Mayor eyes unused space along Post Office adjacent vacant land for development
R.T. Rybak and Sharon Sayles Belton agreed on at least one thing during last year's mayoral debate: Asked to pick the ugliest spot in the city, both chose "Weed Park."
Weed Park is an unused chunk of land, perhaps an acre, tucked between the Main Post Office and West River Parkway, just east of Hennepin Avenue.
Different city leaders have floated ideas for the land -- a park, a parking lot, perhaps both.
Today, "Weed Park" is still weedy. Rybak said he wants to put housing there.
"If I decided to resign tomorrow and go into real estate I'd go after this piece of land," Rybak said. "But since I'm mayor I want to see something great for the city happen there."
Rybak's development vision extends east of Weed Park along the back of the Post Office. The Post Office building parallels West River Parkway; a covered walkway runs along the back. Behind that false wall lies a cavernous and unused space running the length of the Post Office, roughly 30 feet high by 60 feet deep.
When the Post Office expanded in the late 1980s that space was meant for public use, Rybak said. Combine Weed Park with the space behind the Post Office and "something very exciting could happen," Rybak said.
His vision includes housing, places to park under the Hennepin Avenue Bridge and some open air seating behind the Post Office for a restaurant, Rybak said.
It could include "a place where you could rent roller blades or mopeds or other fun vehicles you could use to go up and down the great new parkway," he said.
Rybak said that he has spoken with several developers informally about what he sees as valuable property.
Who owns Weed Park?
Part of the Mayor's contribution to the Weed Park land use debate is a vocabulary lesson.
He refers to that space behind the Post Office as the "loggia," a term, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, meaning an open-sided roofed gallery along the front or side of a building.
Who controls Weed Park and the adjoining loggia is up for debate.
In the late 1980s, both the Hennepin Avenue Bridge and the Main Post Office expanded. The Post Office gave the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board a lease on Weed Park and the loggia for a dollar a year for the ten years after completion of the Hennepin Avenue Bridge. The bridge was completed in the spring of 1992.
The Park Board has talked about turning the plot of land into a more usable park.
"I think we still have a development right," said Don Siggelkow, assistant superintendent for Development for the Park Board. The agreement may have allowed the Park Board to extend its development rights beyond the 10-year period.
Brian Marshall, manager of administrative services for the Post Office, said the expiration date of the Park Board's development rights could still be in question.
"If it is expired that doesn't mean that the Postal Service isn't willing to sit down and talk about the use of the building space as well as the vacant site for city or Park Board purposes," he said.
While the Post Office is willing to collaborate with the city, Marshall said it is not willing to sell the property. "The understanding is that an outright sale would not be possible because of the future needs of the Postal Service for some or all of that space," he said.
According to Rybak, who sat on the Downtown Council at the time of the Post Office expansion, the Post Office was allowed to expand based on the agreement to allow public use of the loggia along West River Parkway, and the unused space behind it.
"The city is increasingly interested in exercising the public spirit of the expansion and we would use our leverage on that," Rybak said.
"If the Park Board owns the land I'd suggest that they sell it to the city who could sell it to a developer who could build a public-spirited private project," Rybak said. "The money could be used as a trust fund to acquire parkland in other parts of the city."
Cutting the deal
The Park Board may be in no mood to help the mayor. Park Board commissioners are still smarting from park budget cuts pushed by Rybak.
The mayor also recently vetoed the Park Board's request to use the city's borrowing authority to buy a new riverfront headquarters. The Park Board overrode the veto and is moving ahead with the purchase -- but it had to get private financing for the project.
"My own feeling is that we're not that in favor of getting rid of park land," said Park Board President Bob Fine (6th District). "The Park Board was created to protect parkland, not to sell it off and see that it is developed."
While Fine is opposed to losing Weed Park, he said that the Park Board has no current plans to landscape the parcel. "We're trying to deal with budget cuts right now. We aren't about to establish something in that area," he said.
Park Commissioner Vivian Mason (4th District), who represents downtown, would still like to see Weed Park become a true park. "We don't have enough green space downtown," Mason said. "I think it would be a nice respite to just have a green space and have some benches and perhaps a picnic table and some nice landscaping."
Will the Post Office help deliver a deal for the mayor?
Jim Ahlgren, customer and media relations coordinator for the Minneapolis Post Office, said he doesn't think Weed Park is large enough for a housing development but did say that the Post Office wants to work with the city.
"We're willing to work with the community and do what's best for the community," Ahlgren said. "We're open and willing to be part of whatever works if it works for all sides."