How The Commons Became “the Worst Development Deal” in Minneapolis History

The following article by Cory Zurowski was published in the March 11, 2015 edition of City Pages.

How The Commons Became “the Worst Development Deal” in Minneapolis History

Gryffindor via Wikipedia

The Commons could be green space for the people like Battery Park or V.I.P. party grounds.

There’s a boatload of head-scratching facts surrounding the Downtown East Commons, the 4.2-acre park that will be the centerpiece of the sprawling $400 million development project abutting the new Vikings’ stadium.

The price tag for the two-block parcel is double the assessed value. City taxpayers are flipping the bill for yet undetermined construction costs. Estimates range from $6 to $20 million.

Residents will also likely get stuck with annual operating costs topping out at $3 million, but they can’t use it a third of the time.

Adding insult to injury is the fact taxpayers get no say in how it’s run or how it’s used for at least 30 years despite shouldering all the liabilities.

By anyone’s definition, the Commons is a raw deal for those who actually pay the bills.

“This is the worst development deal in the history of the city of Minneapolis,” says former Minneapolis councilman Paul Ostrow, who was one of three people behind a lawsuit that unsuccessfully tried to block the park project. “You can’t fall so in love with a deal and forget your basic fiduciary responsibility to protect the people’s trust.”

Back when the Minneapolis City Council unanimously approved plans for the Downtown East project — a pair of office towers, a parking ramp, a public park, and residential and retail space — the deal sold publicly included the developer, Ryan Companies, being on the financial cuff for developing parkland to be enjoyed by the masses.

“Let’s make no mistake, this will be a public park,” former Mayor R.T. Rybak told the media at the time of the announcement.

Observers agree that getting the project through the pipeline before the end of his mayoral term was a Rybak priority. But ramrodding Downtown East came with a price, namely details.

Someone forgot to tell the city that paying for the park wasn’t a done deal.

As a result, something happened between that celebration of handshakes and the present day. It’s called wiggle room.

Today, the only party with any financial skin in the game is Minneapolis taxpayers.

The park has lost its private sector sugar daddy as well as has been robbed of its status as the proletariat’s promised land as the Vikings and other special interests now have dibs on its greenery for a third of the calendar year.

“The deal was done at the tail end of the stadium deal and at the last minute,” says David Smith, a longtime city resident, who has written extensively about Minneapolis parks. “… The city determined that keeping the Vikings here was the priority. Obviously, that’s what they thought.

“During those negotiations and with the Downtown East project, there was an opportunity to have a deal that took into consideration who would pay for it to be built, its operating costs, and what it should be. Would it be garden space? Playing fields? A gathering place? What was needed there? It looks like there wasn’t a second thought given to any of this. It puzzles me and a lot of other people.”

According to Ostrow, one of the city’s biggest blunders was that it underestimated its bargaining position, meaning the development players needed the real estate more than Minneapolis needed to cede a sweetheart deal that didn’t pay heed to residents’ interests.

“The city was desperate to have this development on the East Side,” he says, “and it ended up being a tragic mistake because when the chance was there, it didn’t negotiate a deal that was in the best interests of the city. None of that was done, and that’s how you get to where we’re at now.”

That would be unchartered territory because downtown is getting a park that wasn’t “built
for park purposes,” according to Smith.

“No one involved ever looked at this project from the public’s perspective because, really, it appears to be an amenity to the stadium with its primary purpose serving stadium functions.

How can you meet those needs as a public park when some people have a private claim to it?”