OPINION | Citizen power or corporate power in City Hall?

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The Minneapolis Planning Commission on December 13 approved the proposed CB2 building for Calhoun Square despite objections of CARAG and ECCO neighborhood groups. In September 2009 the Commission approved an apartment complex at Lake Street and Knox Avenue, again over testimony by these neighborhood groups requesting the Commission deny approval based on the Uptown Small Area Plan (USAP) and the Shoreland Overlay District.

Nonconformance to the policies and framework of the USAP and the Minneapolis Plan for Sustainable Growth (MPSG) was cited by the neighborhoods as grounds for disapproval of both projects. USAP was created through extensive citizen participation over a period of two years to provide a framework for development appropriate to various locations in Uptown. The intent was to let developers know what was in the framework in advance and plan accordingly thereby avoiding controversy with every project.

CB2 is a far, far stretch from the approved city plans. USAP calls for three to five stories at this location. This is prime real estate that calls for intensive land use and is a key gateway to the heart of Uptown. The proposed one-story CB2 building is the corporation’s model, standardized for any location nationwide, such as a strip mall.

Another common factor in both approvals over citizen objections is that, although there are different developers, both were represented by Jackie Cherryhomes, a former City Council president turned lobbyist, and Carol Lansing, an attorney with Faegre and Benson, one of the city’s leading law firms.

A legal loophole was cited as preventing the Commission from legally denying approval, despite nonconformance with the approved plan. Planning staff, however, did not mention  at the November 1 or December 13 Commission meetings at which the project was reviewed that the zoning code trumps or takes precedence over USAP and MPSG and the city, therefore, has no legal basis to deny approval of the proposed one story building. At the November 1 meeting, the Commission recommended it be held over until December 13 based on CARAG’s and ECCO’s opposition and arguments, and asked CS and CB2 to examine alternatives.

There is nothing illegal about private firms hiring professionals to help move projects through City Hall. It’s become standard operating procedure.

That’s the problem. The power of private sector money all too regularly drowns out the voices of citizens and what’s best for the community. The balance of power throughout government nationwide has tipped dangerously in favor of corporations over people over the past years and this incident is yet another example.

Citizen participation is essential for democracy. Democracy is the voice of the people working together and the only force sufficient to withstand outside special interests.

Expediency due to market conditions is cited as a compelling reason to move forward with the CB2 project now even if it includes ignoring the planning framework. Neighborhood people urged delay until a multi-story, mixed-use building is economically viable. In a few years the market will have rebounded but this one-story structure will likely be sticking out in Uptown for another 50 years. It brings to mind the deal that was cut years ago to block off Nicollet Avenue with a Kmart store. It’s still there, few people can remember why and most hate the obstruction of a major street.

Neighborhood groups made it clear they are not anti-development or anti-corporation and that CB2 would be welcome addition to Uptown – in the appropriate structure.

Ninth Ward Council Member Gary Schiff who represents the City Council on the Planning Commission expressed regret that language had not been included in the zoning code when it was recently modified to codify USAP provisions and indicated the intent to remedy that situation.

The Minneapolis City Council is asked to make whatever modifications necessary to “put some teeth” into USAP. When citizens are called upon to give hundreds of hours of their time, as with the USAP development process, the Council must honor this relationship.