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November 22, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott
Convention Center completes record-setting solar roof

LORING PARK — You can’t see it from street level, but there’s something historic happening on the roof of the Minneapolis Convention Center.

Over the past few months, crews have been busy installing and activating 2,613 solar panels atop the building. When the project wraps up at the end of November, it will be the largest solar photovoltaic system in the Upper Midwest, estimated to generate 750,000 killowatt hours of renewable energy per year. That’s enough to power 85 houses annually — and enough to offset carbon dioxide emissions given off by 60,587 gallons of gasoline.

The Convention Center’s solar array is another green jewel in the crown of a city eager to tout its progressive environmentalism. Minneapolis already has three other facilities powered by solar arrays: the Currie Equipment Facility in North Minneapolis; Fire Station No. 6, a mere block from the Convention Center; and the Royalston Public Works facility.

In praising the Convention Center’s array, Mayor R.T. Rybak also cited other Downtown sustainability efforts, like Target Field’s green roof.

“The Convention Center is Minneapolis’ living room, where we welcome thousands of guests a year,” he said. “Now the first message these guests will get is that Minneapolis is a leader in the clean-energy economy.”

Meet Minneapolis spokesperson Kristen Montag said that each panel began producing energy immediately for the Convention Center.

“They’re being hooked up as they go,” she said.

Montag added that, once the project is finished, an instructional kiosk will be installed in the building’s lobby, offering readings of how much solar energy is being produced and explaining how the array works.

— Gregory J. Scott


Cash-free parking meters to start appearing Downtown

NORTH LOOP — In a move sure to bring sweet relief to Downtown visitors, the city has begun a three-year project to replace old-fashioned, quarter-gobbling parking meters with new electronic ones that accept credit cards.

Crews installed the first “smart meter” on the block of 2nd Street North and 2nd Avenue North on Nov. 9. By the end of November, 46 pay stations, accommodating a total of 450 parking spots, will be up and running throughout the North Loop. Older meters will stay in service until then.

Each meter serves as a pay station for multiple parking spots, with only one machine per city block. Drivers simply punch in their space number and then pay with either a credit card or cash. The new devices are completely solar-powered and are linked up via the city’s Wi-Fi network.

Next year, plans call for the installation of another 200 pay stations, spanning a total of 2,000 parking stations. Another 200 stations will come in 2012.

— Gregory J. Scott


City opens Emergency Operations Training Facility

FRIDLEY — When the Interstate 35W Bridge collapsed in 2007, one of the lessons the city learned was that its Emergency Operations Center, located in the basement of City Hall, was too small to serve as a center for large-scale emergencies.

Flash forward three years, and the city has its replacement: a building with 2,800 more square feet of floor space built on a 12-acre lot in Fridley. The new Emergency Operations Training Facility opened early November.

The facility houses training classrooms for Minneapolis firefighters and metro emergency managers, a strategic information center for the Minneapolis police, a training site for the State of Minnesota Structural Collapse Team and a back-up Emergency Operations Center for the state, Hennepin County and City of St. Paul.

The U.S. Coast Guard will also use the facility as a monitoring location for cameras placed along a segment of the Mississippi River from St. Louis to the Twin Cities.

— Gregory J. Scott


A bonus for your bus ride

Metro Transit launched Ride to Rewards in November, a new rider loyalty program the bus, commuter train and light rail operator says is the first of its kind in the country.

The program is free for all Go-To Card holders age 18 or older, who will earn points redeemable for future fares or gift cards when they sign up for the program. Go-To Cards are rechargeable plastic fare cards that come in a variety of flavors, including the U-Pass and College Pass for area college students and Metropass offered by some Twin Cities businesses to their employees.

One week in, Ride to Rewards already had about 2,000 participating transit users, said Bob Gibbons, director of customer services for Metro Transit.

“That’s pretty good because all we did so far was Tweet it and issue a news release,” Gibbons said, adding that Metro Transit planned to use e-mail alerts and other means to attract new participants “in increments,” so as not to overwhelm, the program’s new website.

Once enrolled in the program, Ride to Reward participants earn a half-point every time they swipe their cards to pay for a ride on a bus or train, with the exception of transfers. Workday commuters who board once in the morning and once in the evening will earn one point every day.

The conversion of points into Go-To Card credit or gift cards is explained on the program’s website. If you do the math, each ride, or half-point, works out to roughly one cent of Ride to Rewards value.

That means the hypothetical workday commuter earning one point a day, five days a week, would require about 23 months to bank the
500 points required to earn $11 in Go-To Card credit. But the program isn’t designed to operate on rides alone, Gibbons said.

