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Updates on some big urban-planning issues in the Twin Cities

From food-truck wars to protecting homeowners, here are the latest developments.

Crowds gather in front of food trucks lining Marquette Avenue in Minneapolis on a sunny July 2012 day.
File photo by Wayne Djiubinski

Some think that journalists are like hungry dogs: once they glom on to an issue (usually a celebrity overdose, a natural disaster or a terrorist plot), they chew it to pieces. Others say we have the attention span of mosquitoes, flitting from one subject to another.

Either way, readers (or TV viewers) don’t get much in the way of follow-up. Ask a reporter three or six or nine months later where Whitney Houston is buried or what happened after the city council voted down a highway proposal, you’ll get a blank look. So, in an effort to be a little less superficial, I decided to go back and find out what happened with particular stories I covered in the last year.  

Food-truck wars

Last year, as you recall, merchants along Marquette in downtown Minneapolis were suffering commercial indigestion from food trucks parked bumper to bumper between 7th and 8th streets. Bricks-and-mortar businesses complained of declining revenues, unfair competition, congested sidewalks, loss of parking spots and noise.

Update: The trucks are still there in force, but both parties have decided to give peace a chance. Two newly formed groups — the Downtown Food Committee, representing bricks-and-mortar restaurants, and the Food Truck Association — “have opened lines of communication,” says Doug Sams, head of the former, who owns D. Brian’s Deli and Catering. Together they are trying to craft a city ordinance to regulate the number of trucks per block.

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The restaurants would like one per; the food trucks would like five — “a critical mass,” says Sams, that would allow customers to shop different cuisines. The compromise may be three or four. The trucks could also go into surface parking lots, but the city allows only one each. Sams wants that number upped. If several were grouped together, they might be able to offer amenities like porta-potties, chairs and tables. In the meantime, bad weather has kept food trucks in the garage, and tensions have eased. “I don’t think the trucks are having a huge impact on us,” says Ron Rosenzweig, the new owner of FastSigns, which sits at ground zero on Marquette.

Adios, Macy’s

This spring, St. Paul lost its last department store. The 362,000 square foot building, which holds a prime spot on the new Central Corridor light rail line, has been sitting empty ever since.

Update: After saying that the store’s departure was “a tremendous opportunity” — talk about trying seeing the up side! — Mayor Chris Coleman appointed a downtown redevelopment task force, one of whose purposes is to figure out what to do with the Macy’s building. Macy’s has recruited a company to try to sell the property, but, says Cecile Bedor, St. Paul’s director of Planning & Economic Development, it’s unclear whether there’s been any interest. The task force is not yet off the ground, but its purpose, she says, is to “examine what would be the highest and best use of the property.”

That’s question not so easily answered.  Task force members will have to figure out what kind of development would best serve the residents and office workers in a downtown the size of St. Paul’s. Bedor hopes they’ll come up with something creative; at the very least, she says, she would like to see the exterior of the building gutted.

I’m with her; there are better-looking warehouses. Meanwhile, in an effort to bring a little retail to downtown, St. Paul’s City Council has approved an ordinance that would allow trucks to sell merchandise. Call them goods trucks.

Block E stands for empty

The entertainment complex known as Block E, on Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, lost its movie theater last fall. Only Kiernan’s Irish Pub, the Graves 601 Hotel, Shout Dueling Piano Bar and a couple other spots are still open for business.

Update: Not much news here. A spokesman for the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Lynx say they are considering Block E for a practice facility. Currently, the teams work out at a 12,000 square foot fitness club at Target Center.

I am given to understand that most basketball practice facilities are about three times that size. But Block E is only one of a number of possible sites. Conceivably, the teams could find cheaper digs out in the suburbs at some abandoned big-box store.

