Downtown East’s ‘Yard’ gets increasingly privatized

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June 4, 2014
By: David Brauer
David Brauer

“The Yard,” the proposed Downtown East park, was the last part of the complex Vikings stadium deal, and boy, does it show.

You’ve probably seen the image a million times — a nearly two-block-long greensward stretching from the Downtown East LRT stop toward City Hall. Even for stadium-haters, this dreamscape seemed to offer something for those without seat licenses or Wells Fargo keycards.

So it was a surprise to see the stadium’s biggest cheerleader — former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak — pronounce himself “shocked” that in February, the Vikings and Sports Facilities Authority gained “the right to privatize the space for much of each autumn.”

In a Star Tribune op-ed, Rybak noted an original deal gave the Vikes “use of the Yard for all 10 home games, and the stadium operators got 10 additional days. That’s a lot.”

What Rybak didn’t say was that in the final month of his own administration, a term sheet gave the Vikings 22 days and the Authority 40 days — two full months.

That’s a lot.

But the mayor was right that privatization expanded dramatically when the term sheet became a February use agreement signed by the city, Authority and developer Ryan Cos.

The Vikes, who already had game-day control of the whole park for a calendar day, received an expanded 72-hour window on the single full east block (where Strib HQ stands; the park also contains two-thirds of a block that’s now a Strib parking lot).

Based on the 2014 schedule, Vikings would control most of the park for 46 days — and the figure could hit 78 days(!) if the Wilfs get a Major League Soccer team and the NFL schedule expands.

Add in the Authority’s 40 days (also on the full block) and most of the park could be publicly restricted for up to 118 days — four months.

Rybak mentions privatization for “much of each autumn,” but it’s potentially worse than that.

The MLS Portland Timbers plays all but two home games on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday; March though October. With NFL games mostly on Sunday, the full block could be booked every weekend from August to October, plus another five or so weekends in our oh-so-brief spring and summer.

And that doesn’t include the Authority’s 40 days.

I asked Authority chair Michele Kelm-Helgen — a public appointee, of Gov. Mark Dayton — how the public restrictions metastasized.

She explained that the Metrodome grounds had a fixed event space, where tents could be left for months. The new stadium, even with a bigger footprint, lacks such a space. (A large plaza on stadium grounds will function mostly as entrance and security perimeter, she notes.)

The initial deal put event space on the full block north of the LRT stop — but that was cannibalized for the parking ramp that made the Wells Fargo complex happen. Since the Wells component is the big property-taxpaying component of the whole mega-subsidy, the event space slid to the park.

Says Kelm-Helgen, “Because you can’t leave structures up, there’s a lot more set-up — there’s no way to be ready the day of the game, and the city told us their noise ordinance wouldn’t allow [overnight] set-up.”

The 72-hour agreement “just acknowledges we need the day before and the day after” game day, she notes. It also calls for the Authority to “endeavor in good faith to minimize” set-up and takedown time.

If you want to take the glass-is-two-thirds full approach, you can say the public will get full use of the park for at least 247 days, and the west two-thirds-block for 299.

But you could also say losing full use of a “public” park on 26 of 52 weekends (if the Vikings use all their dates that way) is a ridiculous price — especially since the Vikings paid a mere $1 million for that right.

With construction costs $4 million to $5 million short and operating costs currently unfunded, Rybak floated ideas that included Hennepin County subsidies. Hennepin Board Chair Mike Opat told me no thanks, the county did all the governmental lifting on Target Field.

Rybak’s problem is leverage, or lack thereof. The store was given away before a real financing plan was in place — not unprecedented for a stadium that iPad pulltabs were supposed to fund.

Will it be easier to get businesses to pony for construction knowing the Vikes can grab even more of the best dates? If things get increasingly desperate, how much more commercialization will creep in? I wish I could say I was shocked it’s come to this.

David Brauer, a former Journal editor, lives in Kingfield with his wife and two kids.