DeLaSalle field fight heads for first vote

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August 1, 2005 // UPDATED 1:56 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

Park Board panel seems likely to back deal Nicollet Island residents oppose

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board will need a six-vote, two-thirds majority to approve a 70-year deal with DeLaSalle to operate a joint-use athletic facility on Nicollet Island, spanning both school and park land.

It's the latest wrinkle in a long and heated debate.

Parks Supt. Jon Gurban said the Board had received a legal opinion saying that the shared-use agreement was equivalent to a long-term lease and would require a six-vote supermajority.

The issue will come to a vote soon then potentially go to the courts.

Approximately 120 people packed the Park Board building for a July 20 public forum on the plan; nearly 50 spoke, getting 90-seconds each to make their case for or against the field plan.

Each side had their signs: "Your field of weeds, our field of dreams," said one, and "No to public land giveaway," said another DeLaSalle backers presented the Park Board with a 1,016-signature petition supporting the new field; opponents had a petition of their own with 1,243 signatures.

The Board took testimony but did not vote. The proposal goes to the Planning Committee Wednesday, Aug. 3, and the full Board Aug. 17. If approved, the Board would then go through a formal process to approve the facility's design.

It appears the measure will pass the Planning Committee, but its fate is less clear before the full board.

Three of the five-member Planning Committee -Walt Dziedzic, Marie Hauser and Bob Fine - say they support the plan or are inclined to support it. (Dziedzic said he would support the plan - but DeLaSalle still had a number of regulatory hurdles to clear.) Committee member John Erwin is against it, and Annie Young declined comment on how she would vote but expressed concerns about the process.

After the hearing, Fine called it "a very good proposal" that partnered with a school that is part of the city's history. Further, a 1983 agreement obligates the Park Board to cooperate on the field, he said.

Island residents opposed to the field are leasing Park Board land for their homes. Dziedzic said: "It is pretty hard to deny DeLaSalle two acres when private houses are taking 30 of the 45 acres of Park Board land. DeLaSalle is doing the Lord's work educating those kids."

Erwin said he thought the process was backwards. "I am being asked to vote for a facility that hasn't been planned yet," he said.

Young said the Park Board should have had more front-end citizen involvement and negotiation before the issue came to a vote. "I think this is our screw-up," she said. "We have not tried to bring everyone at the table."

Commissioner Carol Kummer, Vivian Mason, Rochelle Berry Graves and President Jon Olson would vote on it when it comes to the full Board.

Kummer said she is leaning towards supporting it, but "is not crazy" about adding another surface parking lot on the island, as the agreement requires.

Berry Graves said a better solution would be to have DeLaSalle play at Parade Stadium. She is concerned about parking problems and emergency vehicle access during games. "If we could resolve that, I would be happy," she said.

Mason said she would oppose the agreement. She disagreed with Fine that the Board had any legal obligations. She faulted DeLaSalle for not involving the neighbors and broader community earlier in the process. She had concerns about the project's historical and environmental impact.

President Olson was sick and missed the meeting. He did not return phone calls. However, it is unlikely the proposal would have gotten this far without his support.

Counting Olson, Hauser, Fine, Kummer and Dziedzic as yes or potential yes votes, the majority would need to sway one more Commissioner.

If the Board approves the deal, Mayor R.T. Rybak would have to sign it. If the Park Board has a six-vote majority, it would be sufficient to override a mayoral veto.

Whether the Park Board approves the deal or not, those on the losing side could choose to take the issue to court.

Brother Michael Collins, DeLaSalle's president, said an independent attorney hired by the Park Board concluded the Board has a legal obligation to cooperate on the field, under a 1983 agreement.

"If for some reason I am wrong on that, I can only say that we would have to seek advice as to what alternatives we might have," Collins said.

Island residents have not threatened to sue, but Barry Clegg, an attorney who lives there, suggested that the DeLaSalle deal would violate the terms of residents' Park Board ground leases.

