Park Board Approves Downtown East Park Deal
The following article by Eric Best was posted in the December 18, 2014 on-line edition of the Downtown Journal:
Commissioners reluctantly supported the agreement after pleas from critics.
The Park Board voted 7-2 Wednesday to approve a memorandum of understanding with the City of Minneapolis to acquire and own the Downtown East Commons, the new park planned adjacent to the future Vikings stadium.
The vote comes after years of the speculation and legal battles on what entity would own the nearly two-block park developed by Ryan Cos.
“This is a very ugly thing. We didn’t make this deal,” Commissioner Anita Tabb (4th District) said.
Many of the board’s commissioners voiced a reluctance to approve the agreement at the Dec. 17 meeting due to concerns with the stadium’s design and their lack of involvement with the park. The City Council approved the deal last week.
It’s a situation that the Park Board didn’t wish for after it declined any involvement in the park in August.
Under the agreement the board would own the park for $1 after the city acquires the property from Ryan by the summer of 2016.
It would then immediately lease it to the city, which would be responsible for millions of dollars in operating, maintenance and enhancement costs. However, other entities or Green Downtown Minneapolis, a nonprofit conservancy, could step in to handle maintenance if the city chooses to sublease the park, known as “the Yard” or “the Commons.” The park is named “Downtown East Commons” under the agreement.
Park Board staff recently estimated it would cost $6 million for a basic park and $20 million for an enhanced park. Under the development agreement, Ryan would have to clear the property of buildings and make “basic improvements” before it turns it over to the city.
The city would not have to pay rent as part of the agreement, which lasts 30 years with options to extend it to 50 years.
Commissioners Anita Tabb, Meg Forney, John Erwin, Steffanie Musich, Jon Olson, Liz Wielinski and Scott Vreeland voted to approve the agreement, which required a super majority of six votes.
Commissioners Brad Bourn and Annie Young voted no, each trying and failing to offer alternatives to moving forward with the agreement.
Bourn attempted to send the resolution back to committee in order to discuss new terms, but the action failed without a second. He also questioned if denying the agreement would give the board legal leverage to challenge the arrangement. Bourn abstained in the committee’s vote on the agreement earlier this month.
Young attempted to make an amendment to the arrangement to require the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, which oversees stadium development, to replace the stadium’s glass with a safer alternative to birds. However, Brian Rice, the board’s legal counsel, said the board did have the authority to force changes to the design.
“Is this a new way to privatize the park system? Is this a new way to take the independence away from the [Park Board]?” Young said. “I’m feeling like we’re losing track of parkland.”
While the agreement may sound unusual, the Park Board has similar leases and other agreements with nongovernmental entities. For example, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts has operated on property donated to the Park Board for more than 100 years, Young noted.
Supporters of bird-safe glass dominated the meeting’s open time and held signs in a last-minute effort to change stadium development. Nearly two-dozen speakers, backed by several other supporters, requested the Park Board do something, from simply delaying the vote to using the board’s voting power as leverage to renegotiate for bird-safe glass.
Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, joined bird advocates in their concern over the glass design of the $1 billion stadium, located blocks away from the Mississippi River flyway used by migratory bird species. “No one has more responsibility to protect migratory birds than you,” she said. “It will become a killing field for birds.”
Speakers from Minnesota Citizens for the Protection of Migratory Birds, a group created to campaign for the safe glass, said an estimated 1,000 birds per year could die from hitting the stadium. The Vikings have said the team will work with 3M to test a film that could make the stadium’s glass safer.
Commissioners voiced sympathy for the cause, but Tabb pointed out that the agreement is with the city, not the MFSA, the group charged with the design and construction of the stadium. The MFSA has five members appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton and former Mayor RT Rybak.
The Park Board also unanimously voted to approve a resolution requesting the city and the state “use all legal means possible” to protect birds from “untreated reflective surfaces.”
Vreeland said the Park Board could not be the “giant killer” and “unravel a deal that [it] didn’t make.”
Tabb said the park would be a “great, eventual asset” for a part of the city that needs more parkland. Other commissioners said denying the arrangement and challenging the city and other entities could lead to a lengthy and expensive legal battle.
“I don’t think that [suing the city] is going to be a productive use of our time,” Tabb said. “In a perfect world this would not have gotten where it is, but it’s here now and it’s a big, sticky mess.”