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Deal with park board set to give city of Minneapolis control of ‘Commons’

Ryan Cos.
The deal will allow the city to sublease the parcel to another entity — perhaps a non-profit conservancy like the recently formed Greening Downtown Minneapolis.

Sometime during the summer of 2016, one of the most significant and controversial parcels of land in downtown Minneapolis will change hands — twice — all without a single dollar being exchanged.

That’s how the lawyers and politicians have proposed to unravel the legal and political knots tying up the future of a large swath of open space near the under-construction Vikings stadium.

A memorandum of understanding between the city of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board approved by a city council committee Tuesday outlines the deal: After the city receives the land from developer Ryan Companies no later than July 2016, it will “sell” the parcel to the park board for zero dollars. The park board will, in turn, lease it back to the city for 30 years with a possible 20-year extension. At the end of the lease, the land returns to the park board. The cost of that lease? Also zero dollars.

The deal will allow the city to sublease the parcel to another entity — perhaps a non-profit conservancy like the recently formed Greening Downtown Minneapolis. That entity could develop and operate the land that has been known as “the Yard” and “the Commons” but is currently dubbed “Downtown East Commons” in the agreement.

Earlier, park board staff estimated that it would take $6 million in improvements for a basic park and $20 million for an enhanced park — money that the board has said it does not want to spend on the project. Under the development agreement with Ryan, the land will be turned over to the city after all buildings have been removed and “basic improvements” have been made — grass, irrigation and drainage.

The project remains controversial because no one is quite sure what it is to become: a much-desired piece of urban green or a mostly private event-space masquerading as a public park. That’s because a deal between the Vikings, the agency building the stadium and the city gives the team control of the park for 80 days a year.

The convoluted deal between the city and park board became necessary after two recent decisions. In 2013, a legal decision stated that under state law and the city charter, only the park board could “devise, operate and maintain” parks. But the park board decided in August of this year that it didn’t really want the proposed park, partly because of the restrictions on public use in the stadium lease — but mostly because it would be expensive to build and operate, and the park board had other priorities.

This deal, therefore, is designed to have the board be the legal owner but release it of any financial obligation for designing, constructing and maintaining it.

After hearing a staff presentation Tuesday to the community development committee, Council Member Jacob Frey said he was excited about the step being taken. “Thank God we’re at this point right now,” Frey said. He said the commons project had gotten a lot of “bad press” and that city residents got to watch “the sausage being made.” But the deal lets the park move ahead and the city is set to select a park designer early next year.

“There have been a lot of moving parts getting to this point but we’re right on track,” Frey said.

The full council is set to take up the deal at its next meeting Friday. A park board committee approved the memorandum of understanding last week and the full board is scheduled to debate it Dec. 17.

At least one key player objected to the park board’s approval. In an email to park board members last week, former City Council President Paul Ostrow, the person who filed the successful legal challenge to the city owning the proposed park, called the deal “dubious.” 

“One thing is quite clear — with the approval of this document the MPRB now becomes a party to an agreement that turns over a property acquired at taxpayers expense to the Vikings without charge and further allows that same property to be used by the Vikings to the detriment of the public,” Ostrow wrote. “This is your agreement now and you can no longer point the fingers at others.”

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by mark wallek on 12/10/2014 - 11:16 am.

    Take them all back

    It would be great if the city took the Kingdom of Parks back under it’s purview.

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/10/2014 - 11:32 am.

    Pffff.

    This is recipe for disaster. The beginnings of the new Dead Zone around the new Vikings stadium. On the other hand I guess the Park Board is too busy designing light rail tunnels to run a park in the middle of the city.

  3. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/10/2014 - 12:21 pm.

    “[S]ublease the parcel to another entity”

    Why do I get a bad feeling when I read those words? They sound fine when the “other entity” is some conservancy nonprofit. Is there any reason to think that would necessarily be the case? Could the “other entity” be some private consortium that will find a way to milk what is supposed to be public space for every nickel it can? Is anyone going to be overseeing the lessee’s use of the property, beyond some vague language in the lease about “open space for the public?”

    The whoel stadium deal has been nothing but a systematic hosing of the taxpayers from day one. I see no reason to think it as stopped, or even slowed down.

    • Submitted by Wayne Coppock on 12/10/2014 - 01:18 pm.

      “Could the “other entity” be some private consortium that will find a way to milk what is supposed to be public space for every nickel it can?”

      If the Vikings are in any way involved then the answer is almost certainly yes.

      Also it doesn’t say that the sublease has to be for zero dollars, does it? Maybe the city can find a way to charge the Vikings or the stadium board ridiculous rent to claw back a few of the dollars from them. Does anyone more familiar with the original deal know if the “park” has to be provided rent free or if they can charge whomever gets the dubious honor of running the privatized space? It’s about time the city figure out how to backdoor some money out of a deal the way entities like the NFL do. They’d just better not start handing out tax breaks on top of this for the ‘super bowl’ garbage.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/10/2014 - 01:50 pm.

        “Maybe the city can find a way to charge the Vikings or the stadium board ridiculous rent to claw back a few of the dollars from them.”

        They could, but I’m betting they won’t. I’m sure the Vikings would regard permission to breathe the same air as all the payment we deserve for the honor of their presence.

        If the City does get any significant rent, I would suggest it be put towards building a landing strip for all of the pigs flying around.

    • Submitted by Steve Sande on 12/10/2014 - 02:48 pm.

      Calling it a conservancy does not make it benign

      Reservations that other have expressed are well-grounded. I would add that calling the consortium a conservancy does not make the problem go away. Even under the conservancy scenario that is developing, it appears that a small group steered by commercial and political insiders will be given control over public land for up to 50 years. This produces not only accountability problems, but potential for private enrichment at public expense. Wouldn’t it be better for public land to be managed for the common good by public officials — say, the Park Board commissioners or City Council members, each of whom must answer to the citizens of Minneapolis in periodic elections?

      A significant problem, of course, is that from the beginning, public officials pushing the whole extravagantly subsidized stadium megaproject have trampled on various institutional structures of Minneapolis governance that were designed to prevent such debacles.

  4. Submitted by Mark Iezek on 12/11/2014 - 11:12 am.

    Peavey Plaza as a model

    First will come a chain link fence around the “Commons”, then admission booths to enter a year-round “Vikings Village”. Once inside, there will be concessions stands for food, jerseys and memorabilia priced similarly to those inside the new stadium.

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