Points accumulate much faster when Go-To Card holders make purchases at Ride to Rewards’ merchant partners with a registered credit or debit card. Every dollar spent with that card at a participating business earns one point or one half-point.

The list of business partners was still fairly short a week after the Ride to Rewards launch — only 13 businesses at 23 individual locations as of Nov. 8 — but was expected to grow, Gibbons said.

Transit Treasures, a Florida-based start-up company, runs Ride to Rewards at no cost to Metro Transit and recruits new merchants into the program.

The “Daily Leaderboard” at gives program participants an easy way to gauge their point-collecting abilities against the top earners.
A week after the program launch, several of Ride to Rewards’ top rider-spenders already were nearing 300 points.

— Dylan Thomas


Mill District City Apartments now open

MILL DISTRICT — A posh rental development that area real estate agents, city officials and business leaders have been fawning over for months is finally open to tenants.

Michigan-based developer Village Green hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Nov. 10 for its new Mill District City Apartments. The $25 million, 175-unit project is expected to draw 250 new residents to a neighborhood starved for rentals. It also closes up one of the final holes in the burgeoning Mill District, filling a parcel of land at 225 Portland Avenue that languished for years after a previous project stalled during the real estate implosion of 2006–07.

The development is Village Green’s third rental project Downtown, following the Eitel Building City Apartments and the Loring Park City Apartments. Accommodating a long unmet demand for Downtown rentals has been Village Green’s theme in the run up to this month’s opening. The rental occupancy rate for Downtown has hovered above 95 percent nearly all year. But the Mill District apartments represent the first new construction rental development in years.

“The companies here are dynamic, and they’re hiring again,” said Village Green CEO Jonathan Holtzman. “The renter wants to be Downtown, wants to work for these companies. Everything is here.”

Holtzman has argued that the building’s boutique amenities — initial plans call for a green courtyard with an indoor/outdoor swimming pool and an al fresco movie theater, an underground heated garage and extended-hour concierge service — will act as a recruiting tool for companies trying to lure young talent here.

In turn, the thinking goes, these young professionals will spend their salaries at area bars and restaurants, easing into a Downtown environment where they might eventually buy a home. And the project is estimated to generate $350,000 annually in real estate taxes. Such a perceived payoff has resulted in big cooperation from the city.

When Holtzman struggled to secure financing, City Council Member Lisa Goodman (7th Ward) helped broker a deal to defer land sale proceeds. The city is deferring about $1.4 million for up to 24 months, and in exchange will receive a promissory note from Village Green.

U.S. Bank ultimately provided a loan, and the entire project is nearing completion just over a year after an October 2009 groundbreaking.

“We are open for business,” proclaimed Elliot Jaffe, bank president of the Twin Cities market, touting the development as a ray of light in a still-tough credit market.

The first tenants moved in Oct. 25, according to a Village Green spokesperson. The building is currently 33 percent full.  The company’s website lists 500-square-foot studios starting at $1,045 per month. Three-bedroom units go for as high as $2,465.

— Gregory J. Scott


City promotes radon testing

Just before Halloween the city gave away free radon testing kits in an event at one of its Downtown administrative buildings.

It was appropriate timing, because the facts on radon can seem a little scary.

The Environmental Protection Agency reports radon-related lung cancer kills 21,000 people on average every year. That makes radon the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers and second only to cigarettes in causing cancer among smokers.

Radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas, is common in the mineral-rich soils of the upper Midwest. Colorless, odorless and tasteless, it seeps up through the ground and can collect in Minnesota’s well-insulated cold-climate homes, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

The state Health Department further reports about one-third of Minnesota’s homes have elevated levels of radon that, after years of exposure, could pose a significant risk to residents. The good news is that mitigation can significantly reduce the amount of radon entering a home.

The first step is to buy a radon kit to measure the radon levels in your home. They could hardly be easier to use; typically, they just hang in the basement for a few days before they’re mailed in to a testing center.

The testing kit giveaway was a one-day event, but the city is still selling the kits for only $9. They’re available for purchase 8 a.m.–4 p.m. Mon.–Wed. and Friday in room 300 of the Minneapolis Development Review building, 250 S. 4th St.

Visit the Minnesota Department of Health’s radon page ( for more information on testing and mitigation.

— Dylan Thomas


City likely to proceed with controversial waste facility     

HOLLAND — The city’s chosen site for a controversial hazardous waste facility in Northeast is almost a done deal.