The fight for Legacy money

In the past year, metro area towns and cities have been complaining that they are being done out of their rightful share of the $40 million in Legacy funds devoted to parks and trails. A funding committee appointed by the Legislature to sidestep the squabbling gave $8 million to the DNR for tourist sites and split the rest of the money evenly between the seven-county metro and Greater Minnesota, giving each $16 million. Of that, the Metropolitan Regional Parks System and the Greater Minnesota Coalition each get 40 percent or $6.4 million. The remaining 20 percent or $3.2 million will go to the DNR. Previously, the metro received about half the $40 million pot — 43 percent in a straight allocation plus about 7 percent in grants and money for DNR-operated parks. Minneapolis, St. Paul, Bloomington and others argued that they should get more because 54 percent of the state population lives here, 64 percent of the state sales tax that funds the Legacy amendment comes from the metro area, and metro parks receive the lion’s share of visitors.  

Update: Brother, this gets really complicated, but bottom line: The metro lost out, says Brian Rice, a lobbyist for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. The House voted for a 43 percent-37 percent-20-percent split, but the Senate endorsed the 40-40-20 allocation. The conference committee decided to stick with the Senate’s distribution but tacked on $6.3 million from the Outdoor Heritage Fund to restore habitat within metropolitan regional park system (including $3 million to combat invasive aquatic species). Then, swooping in from on high, Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed the $6.3 million.

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Why? It turns out that the citizen-dominated Lessard-Sams Heritage Council had listed the project as a low priority, and Dayton, in his veto message, said “my approval…would betray the promises I have made repeatedly during the past four years to respect the Council’s decisions.” Rice asserts that the lower allocation will cost metro parks from $25 million to $50 million in funding over the life of the Legacy amendment. For his part, the governor insists that metro parks got plenty this year through allocations under other laws — a total of $65.6 million. The metro can try again next year. 

Plan-it Hennepin trying to launch

The vision is a “re-energized and refreshed Hennepin Avenue as a walkable and unified cultural district stretching from the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden to the Mississippi Riverfront,” coming to you from a collaboration between the Hennepin Theater Trust, the Walker Art Center, Artspace and the City of Minneapolis. With a $200,000 Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the group held workshops, focus groups and meetings where some 1,500 citizens heard experts talk about how to make places vital and interesting, played with a model of the street and provided suggestions. 

Update: We are a year out, and Hennepin looks almost as patchy and fusty as before — with a few exceptions: the new Lund’s, the soon-to-be-completed Whole Foods and the remaking of the one-time Snyder’s drugstore on the corner of 8th Street into a posh eatery. And the Plan-It group has developed a full-fledged plan to turn Hennepin into “a cultural district;” in February, the City Council unanimously approved it.

The document is immense and full of rather expansive and universally appealing goals. (Example: “Infrastructure designed for green, creative, safe and walkable public spaces.”) Included in its agenda for the first two years are elements like installing pop-up galleries and artist-led projects in vacant storefronts, creation of more public art to create visual stimulation, greening up of parking lots — well, the to-do list goes on and on.

There have been a few baby steps forward, including the first “Made Here” showcase for an artist-occupied vacant space at the Witt Mitchell building at the corner of 7th and Hennepin. In April, the Hennepin Theater Trust sponsored a pop-up park for kids who learned how to make kites in a surface parking lot next to the Orpheum Theater. The group, says spokesman Karen Nelson, is looking for grants, and it would be great if they could get enough money to launch more projects to see how they work.

Ultimately, to transform Hennepin before the plan fades into antiquity — to create vest-pocket parks, light shows and murals, street furniture and new lighting — the group may need a walloping amount of cash (I guess $10 million) and a Robert Moses-like czar to prod all the parties involved to get things done.  

Protection for troubled homeowners

During Holy Week, clergy from Isaiah, the social justice group, demonstrated in front of a foreclosed home to nudge state legislators to pass the Homeowners Bill of Rights, which would, among other things, prevent loan-servicers from “dual-tracking” consumers who were having difficulty making their payments. The practice allowed banks to proceed to foreclosure and eviction even while homeowners were desperately seeking loan modification. At the time the bill was working its way through Senate committees and pretty much dead in the House.

Update: Apparently prayer does work because a couple of weeks ago, both legislative bodies passed the Homeowners Bill of Rights in rare bipartisan votes (123 to 0 in the House and 61 to 1 in the Senate). To win over banking interests, however, the measure dropped a provision requiring mandatory mediation. Better news than the bill’s passage, however, is the fact that, according to Housing Link, foreclosures themselves have dropped 22 percent from two years ago.