Sabri changes proposal, at odds with Whittier board

Developer Basim Sabri is back in the middle of another controversy, this time centering on a proposed housing development in the Whittier neighborhood.

The city’s development arm may rescind the Elroy site land sale to Karmel Properties after Sabri, a Karmel principal, changed the proposal from light industrial to include housing.

The Whittier Alliance, the neighborhood group, has asked the Minneapolis Community Development Agency (MCDA) to seek other housing proposals, if it approves the plan change.

The Alliance voted to support the commercial and light-industrial development proposed in February 2001, at a time when the MCDA would not consider housing proposals for the site, said Jeff Langaard, executive director. Sabri and the Whittier Community Development Agency submitted the only light-industrial proposal, though other developers expressed interest in other types of development.

Karmel’s new plans for the site — between Pleasant and Pillsbury avenues and south of the 29th Street Midtown Greenway — show a 24-unit townhome development with first-floor commercial/retail space, and 158 parking spots to alleviate parking problems. Sabri said he wants to sell family-sized units ranging from $180,000 to $200,000 to recent immigrant families.

The MCDA could vote on the issue as early as Friday, May 23, but it could be later, said Wayne Olson, MCDA project coordinator.

"We are in the process to figure out what our next step is. I am not ashamed to admit it is fairly complex," Olson said. "We aren’t clear about the steps we should be taking in relation to this particular development."

Sabri has $175,000 invested in the project and would not ask for any public subsidy, he said. He has a vital economic interest in the project’s success. The Elroy site is north of Karmel Square, Sabri’s Somali mini-mall.

Sabri and the Whittier CDC formed Karmel Properties to buy the Elroy site from the MCDA. The MCDA staff recommended the land sale in March 2001. It put it on administrative hold later that year when Sabri’s name surfaced during the bribery investigation of former City Councilmember Brian Herron.

Councilmember Dean Zimmermann (6th Ward) helped jump-start the project after Sabri cleared legal hurdles, but the delays changed the project’s economics, said Tom Reynolds, executive director of the Whittier CDC.

The Whittier Alliance’s Transportation and Land Use Committee meeting reviewed Sabri’s housing plan and overwhelmingly approved it 38-1, according to Alliance board minutes.

The Alliance’s full board disagreed. It voted 11-8 to support the original light-industrial development but said if the plans changed to include housing, the MCDA should allow other interested parties to submit proposals.

Some board members raised concerns about parking problems, trash and graffiti near Karmel Square. After the meeting, Sabri called such charges "unfair attacks on the Somalis and how they do business," adding the comments reflected prejudice against immigrants, Muslims and blacks.

If the MCDA decides to delay the land sale and seek other proposals, "it is not a life-or-death situation," Sabri said. "The neighborhood group will realize my proposal is the best on the table."