Who Will Save the People’s Park?

The following article by Cory Zurowski was published in the August 20, 2015 on-line edition of City Pages.  To read the original, go to http://www.citypages.com/news/who-will-save-the-peoples-park-7577299

Who Will Save the People’s Park?

Photo by Timothy Krause


Is Joe Public still sleeping on the raw deal that is The Commons park?

Have you taken a gander at the concept drawings for The Commons? It’s the 4.2-acre in-the-works downtown Minneapolis park going in across from the new Vikings stadium.

The place looks sweet: http://www.downtowneastcommonsmpls.com/?page_id=22

At the time of the unveiling earlier this year, Minneapolis Councilman Jacob Frey, who represents development hotbeds like the North Loop and east of the river, said he envisioned the greenery to function as “the ‘kitchen table’ for our city — a place of congregation, activity.”

Those words probably came out easily for Frey. He’s one of the beautiful people: https://www.flickr.com/photos/millcitytimes/8426295001 The 33-year-old Villanova-educated lawyer is Crossfit buff with an Aveda model coiffure and a Bill Clinton-like affability that screams of loftier ambitions. He’ll have a seat at the table.

As for taxpayers who are getting stuck with the tab to purchase the land, and most likely improvement and maintenance bills for decades to come, they might be left with table scraps.

The park began as dreamy. In May 2013 then-Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak announced a historic $400 million development plan for a chunk of prime real estate that just so happened to abut the football stadium.

“Dog days are over for east downtown,” Rybak declared.

Multiple city blocks that largely represented a municipal eyesore would be transformed into brick and glass edifices with retail, office space, and housing.

The centerpiece of the historic urban renewal by developer Ryan Companies would be acres of public green space funded through a clunky marriage of taxpayer dollars and private donations.

“Let’s make no mistake, this will be a public park,” was the mayor’s assurance at the time of the announcement in 2013.

Later that year Rybak’s blog read, “The proposal is for the city to finance $18 million for the park.”

Within days of that typed sentence’s publication, the details emerged.

Developer Ryan, which still owns the land, was to “construct” the park. The developer would transfer ownership “to the city upon completion” for $20 million.

The deal also conceded 40 days of “exclusive use” of the park to the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority. The Vikings were granted “exclusive use” for “all home games and up to 10 additional days per year.” In exchange, the Purple would donate $1 million toward the park’s construction.

But the Minneapolis Park Board wanted no part of it.

The city charter says only the board can “devise, operate and maintain” Minneapolis parks. If public use restrictions weren’t headache enough, the financial deal was worse.

Acquisition and construction costs — as well as $3 million in estimated operating costs — was money it didn’t have. And the city’s park system is already projected to have a $46 million shortfall between 2016-2020, excluding this new playground known as “The Commons.”

Two months after the deal’s rough draft had become known, City Finance Officer Kevin Carpenter inked a deal that was doubly worse for taxpayers. In early 2013, Carpenter signed his name to the “use agreement” that has the potential to double the number of days private parties have dibs on The Commons.


Carpenter can’t say because he’s on vacation. Phone messages left for city council members Cam Gordon and Blong Yang went unreturned. Rybak happens to be on vacation as well and was unavailable.

“The city needs to play hardball to renegotiate back to the original agreement, and it has a tool,” Rybak last year wrote in a Strib editorial: http://www.startribune.com/a-critical-time-for-the-yard-can-we-render-this-into-reality/261320871/ “Anticipating public access debates around the stadium, we negotiated a clause two years ago that gives the city veto power over all land-use decisions.”

In a June letter published in the Southwest Journal: http://www.southwestjournal.com/sites/default/files/images/pdf/SWJ_061815_web.pdf [Page 8] Arlene Fried and Harvey Ettinger of Park Watch, a citizens’ watchdog group, voiced their displeasure with The Commons’ narrative.

“We expect that prior to entering into any agreements regarding the creation of a signature park, there be transparency, citizen participation and full accountability,” it read. “In creating the Commons, the City violated all of these tenets.”

Councilman Frey gets the criticisms, yet there is no bigger cheerleader for the park. While he calls the park deal far from ideal, he asserts it’s much better than people think.

“I fully understand the concerns in theory,” he says. “There will certainly be days that are spoken for. I’m not denying that. But I believe that the number of non-public days are, in many cases, greatly exaggerated.”

With no soccer team coming to the new stadium, that’s 32 days no longer going to exclusive use.

The “great potential” of the Vikings signing a long-term deal to lease ground on the nearby Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s parcel could remove the game day tents from The Commons, thus potentially returning the east end of the park to public use.

As for funding, taxpayers are ponying up around $20 million to buy the land, but $22 million is being raised from private sources, which Frey estimates will be enough for capital expenses and perhaps two years of operating expenses as well.

After that, he says “we’re figuring out the formula for that now.”

Frey wouldn’t specify funding streams, although tax assessment revenue has been mentioned by others.

“The Commons has the potential to be the major public benefit from this macro deal,” says Frey.