Something felt off to Minneapolis City Council member Emily Koski.
On Sept. 5, Koski and her fellow council members appeared ready to choose a new location for the city’s Third Police Precinct, whose officers have lacked a permanent headquarters since the original police station burned in the 2020 civil unrest.
Mayor Jacob Frey and Council President Andrea Jenkins had pitched the Century Plaza building downtown. Yes, the site would be costly to renovate, only in use for five or 10 years, and located outside the Third Precinct’s geographic boundaries. But the council had ruled out rebuilding at the former site, and there was no consensus on a new, more-permanent location within the precinct.
So the Minneapolis City Council unanimously moved the plan forward that day, setting up a final vote two days later – and Koski had joined her colleagues in that decision. But back home after the meeting, Koski was still nagged by doubts.
“I thought about it, and slept on it and was thinking more and more about the implications of that,” the Ward 11 council member said in an interview. “A ‘temporary’ solution that costs $30 million? It just did not sit right.”
Two days later, Koski did something that council members almost never do: She called city staff back up to answer more questions before a final vote. Koski’s inquiries, and staff’s answers, highlighted every doubt about the plan: its cost, its location, its impermanence. The Century Plaza precinct plan unraveled on the spot; Koski and her colleagues unanimously voted the idea back to committee.
“I felt totally gob-smacked … a total, complete surprise to me,” recalled Jenkins, who represents Ward 8, which is part of the precinct. Jenkins – and frankly, city staff – had assumed that Sept. 7 vote would just be a formality.
Instead, nearly two months later, Minneapolis City Council members are still wrestling with the dilemma of where to locate the new Third Precinct building – and pushing back against the mayor’s calls to either pick a site by the end of October, or empower him to pick one for them.
“The clock is continuing to tick,” said Frey during a rare appearance in council chambers last week. “The community deserves a decision and my administration will do whatever it takes to get to seven votes for that decision.”
How long until southeast Minneapolis has a new public safety headquarters?
Finding a replacement for the boarded-up shell of the Third Precinct building – among Minneapolis’ most visible reminders of George Floyd’s murder – has been a source of controversy for months. Many residents of southeast Minneapolis are torn between mistrust of the police department and their desire for a nearby home base for the officers patrolling neighborhoods.
After the council rejected Century Plaza, the mayor urged it to immediately greenlight plans to build a new public safety headquarters at 2600 Minnehaha Ave., just a few blocks north of the former Third Precinct site.
But council members voted last week to put off a decision until at least Oct. 31. They instead adopted legislation drafted by Koski and a group of council members who represent parts of the Third Precinct – Jason Chavez (Ward 9), Andrew Johnson (Ward 12), Robin Wonsley (Ward 2) and Jamal Osman (Ward 6) – asking for more details about the cost and vision for “all sites considered to date” by the mayor’s office.
“Just because I understand and share the sense of urgency around making a decision, does not mean I’m willing to forego my oversight responsibility,” Koski said.
Other council members appeared open to even longer delays in resolving the dilemma, raising the possibility that a final decision might come after City Council elections on Nov. 7, or even after new council members take office in January.
“We cannot make a decision one morning when the mayor sends out an email saying, ‘This is the place I pick, like it or not, and I want seven votes,’” said Osman. “That is not the approach we should be going with. We should have a discussion about this.”
The delays clearly frustrate Jenkins.
During an interview earlier this month, the council president wasn’t ready to support Mayor Frey’s request for immediate action. She was open to the 2600 Minnehaha site, but called for more engagement with residents, saying “the whole community” would need to endorse the plan.
But Jenkins also defended her Century Plaza idea – and expressed frustration that her colleagues rejected that plan without an alternative at the ready.
“People expect the City Council to be able to make a decision,” Jenkins said. “It’s been three years now, and we continuously kick it down the road.”
What are the options?
On Oct. 13, two Frey deputies sent a memo to City Council members making clear that the new “community safety center” would reflect the city’s holistically-minded approach to policing, housing not only Third Precinct officers, but also social workers, violence interrupters and crime prevention specialists.
The memo laid out three possible sites for the facility, but makes the case for 2600 Minnehaha. The currently-vacant lot is already owned by the city, and building a new facility on it would cost between $28 million and $32 million.
The memo listed two additional sites: 3716 Cheatham Ave., currently the site of a grain elevator; and 2520 26th Ave. S., the present home of the Memory Lanes bowling alley. But Frey said he would only support sites that would be cheaper or take less time to build than 2600 Minnehaha, and these two alternative sites come with higher price tags and longer construction timelines.
