Mark Brandow opens his story in the spring of 2005, which is when he says someone at the city first got after him about the cars parked on the sidewalk in front of Quality Coaches, his auto shop near the intersection of 38th & Nicollet.
“I got a ticket and a car towed — a customer’s car,” Brandow said.
That decade-ago incident set it off, he said: the obstruction permit granted and rescinded just seven months later, the paper storm of violation notices falling on his business since 2014. Finally, in January, a zoning inspector filed a notice of non-compliance ordering Brandow to remove the barbed wire topping the fence around his back lot.
He said he felt “picked on” by the city.
“You’re treating me like a dog,” Brandow said in February. “I’ve been here for 30 years trying to make the neighborhood better, and now you’re telling me that I can’t do any of this and my fence is illegal.”
The car that got that ticket back in 2005 was a 1978 MGB, a tiny, two-door roadster manufactured by the British Motor Corporation. Brandow will work on most any vehicle that comes his way — your rust-bucket, mid-’90s Toyota Camry included — but his passion is for restoring British sports cars, and MGs in particular.
A customer dropped off the MGB for Quality Coaches to fix up and sell, then took off for Florida. Brandow didn’t have the title, and retrieving it from the impound lot required a trip to City Hall for “some sort of procedural clearance” to get the car out of impound, he said.
“It was just a barbed situation,” he recalls now.
Did it stop him from parking customers’ cars on the sidewalk in, as Brandow put it, “potential violation of the city laws”?
No. But years later he took a Minneapolis Police officer’s suggestion and applied for an obstruction permit. It was issued Oct. 27, 2014, according to city records.
October 2014 is also the last time Google Street View’s camera car drove down West 38th Street past Quality Coaches. It recorded three tiny sports cars parked on the extra-wide sidewalk, each pulled up parallel to Brandow’s building, plus another two at the curb. A fourth vehicle parked on the sidewalk appears to be a golf cart with some aftermarket modifications.
Brandow said the cars are simply queued-up for service. The intersection’s recent transformation into a dining destination — home to Blackbird, Nighthawks, Cocina Latina, Five Watt Coffee and Kyatchi — means street parking is tight. Plus, there’s a two-hour limit on both Nicollet Avenue and West 38th Street, he added.
Brandow arranged to rent a few spaces in the lot across the street from the owner, Michael Lander, a Minneapolis developer. But he still used the sidewalk in front of his building for parking, too. Brandow argued the classic cars have “decorative value,” and that their presence “adds a little class to the neighborhood.”
“And for the most part people like seeing the relics of yesteryear in operation,” he said.
Someone decided they weren’t in operation often enough. The obstruction permit was revoked May 22, 2015 after the city’s business licensing office tipped off the Department of Public Works.
“Our understanding was the obstruction permit that was granted was no longer being used as we understood it was going to be used, on an intermittent basis,” Lisa Cerney, the department’s deputy director, said. “Cars were being parked there long term.”
City records include a violation notice dating from May 15, a week before the obstruction permit was cancelled. Brandow said the inspector who wrote the notice was the same one who nailed him for sidewalk parking in 2005.
He appealed to the Kingfield Neighborhood Association for help. Executive Director Sarah Linnes-Robinson contacted City Hall last summer but “the city never responded,” she said.
“I thought it was sort of a silly issue because he’s done it forever,” Linnes-Robinson added.
Asked if she’d ever heard complaints about the cars parked in front of Quality Coaches, Linnes-Robinson responded: “Citizen complaints? Never.”
She confirmed that parking “is very difficult” around the economically revitalized intersection.
“There were a few people who invested heavily in that area, who helped pull it up to what it is now,” she said, adding that Brandow was one of them.
Cerney said someone from her office stopped by Quality Coaches after the permit was pulled in May, “and … they were still parking cars in that space.”
Brandow also contacted City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden’s Ward 8 office. Glidden said she tries to act as a “facilitator” between businesses and city departments in situations like these, but she “can’t change the rules.”
“He’s a great business owner,” she added, agreeing with Linnes-Robinson that Brandow had “done a lot to activate that corner.”
Brandow wasn’t just looking for help with the sidewalk parking; there was the issue of the barb wire around his back lot. And not just barb wire. After a series of break-ins seven or eight years ago, he said, he spent about $1,500 to add a strand of razor wire.
“Usually, the vagrants want to cut the top and take the radio out of a sports car. Or, you know, rifle the car for dope money out of the glove box, or whatever,” he said. “Or they just get in there and ransack them.”
Then there was the time someone broke in with a Sawzall tool looking for catalytic converters, a car part commonly targeted by thieves because it can be sold to a scrap yard for cash. Unfortunately, both for the thief and for Brandow, he or she targeted a 1976 Jensen-Healey coupe, a British two-seater sports car built more than 15 years before that country required catalytic converters on all vehicles.
Brandow said the exhaust system was cut into “smithereens.” He couldn’t find the right replacement parts for the limited-production vehicle, “so I ended up selling the car for less because I couldn’t make it operational without an exhaust system,” he said.
Brandow described the razor wire as a “maintenance-free” security system. Sure, he could add cameras, but he doesn’t want to be tethered to a computer monitor on his vacations, like a trip to Puerto Rico in March.
“It’s kind of an impediment to freestyle living,” he said.
As for insurance, he said he’s not covered for what happens in the back lot “because the cars are not deemed secure if they’re outside.”
Minneapolis Zoning Administration and Enforcement Manager Brad Ellis said the razor wire must go. It isn’t allowed in any of the city’s zoning districts and never has been, as far as Ellis could tell.
He said barb wire, once allowed in commercial districts, is now limited to industrially zoned areas. But a follow-up visit from a zoning inspector confirmed what Brandow had argued all along: the barb wire predated both his purchase of the Quality Coaches building and the change in city code, so it should be grandfathered in.
“It does appear that it has been existing for decades, and we were going to grant them nonconforming rights to that without them having to go to the Board of Adjustment to state their case,” Ellis said in early March.
Brandow said he’s now considering “enhanced barb wire” for his back lot. As for the sidewalk parking, he said was “blindsided” by the revocation of his obstruction permit.
“I was thinking of going in the spring after having a clean record for a while and see if I could reapply for the obstruction permit,” he said.