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Out of prison, Basim Sabri is back in action
Tenants at Lake Plaza hung a sign to honor Sabri’s return to Minneapolis. In English, the banner reads: “Welcome back Basim Sabri. We missed you, dear friend.”
“I made the best out of what I did and where I was,” he said about his time behind bars. “Now I’ve got more toleration. I’ve gained more patience.”
In December 2004, Sabri was convicted of bribing former Minneapolis City Council Member Brian Herron, who went to prison in 2001 after pleading guilty to extortion. Sabri was sentenced to 33 months for three counts of bribery and left for prison in June 2005. He was released early for good behavior and will spend the next two months living in a halfway house on East Lake Street, he said.
His wife, Rochelle Barrett, sister and niece ran his business, Sabri Properties, while he was away. Barrett said she has noticed a change in her husband’s demeanor.
“Basim was trying to get the snowplow unhooked from the front of his truck and he couldn't figure it out,” she said. “Normally he would lose his patience over something like that …”
Sabri compares the pace of his life after prison to that of a marathon runner. “I was operating previously like a sprinter,” said the 46-year-old businessman.
“I don’t have any hard feelings or grudges against anyone,” he said. “I tell [Brian Herron] I’ll take him out to lunch.”
Sabri said he is ready to get back to work. “I have several projects on Lake Street I’d like to continue to develop,” he said. “I love building and developing. It’s my hobby.”
Sabri is best known for his role in developing commercial properties in south Minneapolis’ Central neighborhood. Some of his previous projects include Karmel Square, a 100,000-square-foot Somali mall located less than a block north of Lake Street on Pillsbury Avenue; Sabri Commons, a string of businesses at Lake and Second; Lake Plaza at 417 E. Lake St.; and the International Bazaar at 301 E. Lake St.
So what types of projects are on his agenda now that he’s a free man? Sabri said he “will be building a few mixed-use projects pretty soon.” Mixed-use properties are those that include both commercial and residential space.
One current project he’s working on is located at 2901 Pleasant Ave. S. in the Whittier neighborhood. Sabri said he’d like to develop a residential space there, but first the city must approve his plans.
“I don’t like to waste time,” he said, fidgeting with his cell phone as if he were expecting a call. “I don’t like BS. I just like to get to the point and be done.”
Regardless of Sabri’s long list of real estate endeavors, there are some who say he’s out to take advantage of the immigrant underclass that lives and works in south Minneapolis.
Said Ali is one of those people. He has several family members and friends who work at Karmel Plaza, which was under construction when Sabri left.
“We can’t buy our own buildings. He’s the only one [around here] to provide [space] for us,” he said. “If people united, he’d remove the person who started it.”
Jim Graham, a neighborhood activist who has lived in nearby Ventura Village since 1968, agrees. He said Sabri gets too much credit for the progress on and around Lake Street.
“I think what has occurred on Lake Street has occurred in spite of Basim Sabri,” said Graham, a former city council candidate for Sixth Ward. “He has been the worst influence on the communities he’s been involved in, by taking advantage of immigrants and by taking over community organizations.”
Before he went to prison, Sabri packed neighborhood meetings with friends, employees and other allies who would vote in favor of his plans, Graham said. In 2001, Sabri showed up at a Ventura Village meeting to speak about a housing proposal, which was later voted down.
Now that Sabri is back, Graham said he is “hopeful that the authorities will observe the situation more closely than the years before Sabri was caught.”
Neighborhood activist and Central resident Wizard Marks sees it differently. She said she’s glad to have Sabri back in town.
“He did the crime, he did the time. It’s done.”
Citing what was once a “mess between 35W and Fifth Avenue,” Sabri has made the neighborhood safer and that’s all that matters, she said.
“He might have been the devil’s brother but I don’t care. He’s a braggart and kind of a bully, but he’s a generous guy with his friends.”
Like him or not, Sabri said he’s doing what he can to help immigrant business owners succeed.
“I don’t know of anyone in the state who caters to as many immigrants as me,” he said.
At Lake Plaza, Sabri offers new restaurateurs rental suites complete with stoves, hoods and sinks. That saves them money because they don’t have to invest in expensive cooking equipment themselves, he said.
“My philosophy is to create spaces that are affordable for immigrants so they can start their own businesses in the United States,” he said. “I don’t lose much sleep over what other people think about me.”
Lake Plaza tenant Paula Cohetero said Sabri’s developments have benefited the immigrant community.
“I think [the plaza] is a good idea because it’s for the Hispanic community,” she said. “Americans, Mexicans, Somalis…all come here.”
An émigré himself, Sabri has been living in Minnesota since 1979, when he came to the U.S. to study political science at the University of Minnesota. In his first American job, he worked as a bellboy and dishwasher at the old Curtis Hotel in Minneapolis.
In 1983 he was paying $200 rent to live in a building at 27th and Dupont in Minneapolis’ Uptown area. When he learned the property was for sale, he quit school, started his own moving company and raised $15,000 in three months to make his first down payment on the building.
“I was a 160-pound little kid who had no idea,” he said. “But I made it.”
In 2003 he sold the Dupont property that marked the beginning of his career as a developer. Since then, Sabri has bought more than 20 residential properties in south Minneapolis.
And while Sabri has no formal business training, he said it doesn’t matter. “It’s like sex. You either have it or you don’t.”
Aside from real estate development, Sabri also aspires to promote Lake Street’s art scene. This year he wants to create an art festival where local musicians can perform and his tenants can display artworks, jewelry, ceramics and other handicrafts. The event would be free for all participants, he said.
Sabri also produced some artwork of his own while he was in prison.
He envisioned his dream home, a multi-level oceanside villa that would include a recreation room and pool, and require 15 to 20 acres of land. A cobblestone driveway lined with Palm trees and a narrow fountain surrounded by rose bushes would fill the front yard.
Another inmate sketched a one-point perspective drawing of Sabri’s vision. Once complete, Sabri titled the sketch “The Ro House” in honor of his wife, and gave it to her as a birthday gift.
“He is always so thoughtful, generous and loving toward those people he cares for,” Barrett said.
Until his dream home is complete, Sabri will remain in Minnesota. Barrett and his daughter reside in suburban Shorewood, along with several goats, peacocks, chickens, ducks and a dog.
“There’s no money on the planet equal to freedom and peace of mind,” he said. “Things happen for a reason. I learned from it.”