Both sides have buttressed their positions as they prepare for a meeting next week to see if an impasse can be resolved involving an easement for a riverside trail over land owned by Graco Minnesota Inc.
Representatives of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, the city and Graco are scheduled to meet next week to try to resolve a situation in which Graco is insisting on buying part of a nearby piece of Park Board property before it grants an easement for a trail that has been scheduled for construction later this year. It's the first meeting involving all three parties in at least a year, Park Board President Liz Wielinski said.
The company faces a high bar in seeking to buy two acres of parkland on the north side of the Plymouth Avenue Bridge in northeast Minneapolis. The Park Board reached a $7.7 million purchase agreement for the 11-acre site in 2010 and plans to recreate as wildlife habitat an island that existed historically
"I don't sell parkland," said Wielinski, the area's commissioner.. There's also a high bar in the law. Six of the nine commissioners must vote for a land sale for it to go ahead, and a district judge's approval is required in a proceeding in which any citizen can intervene.
The company has offered a additional argument for why it wants to build corporate offices on a portion of nearby Park Board land that was purchased by the Park Board from Scherer lumber.
Although Graco has large amounts of open space on its campus of more than 20 acres, spokesman Bryce Hallowell said the company wants a strip of Scherer property to buffer the park from its factory and loading dock area. Hallowell said Graco is concerned that developing the Scherer property without a buffering strip of offices could create pressure from park users against Graco's operations.
"What do you think the pressure will be to do something with Graco?" he asked, describing trucks running past the park from the loading dock across the street. "Let's all work to make this the best park," Hallowell said. He said that Graco still sees the Park Board selling part of the Scherer property as a condition for granting an easement.
Graco's concern for a buffer was rejected by Third Ward City Council Member Jacob Frey. "I think that's silly. Nobody's pushing Graco out of there," Frey said. "They've been good neighbors. They made an agreement and they need to live up to it."
Moreover, Wielinski said, concept plans for the Scherer site already outline a building that would shield park users from Graco's closest operations. The idea is that this building would offer park would house recreation-related services and generate lease payments to help finance park operations.
Graco agreed to grant the trail easement in a 2000 redevelopment agreement with the city that allowed Graco to devote some of the taxes generated by its expansion to financing site improvements. Graco argues that commitment ended in 2009 when the city certified that Graco had completed "all building construction and other physical improvements" in the redevelopment agreement. The easement is listed as a public improvement in the agreement.
But the city's development agency asserted in an e-mail to the Star Tribune that it has not waived the easement requirement, although it didn't respond when asked for its reasoning. Graco agency met last Friday with development agency representatives, but not the Park Board, which met Tuesday with agency officials. The development agency didn't respond to an inquiry this week about whether progress was made at that meeting,
Graco's Hallowell said, "The dialog was welcome and constructive as we try to work toward an approach that is holistic on riverfront development." But the firm still wants to buy the Scherer buffer in exchange for the easement.
One new factor Frey revealed this week is that the easement is also required under the conditional use permit the city granted Graco for its expansion. "That conditional use permit is still enforceable 150 percent," he said. "I'm confident we can work something out, but that doesn't mean we don't have some serious tools in our shed."
The Park Board already has voted to condemn Graco land for the easement if it doesn't;t get that permission through negotiations. But it also needs to weigh the legal cost of doing so, as well as the easement price that could be awarded by a court. Park commissioner John Erwin said he doesn't think that Minneapolis taxpayers should have to bear those costs. Erwin said he's asked Park Board legal advisors whether it would have a breach-of-contract case against Graco.
Graco needs to weigh the public beating it has taken from some northeast residents who charge that it reneged on a deal for an easement that was a sop to those who felt that its two-block-long factory just south of the Broadway Avenue Bridge was too close to the river.
The issue now has some additional time to play out. Park officials said they earlier faced a May 31 deadline under a $1 million federal trail grant for getting control of trail right of way. More recent information indicates that the project must be ready for bids by Sept. 30.