One month after Minneapolis officials promised to make it easier for property owners to remove rubble and begin the post-riot rebuilding process, a city inspector slapped a “stop work” order on one of the first projects to move forward.
The action in late September forced workers to stop hauling debris from the site of the former Uncle Hugo’s and Uncle Edgar’s bookstores on Chicago Avenue and threatened to derail the expansion of the dental clinic next door.
Both properties were heavily damaged in May during the protests over the death of George Floyd. Bookstore owner Don Blyly can’t afford to rebuild on his current site, so he agreed to sell the property to his neighbor, Dr. Ali Barbarawi, and move his store elsewhere.
Barbarawi welcomed the opportunity, not only because the expansion would allow him to hire two more dentists but because it would provide him with ample parking for his employees. His current site is so small Barbarawi has to rent spaces from a neighboring business.
That’s when the city got involved. Not only did officials tell Barbarawi that he couldn’t use a concrete slab at the back of the bookstore for parking, they told him he already had too many parking spaces in his tiny lot, according to a Star Tribune review of e-mails between the parties. Blyly also was threatened with fines if he failed to remove the slab.
City officials did not reverse course until a Star Tribune reporter inquired about the stalled project. On Thursday, Barbarawi received an e-mail informing him that he can use the slab for parking, at least on a temporary basis.
“I apologize for the confusion,” wrote Brad Ellis, manager of zoning administration and enforcement for Minneapolis.
Property owners and local business boosters said the dispute shows the need for a new approach at city hall when dealing with riot-related building projects, which may require more flexibility from public officials. To help owners who have never navigated the sometimes confusing permitting process, business advocates said the city needs a community-liaison specialist who can solve problems and fast-track approvals.
“They need someone who can find ways to get around these code issues that are preventing businesses from reopening,” said Minneapolis developer Jeff Herman, president of Urban Anthology Commercial Real Estate. “By making approvals a hardship, the city is preventing these neighborhoods from coming back to life — and that is what the city needs right now.”
Steve Poor, the city’s director of development services, said the COVID-19 pandemic has strained city resources, making it harder for officials to deal with these kind of complications. But he said creating a liaison officer “is above my pay grade.” Other officials declined to comment.
Blyly, who moved his bookstore to Chicago Avenue in 1984, hoped to rebuild his store in its current location. But to do the job right, he said, it would cost him $400,000 more than he recovered from his insurance company for the destroyed property. He said Barbarawi began calling him shortly after the riots to see if he would be interested in selling.
Barbarawi, who operates as a solo practitioner, has been hoping to add another dentist or two to the practice since he bought it three years ago. As one of the few dentists in the area who accepts Medicaid, Barbarawi has been able to attract 3,000 mostly low-income clients. But he constantly has to send some patients elsewhere for specialized services such as oral surgery or pediatric care.
“I have always wanted to expand the dental clinic to serve more patients in the community, especially children,” Barbarawi said.
Barbarawi also has been looking for a better parking arrangement. With seven employees and just 13 spaces outside his dental clinic, Barbarawi said his patients were often forced to wait for a space or seek parking elsewhere, causing complaints.
Over the summer, Barbarawi struck a deal with Blyly to buy the bookstore property. With three large concrete slabs, the parcel offers ready-make parking for as many as 10 cars. But the plans hit a roadblock when Barbarawi shared his proposal with a city inspector, who insisted that all of the slabs be removed immediately.
Poor said the project was stopped because the Minneapolis City Council limited parking in the neighborhood years ago. Though Barbarawi’s building would normally be allowed to have up to 15 parking spaces, the code change brought that down to 12.
Barbarawi was told he could seek city approval for a new parking lot once he finalizes his expansion plans, but he and Blyly objected since it would cost another $25,000 to remove the slabs and meet the city’s other requirements, and even more money to rebuild the parking lot.
“It’s such a waste of resources that doesn’t need to be spent,” said Andy Ristrom, the project manager at Bolander who has been overseeing the demolition work.
Poor, who approved the temporary parking arrangement for Barbarawi, said the city will likely struggle with other rebuilding projects.
“We recognize that people need assistance to guide them through the government,” Poor said. “And right now we just have a lot more new and novel problems to try and address. I am not sure anybody was prepared to make this kind of pivot that we’ve all had to make in the last six months.”
Blyly said he’s glad the city found a way to compromise, but he’s not sure he will be rebuilding in Minneapolis. He’s considering a move to St. Paul or Richfield.
“It would be more convenient for me and a lot of my customers if I stayed in Minneapolis, but Minneapolis has felt very unfriendly toward businesses — especially after the riots,” Blyly said.