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Last legal battle over Vikings stadium draws to a close

A judge lifts a restraining order allowing the Ryan Companies to go ahead with its $400 million development plan for Downtown East.

A judge lifts a restraining order allowing the Ryan Companies to go ahead with its $400 million development plan for Downtown East.
Ryan Cos.

Friday afternoon may have seen the last rearguard action against the Vikings stadium. Hennepin County Judge Mel Dickstein lifted a temporary restraining order allowing the Ryan Companies to go ahead with its $400 million development plan for Downtown East.

The ruling grew out of a lawsuit launched only last week by Dan Cohen and Stephanie Woodruff, both recent Minneapolis mayoral candidates, and former City Council President Paul Ostrow.   

The rationale for the lawsuit seemed a bit obscure. Surely these civic-minded folks could not prefer the acres of surface-parking lots now there in Downtown East to what Ryan was planning, namely two office towers that would bring 5,000 Wells Fargo staffers downtown, a parking ramp, 400 residential units and a two-block park, which Mayor RT Rybak had named The Yard.

Cohen, a long-time member of the Planning Commission, after all, had voted for the Downtown East development. (“I made the motion,” he told me.) And Woodruff, at a mayoral debate this summer, emphasized the importance of developing the riverfront; the Ryan project, while not exactly on the sandy shores, is only a few blocks away. “It’s not that we’re opposed,” said Ostrow. “It’s that we want to make sure the deal is done right.”

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After the first court session last week, however, I was starting to feel that one of the plaintiffs’ major aims was to throw a few brickbats at the Vikings stadium, which they all had opposed. A big sticking point for them in this at least superficially is the parking ramp, which the city is floating $65 million in bonds to finance. (Cohen says he did oppose the financing plan for the ramp.)

State legislation requires that the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority provide 2,000 parking spaces at a ramp within a block of the new structure. According to the Ryan Term Sheet, which sets forth the details of the deal, the Vikings will allow their premium customers to use the ramp at no charge on game days. (Part of the $65 million, by the way, will finance the park, but more on that later.)

Since many of the elements of the Ryan plan tie in with the stadium plan — in fact, the term sheet describes the Vikings as “an intended third party beneficiary….[which] and shall have consent and enforcement rights” — so a brickbat thrown at Ryan or the city is almost as effective as one aimed directly at the Vikings.

So what did the plaintiffs’ claims include in the legal arsenal?

One: The state Legislature had set the city’s contribution to the stadium at a maximum of $150 million. Floating $65 million in bonds for the ramp would exceed that amount and was therefore an illegal end run around the limit.

Two: The Downtown East project fails to serve a public purpose.

Brickbat Three: The city had no right to buy land for a park — or to run a park. That was a job for the Park and Recreation Board.

I’m no lawyer, but this sounded pretty thin to me. Anyway, a couple of days later, Judge Dickstein squelched almost all the plaintiff’s causes of action:  

…the ramp is an integral part of the Downtown East development. The primary purpose of the ramp is to serve the individuals who will work in the adjacent towers, and may also serve the people who live in and visit the residents of the multifamily units which comprise an integral part of this development. While the Block 1 Ramp also provides a concomitant benefit to the Vikings Stadium, its primary use is as a part of the large commercial residential development at issue. The City’s financing of the Block 1 Ramp, therefore, exists independent of the Stadium and does not violate the statutory limit on the City’s contribution.

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The judge did leave the plaintiffs one shred of hope, however. He granted a temporary restraining order until he could decide whether the city really had the right to acquire and run a park. He wanted to hear from the Park Board before making a decision.

So, with the addition of Park Board attorney Brian Rice and some park board members and activists, the same cast of characters turned up in Dickstein’s courtroom this last Wednesday. Ostrow, who was acting pro se et amici, insisted that all the city charters down through the ages reserve park-making to the Park Board. I was totally convinced, but Deputy City Attorney Peter Ginder countered that the city was talking to the Park Board, and eventually the land would wind up where it belonged — under Park Board control. The judge didn’t find that fact convincing — at least not then. The fact that the two parties were talking “isn’t legal authority on which I can rely,” he said.

Ginder then claimed that the two-block space was really a “public square,” and the city did have the right to acquire and operate a square. That idea didn’t seem to fly very far either. From the day Ryan announced the project, everybody had called the two-block space a park. Ginder then asserted that under the state Port Authority Act, which allows the city to buy land of “marginal use,” it had the right to acquire the land and turn it into a park.

Rice and the Park Board, of course, had landed in the middle of the two contenders. The downtown park Yard had not been on the Park Board’s agenda. “We were just kind of roped into the matter,” he said. He split the difference, arguing that, yes, the city could acquire the land, but guess who should develop and run and own it?  

Even though Judge Dickstein vacated the temporary restraining order, he didn’t really make a decision. The issue, he declared, “does not present a justiciable controversy at the present time,” by which he meant that the matter isn’t yet ripe for legal interpretation. If, for example, the city was committing the Park Board to buying a park that it didn’t want, or if it bought a park and wouldn’t give it up to the board, the plaintiffs might have a case. But since the two parties were in the midst of negotiating an arrangement, there was no point in stopping them.

John Erwin, president of the Park and Recreation Board, in a statement released soon after the judge issued his ruling, said: “The Park Board looks forward to working collaboratively with the Mayor, the City Council and the other parties involved in the Ryan project in bringing a new and dynamic park presence to Downtown East.”

And they will have a lot to sort out. And there will be a lot of collaborating to do.