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A pop-up! Battle over air rights rises around the Twins ballpark

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In mid-October, our long local nightmare — finally giving Carl Pohlad hundreds of millions for a new Twins ballpark that he pleaded for all these years — appeared to be over. Love the stadium or hate it, at the very least the dispute between the landowners and Hennepin County over the eight-acre site was settled to the tune of $29 million. No one was pleased — isn't that the nature of compromise, after all? — but Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman told the Star Tribune:

"It's done. It's over."

Well, er, not quite. Last week, an after-dispute finally boiled over, sending numerous interested parties — the county, the Twins, the Minnesota Ballpark Authority, the landowners and their partnering developer, Hines — back to the feet of mediator Rick Solum, a retired Hennepin County District Court judge who brokered the original agreement in October. At issue are two things that at this point are, like the stadium itself, purely figments of everyone's imagination: Rights to access of something being called "Dock Street," which does not exist, and the rights of Land Partners II and Hines to develop around the stadium, though no official plans to do so exist either.

"It was hard to get it all resolved," Solum said Tuesday, in anticipation that all would sign off on an agreement Wednesday (which they did). "It's just hard to predict future events."

So let's recap past events, shall we?

As part of the deal in October, representatives for Land Partners, the consortium of longtime land owners that still owns several parcels around the land it gave up for the ballpark, believed they had the right to develop a parking lot just to the northeast of the site. (For North Loop neighborhood experts, that would be along 5th Street in between 3rd and 5th avenues north.) The parcels in question are between the Minikahda Storage building, owned by Land Partners, and the historic Ford Centre, which was just purchased in September by United Properties, which is owned by the family of one Carl Pohlad.

In exchange, Land Partners and Hines agreed to give the Twins access to the stadium via a 26-foot-wide stretch of asphalt dubbed "Dock Street," so the team could "service" the stadium — whether bringing in vehicles, baseballs, hot dogs or whatever. A magnanimous gesture, or so thought Rich Pogin, one of two central figures for Land Partners.

The fine print
But in reading through the fine print of the October deal, lawyers for Land Partners and Hines started to think they had unintentionally forfeited any right to develop the land, whether with condos, parking, office space or retail. In fact, the Twins had become increasingly involved in dotting and crossing all details of the deal, and it became clear that Pohlad and company were content to play the bully.

According to Pogin, some observers of the protracted battle and conventional wisdom, the team doesn't want any edifice blocking the view of downtown from the Ford Centre. Additionally, the team would be queasy about any development that would rise above the stadium, allowing a full view into the ballpark.

So, it went back to Solum, who notes that the nuances and complexities led to more than 50 pages of documents between all the interested parties. According to the mediator, a deal was hashed out where Land Partners and Hines would be free to develop to essentially the same height as the Minikahda building, and the Twins would still have crucial access to Dock Street. (Well, that's just one small part of the nutshell, but that's the main upshot.)

Twins skittish
But at least one person who was an early consultant in the ballpark plans and continues to watch the fracas around the stadium, the scrum doesn't bode well. The Twins are clearly skittish about potential development being a boon for other companies, the observer notes, and the team has had little to no relation with Hines, one of the toughest, biggest and most respected urban developers in the world. (And the largest owner of commercial property in downtown Minneapolis.)

In other words, the air rights battle shows that the Twins and Pohlad aren't interested in developing a real neighborhood around the park, but simply interested in looking out for their own, whether it be the stadium or whatever becomes of the Ford Centre. Hines has a reputation for building civically engaging products, and the idea that the Twins would want to limit that strikes many as a bad precedent. The observer fears that the ballpark could become an island, with no useful development around it, much like the Metrodome.

All interested parties signed off on Solum's deal, and Pogin noted that the Twins lawyer suggested meeting with Hines over development issues — something he takes as "a positive step."

Still, it's not as if there are smiles all around. "The final agreements are complex," Pogin wrote in an e-mail Wednesday, "and I am not qualified to interpret them, other than to say Hines and the landowners did not get what they wanted and the County, Ballpark Authority and Twins did not get what they asked for."

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