine units planned at the site, though expansions at Karmel Village and Karmel Square have sparked friction in the Whittier neighborhood in recent years.
Marian Biehn, executive director of Whittier Alliance, said residents are worried about increased traffic and overcrowding and have not supported his plans, she said. Over the years, some have called city regulators to report alleged violations.
"He's kind of painted it as the neighborhood is against the Somali community, who are his primary tenants ... that's not the case at all," Biehn said.
Council Member Robert Lilligren is a frequent target of Sabri's wrath -- the developer sometimes conveys his disdain by putting Lilligren's name in air quotes -- and represents the ward where Sabri does much of his business. He said the regulatory system assumes business owners want to comply.
So when "you have a business owner that seemingly does not want to comply, it's a system that can be worked around," Lilligren said. "He's become very adept at asking for forgiveness rather than permission."
Despite the hassles, Sabri has no plans to take his business elsewhere.
"I'm not moving from Minneapolis," he said. "I'm not shutting my business down. I love what I do. I speed coming to work every day."
Maya Rao • 612-673-4210