City officials recently signed a purchase agreement to buy land for the facility on University Avenue and 27th Avenue Northeast. As this story was filed, the city was in the middle of a 45-day “due diligence” period before closing.

“I don’t expect that there will be anything on the property that would prevent the city from finishing that sale,” said Susan Young, director of the city’s Solid Waste and Recycling division.  

The city and county are teaming up to demolish the old Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corporation campus at 340 27th Ave. NE. In its place they would construct two buildings to serve as drop-off points for household construction debris and hazardous waste like paints and flammable liquids.

As the city prepares to close, a grassroots advocacy group is taking steps to fight the facility. Marie Zellar, a volunteer with Don’t Dump on Northeast, said businesses like Gasthof’s and Jimmy’s Bar are joining the cause, and the group might throw a benefit concert night to raise money for an attorney. An attorney would help them argue that the facility would be unlawful because of improper zoning.

The city’s zoning administrator maintains that the site does have proper zoning, and the city attorney’s office is currently writing a report to that effect.

The group also contests the “recycling center” label.

“We’re going to have a bit of a brawl on that,” Zellar said.

The city has a new Northeast support base in its corner, however.

An independent group called Rethink Recycling Northeast! formed in the fall. The organization’s goal is to raise awareness of what the government is “actually” proposing, according to its Facebook page.

“We’re just generally supportive of the service being proposed here in Northeast — properly disposing of household hazardous waste materials so they don’t eventually end up in our air, water and soil,” the site stated.

Northeast might be ripe for debate, but the city has already resolved one point of contention — officials decided the facility would never take on overflow waste from the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center, as was originally proposed. Kotke said the emergency use would have been a remote possibility — perhaps occurring once in 20 years — but they decided to eliminate that possibility in response to neighborhood concern.

“We’ll have to find some other location for that,” he said.

Kotke said an extensive public participation process is still to come.

“We haven’t actually designed the facility yet,” he said.

The facility would be closed on Sundays and Mondays. A recent traffic study determined that the facility could average more than 600 trips per day, but it would take years to reach that level. According to the study, University Avenue should be able to handle the new traffic without extra delays.

— Michelle Bruch


New executive director for Center for Book Arts

MILL DISTRICT — It took six months and a nationwide search just to hire the guy already doing the job.

After serving as interim executive director of the Minnesota Center for Book Arts (MCBA) for six months, Jeff Rathermel has locked in the position permanently. On Oct. 26, the MCBA board officially granted him the promotion.

Rathermel who holds Masters degrees in both fine arts and public affairs and nonprofit management, has served as MCBA’s artistic director since 2004. According to the board’s official statement, Rathermel’s ascendance is a sign that the organization is “refocusing its mission on the artist”; Rathermel has taught art at the College of Visual Arts and MCAD, and his own work has been collected by Walker Art Center and Yale University.

But the promotion is also a sign that MCBA is happy with its current accomplishments — a tad surprising, given that its board has long complained of the Center’s low public profile.

Amongst book artists, the 25-year-old MCBA is believed to be the largest and most comprehensive organization of its type in the country. And it’s housed inside Open Book, itself a national rarity as the only facility that combines the literary and book arts community. Indie publisher Milkweed Editions and the Loft Literary Center share the building.

But still, MCBA’s renown often comes as a surprise to people. Some believe the low profile is what caused the previous executive director, Dorothy Goldie, to be dismissed earlier this year.

“Marketing is always a problem when you’re a nonprofit with limited resources,” said Rathermel. “We need to think of ways of targeting audiences more with our offerings. Our constituency is very broad.”

Rathermel’s strategy is to have MCBA jump into the community event game that has been successful at museums like the Weisman and the Walker. In 2009, he launched the Book Art Biennial, an every-other-year bonanza that culminates in the awarding of the MCBA prize. It’s the “first international artist book prize in the world,” says Rathermel. In 2009, it went to Veronika Schaepers, a German artist working in Japan. The Biennial will return in July 2011.

“We have programs for emerging artists through the Jerome Foundation, which is great,” he said. “But we need to look at post-emerging. How can we support the artists that are experts in the field?”

The other feather in Rathermel’s cap is the MCBA Collector’s Forum, launched just last month. The Forum is a connoisseur’s club, designed to develop and nurture a community of public and private collectors. The Forum hosts a Fine Wine and Fine Books event, as well as a series of lectures tailored to new collectors. The talks focus on what’s on view in the MCBA gallery and often highlight a local or visiting artist.

Rathermel confirmed that there will not be a new artistic director.  He will continue to direct the artistic vision of the organization in addition to his executive director duties.

— Gregory J. Scott