On a warm, sunny afternoon, Minneapolis City Council Member Jacob Frey nibbled on alligator sausage at New Bohemia Wurst & BierHaus as he talked about the stunning amount of development potential in the few blocks surrounding the restaurant, located in the heart of the E. Hennepin Avenue business district.
Around the corner, a Miami-based company has plans for a 20-story building on the former Superior Plating site. On the next block, local builder M.A. Mortenson is eyeing land occupied by an ugly U.S. Bank office for a mixed-use tower, and yet another Minneapolis developer has submitted a proposal for a residential building of up to 40 stories on the site of a funeral home. Still another developer hopes to build at the site of the classic Nye's Polonaise Room, a project that has been criticized by Nye's fans.
Last week, Frey was among those who presented the final designs for the ambitious Downtown East Commons park, a development in his ward that he has doggedly pursued.
"The design is extraordinary," said Frey. "It puts us on the map. Combined with the work on the Nicollet Mall, it's really exciting. The renovation of downtown will be absolutely transformational."
Frey, a lawyer, is a first-term council member and rookie politician, but he has been in on most of the conversations about some of the most important projects in the city. As a politician, he is already polished, coming up just short of slick, and confident, just short of cocky. He chooses his words carefully, often pausing mid-sentence to consider how what he's about to say will sound.
On a council that comes off as mostly plain bratwurst types, or maybe vegetarian hot dogs, Frey is definitely alligator sausage.
That's why he felt at home at New Bohemia, where customers sit together at long tables. Frey joked that he wondered whether the restaurant would make it because Minnesotans might not feel comfortable sitting with strangers. His East Coast upbringing in a Russian Jewish family makes him more "touchy," he said.
He is also clearly ambitious. You'd have to be to devote the early part of your life to running marathons, with dreams of making the U.S. Olympic team. Frey gave up that dream only when he realized there were a handful of runners he was just never going to catch.
Not surprisingly, he sees running his ward as a marathon, too.
Shaking his head, Frey said, "65 to 70 percent of the development in the city is in my ward. I'm working like a dog, but I'm having an absolute ball. I ran for office to make sure the potential in this area is realized."
A couple of days before our lunch, Frey, 33, had gone to see the Alabama Shakes concert and posted photos of himself on Facebook. It was a relatively rare moment of respite from his 12-hour days. Then again, even his downtimes can turn into business, as it did with one development he helped engineer over a beer with a friend. After our lunch, Frey had two meetings with developers, a briefing with staff and two community events to attend in the evening.
Frey also has had frequent contact with the group that wants to build a soccer stadium. He has been one of the biggest boosters for a stadium just north of downtown, though he's quick to add that it has to be a good deal for the city. "The devil is in the details," he said.
A new stadium could fill a void in an area of the city that leaders have tried to fill for decades.
"That's the biggest thing," Frey said. "For all intents and purposes, the area is a gully. This area has been stagnant for 50 years. When you try something for over 50 years and it doesn't work, you try something else."
Frey thinks there is a way to structure a deal with the soccer group, which includes William McGuire and the owner of this newspaper, to make it palatable to the majority of the council and perhaps even the mayor, who has repeatedly said she wouldn't support city financing.
"I would bet on it happening," said Frey. "This is not the Vikings stadium."
Frey readily admits he won a council seat at an extremely "lucky" time, when a recovering economy has stimulated incredible private investment in the city. He says the competition for new projects is so strong that the city can use it as leverage, whether it's to demand developers include better design, more green spaces, environmentally-friendly construction or diversity in hiring.
It seems that the projects that will make Minneapolis "a world-class city" can't come fast enough for Frey. Asked if he's impatient, he said: "I think that's fair."
"I can only tolerate meetings that have a clear objective," he said.
With that, Frey jumped on a Nice Ride bike — of course — and rode back to City Hall.
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin