Basim Sabri is back butting heads with Minneapolis City Hall -- from half a world away.
The picaresque Lake Street developer's biggest project since finishing a prison term for bribery last year came before a City Council committee on Thursday. Sabri stage-managed the appeal for his proposed condominium project from his native Jordan, where he's vacationing.
Sabri's supporters and opponents slugged it out over whether to allow the project on the Midtown Greenway, and how big it should be. At issue is whether he can build the 92 units he wants. City planners supported that number, but the planning commission cut it to 58 units.
Thursday's debate was a draw, with the committee sending the issue to the full council with no recommendation.
But not for lack of opinions. Much of the public testimony focused on Sabri rather than on his project, which made for good theater but bore little relevance to zoning law.
"If you're going to be a statue on the mall, you're going to attract a lot of chicken poop," Sabri said afterward from the shores of the Dead Sea. He said all of his Minneapolis projects have been vital and successful, allowing immigrants a start in business.
Sabri's team was quarterbacked by his wife, Rochelle Barrett, who ran his commercial rental business while Sabri was imprisoned for offering a bribe to former Council Member Brian Herron. The team argued that the proposal conforms to zoning limits. They said the condos are aimed at Somalis working in Sabri's two nearby office/retail malls.
Sabri highlighted an e-mailed comment from an official of the Whittier Alliance, a neighborhood group, asking a council member how the city could mitigate "the potential for ghetto-izing" the project. Sabri called that racially motivated. But the official, Marian Biehn, said she wasn't reflecting on immigrants but on the parking and traffic problems the malls create.
Traffic congestion is a concern
That congestion was a major issue at Thursday's hearing. "Within the last six years, this neighborhood has turned to hell," said Jim Roscoe, a neighbor. But Sabri supporter Abdi Salam said the project will relieve traffic pressure by putting homes within walking distance of where Somalis work and shop.
Under current zoning law, the council could grant up to 92 units of housing; Sabri is willing to shave off 10 units for more parking, Barrett said. But Daniel Kennedy, an attorney representing the alliance and some neighbors, urged that the entire proposal be rejected.
"This developer has a horrible history with this neighborhood and this city," he said. Biehn presented an alliance vote of no-confidence in Sabri approved in September. It said that he was unwilling to work with the neighborhood, disregarded recommendations, violated city codes and mistreated tenants. Sabri called those "bogus concerns and made-up issues."
"Obviously I have a history of being controversial. I've gone to jail and served my time," he said. "It appears that people try to use that against me."
Assistant City Attorney Erik Nilsson said the planning commission's recommended 58-unit approval isn't legally defensible. He said the council could reject the project entirely or approve the 77 units allowed under zoning, or 92 if it grants a bonus for enclosed parking.
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438