The land at 2600 Minnehaha is currently vacant, but there may be a complication: For years, East African community leaders said they’ve pushed the city to develop the site as a community center for immigrant and Native American youth. A consultant informed the council of these sentiments in July.
In a statement last week, Osman’s office said the council member would oppose building the precinct at 2600 Minnehaha and “fight for his neighbors on this.”
When advocating for the community center with city staff, “we were always pushed away,” Osman said in comments at last week’s council meeting. “Now, we feel like we’re rushing this because it’s going to be the Third Precinct. That says a lot. Many in the community will have a lot of issues with that.”
“Many ordinary residents, not just fringe activists, oppose the specific location that’s being proposed,” Wonsley added.
How candidates would resolve the dilemma
Some candidates in the Nov. 7 elections are calling on City Council members to – as Ward 10 hopeful Bruce Dachis put it at a September forum – “(S***) or get off the pot” in picking a location.
In Ward 12, retiring incumbent Andrew Johnson has already taken a new job and has said he would step down from the City Council early, allowing his successor to take office potentially as soon as late November. That could mean whoever wins the race – Luther Ranheim, Aurin Chowdhury or Nancy Ford – could factor into the Third Precinct decision if it’s resolved after the election but before next year.
Ranheim called on the City Council to resolve the matter on Oct. 31 and to move forward with the 2600 Minnehaha location.
“The residents of the Third Precinct have been without a local station for over three years and some Council Members are seeking to delay this project even further. While I am open to exploring other site options, the 2600 Minnehaha site is shovel-ready,” Ranheim said in an email. “I believe it is important that we no longer delay the process and instead provide our neighborhoods with the same level of public safety resources and support available in other parts of the city.”
Chowdhury is “not closed off” to building the precinct at 2600 Minnehaha, but is concerned that city officials have ignored East African community members’ push for a community center on the site.
“I think it will be harder to find consensus among all parts of the Third Precinct community and council members at this location, and our goal should be to move forward together,” she said in an email.
Chowdhury is “prepared to support the 3716 Cheatham location,” which she noted would be more centrally-located and closer to an existing fire station. She urged the mayor not to rule out the site.
“From my conversations, the surrounding neighbors would welcome the Third Precinct as their neighbor, especially if we include other safety, 311, and community services at the site,” Chowdhury said. “This location would be worth the investment.”
Chowdhury said Ward 12 residents “want to see a decision made,” but also desire “a transparent, functional government. These are qualities the community conversations in the Third Precinct lacked.” (Frey said the results of a public engagement survey, criticized for only asking for feedback on two possible precinct locations and giving no opportunity to suggest alternatives, were “inconclusive.”)
Ward 6 candidates Kayseh Magan, Tiger Worku and Guy Gaskin – who are challenging Osman for his seat – did not return requests for comment on the Third Precinct dilemma.
Even voters outside the Third Precinct are starting to ask candidates how they’d resolve the precinct debate. At a recent Ward 7 forum, candidates Katie Cashman and Scott Graham both said they would support building the Third Precinct’s replacement at the 2600 Minnehaha site.
In Ward 8 – where Jenkins is seeking re-election – candidate Soren Stevenson has questioned the need for a hasty decision on the Third Precinct, saying there hasn’t been evidence of slower police response times.
“I think we should take our time to make the right decision, so long as we’re seeing the same level of service in the Third Precinct as we’re seeing in other precincts,” Stevenson said earlier this month.
Stevenson made these comments at a League of Women Voters candidate forum on Oct. 3, before Frey threw his weight behind the 2600 Minnehaha plan and demanded swift action by the council. Since then, Stevenson declined a request by MinnPost to elaborate on or update his comments from the forum.
Stevenson ruled out rebuilding at the former Third Precinct site, but the two other Ward 8 candidates, Terry White and Bob Sullentrop, have both called on the City Council to explore that option. In July, City Council members voted 12-1 to pass a resolution rejecting a rebuild at Lake Street and Minnehaha Avenue, though it’s not clear that the vote would be legally binding.
Jenkins acknowledged there are still business owners along Lake Street who would like to see the city rebuild the precinct at the former location, and said in an interview that, aside from the lingering distrust of police, “nobody has given me a rational reason why we shouldn’t (rebuild).”
But to Jenkins, the bottom line is that the July vote is a sign that there isn’t a political path forward for rebuilding at Lake and Minnehaha.
“I’ve been doing this work long enough to know there will be a solution and there will never be 100% buy-in on that solution,” Jenkins said. “Somebody’s going to be upset about it.”