The deal

The shared-use agreement is for 30 years with two optional 20-year extensions. (The agreement does not specify who gets the option.) The deal requires DeLaSalle to pay all facility construction and maintenance costs for the fields and 750-seat bleachers. It also requires DeLaSalle to negotiate several legal obstacles.

For instance, the agreement says DeLaSalle is responsible for all costs and attorney fees for "securing the release of any claim the state of Minnesota or any of its subdivisions may have to any portion of the [park] property."

It is a significant issue to the plan's opponents. They say that the Park Board used more than $1 million in Met Council parks and open space grant money to buy the parkland now proposed for the football/soccer field. That land has a deed restriction requiring it remain open space.

Under the grant's terms, the Met Council could require the Park Board to provide land of equal value for the regional park system. The proposed shared-use agreement puts the burden on DeLaSalle to resolve that issue, park staff say.

Further, DeLaSalle would have to go to the city Planning Commission and get approval to close half of Grove Street for the field. Planning Commission Chair Judith Martin, an island resident, spoke at the July 20 forum, calling DeLaSalle's plan "a stereotypical suburban school campus in the middle of a national historic district."

The deal requires DeLaSalle to have a financing plan in place and detailed commitments before it starts work, which needs to begin no later than Aug. 1, 2008.

The deal also has some Park Board sweeteners. It requires the school to provide the Park Board free access to parking and athletic facilities, including the fields and gymnasium, for supervised Park Board activities - "at reasonable times that do not interfere with DeLaSalle's use."

To the plan's backers, it opens new recreation opportunities for the Park Board. Ryan Pulkrabek, president of Minneapolis United soccer team, wrote the Park Board in support of DeLaSalle's plan, saying the city didn't have enough soccer fields.

To the plan's opponents, such as Clegg, it is unenforceable and "complete mush."

The agreement also says DeLaSalle faculty, students and staff will participate in volunteer service projects through the Park Board. The school would also relocate and construct three tennis courts on property selected and owned by the Park Board (replacing courts the Park Board built for DeLaSalle that would be displaced by the new field.)

Voices

The July 20 public forum aired arguments that have been made before, and it has drawn its share of politicos. The likes of former Hennepin County Commissioner John Derus, a DeLaSalle alum and board member, and state Rep. Phyllis Kahn, an island resident and field opponent, have sparred for months.

Some new voices have begun to weigh in.

Councilmember Don Samuels (3rd Ward) and Minneapolis School Board member Lydia Lee both had people read letters at the public forum in support of DeLaSalle's plans.

Lee, writing as a citizen, said she believes, "in creating a Minneapolis that embraces the needs of more than an elite few." Samuels, who is running for the 5th Ward Council seat this year, wrote that the DeLaSalle plan would create a community asset.

Scott Vreeland, who is running in the open Park District 3 seat, attended and spoke against the project, saying it was a terrible contract that didn't guarantee a shared use.

Island resident LuAnn Wilcox, and island resident who is running against Dziedzic, also opposed the plan. "Nicollet Island is not the place for active team sports," she said. "It is a place for quiet, reflective, passive recreation."

Gurban dust up

Before the Park Board's public forum, Gurban gave tentative support for the DeLaSalle plan, earning the ire of two Commissioners.

The July 20 Star Tribune quoted Gurban saying the deal would benefit residents and that he particularly liked the service requirements for DeLaSalle students.

Mason and Young both said it was inappropriate for Gurban to comment on the proposal before the forum and before the Board had given him direction.

"Why would he make any comments?" Young said. "He knows his Board is split. Why wouldn't he be neutral?"

Gurban disagreed that he had overstepped his role. Senior staff's job is to make a recommendation, he said. The Park Board decides whether to accept it or reject it, and once it decides, he would implement its decision.

For more information: To view the contract, see www.minneapolisparks.org/documents/agendas/DeLaSalleAgreement.pdf.