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

In a complex deal, the land formerly know as “the Yard” will be “sold” by the city to the park board, which will, in turn, lease it back to the city.

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.
Ryan Cos.

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.

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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.”