Vote on The Commons Park Today Tests the Courage of the Mpls. City Council

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

Vote on The Commons Park Today Tests the Courage of the Mpls. City Council

This is what The Commons might look like on one of the days you're actually allowed on the grounds.

This is what The Commons might look like on one of the days you’re actually allowed on the grounds.

The members of the Minneapolis City Council today have one final opportunity to speak up or forever hold their peace. The latter could prove brutal for taxpayers, costing Minneapolis residents tens of millions of dollars for decades to come.

The council is expected to vote on its role in the Commons, the 4.2-acre park in the heart of the development bonanza adjacent the new Vikings stadium. The panel will be asked whether to approve the design and fundraising arrangement for the urban green space that Councilman Jacob Frey has called “the kitchen table for the city.”

Simply put, the deal is a mess.

The Commons was approved in reckless haste in the waning days of the previous council. Left out were the details as to how most of it would be funded. And despite then-Mayor R.T. Rybak’s promise in 2013 — “Make no mistake, this will be a public park,” —  a few months into 2014, the current use agreement was inked, conceding what could amount to 100 days annually of “exclusive use” to the Vikings and the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority, the entity overseeing construction of the football coliseum. Meaning that for roughly 100 days of the year, the public park could be off limits to the public.

To this day no one has explained what legal authority Minneapolis Financial Officer Kevin Carpenter had to cut this deal — or why giving away such a large swath of the farm was good for Minneapolis taxpayers.

Worst of all, they could be sticking us with the tab.

Green Minneapolis, a private nonprofit conservancy, has been tasked with fundraising $22 million in capital to build and initially maintain the downtown park. But so far only $5 million has been raised from private donors. And if the city council signs off on the park today and the conservancy can’t come up with the rest of the cash to build the park, that leaves only taxpayers to foot the bill.

Paperwork from the city’s Community Planning & Economic Development department confirms this: “Staff will return to the City Council if any future appropriation requests are needed related to the project.”

The Commons is already costing city taxpayers about $20 million and change, of which almost $19 million is going to purchase the land for the park. Another $2 million was supposed to be a loan. The city floated payment earlier this year to architect Hargreaves Associates to design the park. It was done with the understanding that “the city would be reimbursed” with money raised through fundraising. That loan turned into a gift last month at a Community Development and Regulatory Services Committee meeting when city staffer Miles Mercer announced the $2 million wouldn’t be repaid. Councilman Frey then introduced an amendment that made it official, saying the move is necessary to induce more private sector cash.

Therein lies the peril at the center of the council’s vote today.

Taxpayers already got stuck with a $2 million park bill they weren’t supposed to pay. Who’s to say it won’t happen again, if and when Green Minneapolis is shy of its fundraising goal? And those numbers don’t include what could be as much as $3 million annually to maintain and operate the Commons.

If the city council today approves the deal, they could be signing off on a project with the potential to be two, or even three times more expensive than initially promised.

Council members could also choose to slow things down, re-examine the deal, and put the interests of those actually paying the bills ahead of the special interests angling for an amenity.

But that would take some political courage.