Come Jan. 21, it’s unclear who will operate the downtown Minneapolis park adjacent to U.S. Bank Stadium.
On Monday, a Hennepin County judge ruled the city violated its charter by entering into an agreement with the Park and Recreation Board to operate the Commons park.
The decision marks a significant victory for two local activists who have mounted an ambitious pro se legal battle against the city over its ownership agreement of the Commons, arguing the contract violates the Minneapolis charter and gives a sweetheart deal to the Vikings on the backs of taxpayers.
“We’re pretty excited,” said John Hayden, a former City Council candidate. “I always thought this was a sure thing. It’s such a clear violation of the charter.”
Hayden and former City Council Member Paul Ostrow have 10 days to propose a path forward, and the city will then have 10 days to respond.
Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal said her office plans to appeal.
“With all due respect to the court, we believe the court has just gotten it wrong,” said Segal.
The Commons opened in 2016 and covers 4.2 acres on the east end of downtown Minneapolis, right outside the stadium.
The park has been mired in litigation since its inception. The Park Board usually operates parks in Minneapolis, but in 2014 it voted to give this responsibility to the city, citing lack of funding and untenable costs associated with it. The city has since found creative ways to navigate the charter.
Under a convoluted arrangement, the city sold the Commons to the Park Board for $1. In January 2017, the Park Board then leased it back to the city, which operates it through a nonprofit.
Hayden and Ostrow filed a lawsuit arguing that the Minneapolis charter — akin to a city’s constitution — says the city can’t operate or spend money on a park, so this arrangement still violated the charter.
In the courtroom, Ostrow has said the deal effectively subsidizes the park and a nearby parking ramp and allows the Vikings to use it for free, leaving the brunt of the financial burden to taxpayers.
In an interview, Segal disputed this characterization, saying the city never closed the park to the public in 2018 for Vikings use and only closed a block of it during the Super Bowl.
“So the whole rest of the year, it was completely open for public use,” she said.
Segal said 600,000 people used the Commons in 2018, citing statistics from Green Minneapolis, the nonprofit that operates the park.
In a March hearing, Ann Walther, attorney for the Park Board, said cities and park boards frequently enter into these types of arrangements, citing the I-35W bridge collapse memorial as an example. She said a judge setting a precedent against this could mean “we’re not going to have the best Park Board in America anymore.”
Judge Bruce Peterson rejected this argument in his Monday ruling, finding that operating a “remembrance garden” is not the same as a park.
“The Court has been told that Minneapolis has the finest park system in the country, so it would appear that the Charter’s allocation of responsibility between the [Park and Recreation Board] and the City Council has been a resounding success,” Peterson wrote. “Nothing has been presented here to change that division of labor.”
Peterson affirmed the argument that the charter bars the city from operating a park.
“This effectively ends this case, except to determine the precise wording of the injunction curtailing the City’s role in the Commons,” he wrote.