Who’s watching Karmel Village?

Neighbors say city oversight of controversial development is lacking

WHITTIER — In August, the City Council approved a plan to add 26,000 square feet to Karmel Village, a 77-unit residential development on the Midtown Greenway under construction since the spring of 2008.

The problem? Some of that additional space — just how much is a matter of dispute — was built before it ever appeared in city-approved plans.

The decision irked nearby residents like Leo Whitebird, who can see the construction at 2848 Pleasant Ave. S. from his back yard. Whitebird and others described a pattern — build first, ask permission later — in the work of controversial developer Basim Sabri.

Still, Sabri isn’t the only source of neighborhood frustration. Residents and officials at the Whittier Alliance said city regulators were slow to respond to numerous reports of unapproved work at the site.

“Our inspectors, the people from planning and stuff, fell down on the job,” Whitebird said.

Officials in the city department responsible for inspecting construction disagreed.

“We are doing something about it,” Burt Osborne of Regulatory Services said. “We stopped all work out there.”

In addition to thousands of dollars in fines and penalties for unapproved work, Karmel Village is one of just 12 problem properties on the city’s guided compliance list, said Osborne, director of operations, licenses and environmental services. Properties on the list face intense scrutiny from multiple city departments.

The differing accounts from neighbors and city officials point to at least one problem — “a breakdown in communication,” as Whitebird put it.

Antagonism

It doesn’t help matters that the Whittier Alliance was on bad terms with Sabri before he began converting the old Midwest Machinery building into Karmel Village.

Executive Director Marian Biehn said they had clashed over un-permitted work on Karmel Plaza, a Sabri-built commercial building kitty-corner across the Midtown Greenway from Karmel Village. When the latter project came before the board in February 2008, it voted to deny support and in a letter to the city urged inspectors “verify that only approved, specific details of the building are built,” Biehn said.

Sabri does not hide his contempt for the neighborhood group. During a tour of Karmel Village, he also acknowledged he was sometimes “stubborn” and “confrontational.”

He also described a hands-on development approach that included impromptu plan changes.

“I am, I shouldn’t say illiterate in blueprints — I read blueprints — but I’m more of a three-dimensional guy,” he said.

Dissatisfied with small bedrooms and narrow hallways, Sabri decided to reposition some units within the structure, moving them from the first floor to the fourth floor, where they could be expanded. It was done to benefit his future tenants, many of whom are Somali and own businesses in Karmel Plaza, he said.

He ordered the change without waiting for city approval. In the spring, an un-permitted stairwell extension caught the eye of city inspectors, who ordered a stop to work.

The City Council approved the revised plan in August, denying an appeal filed by Whitebird.

Limitations

Whittier resident Kris Martinson said the Council’s decision “legitimized” a developer’s disregard for city process.

(Sabri has recorded other victories. In June, he reached a settlement with the city to finish parts of the Karmel Village exterior in stucco instead of brick.)

In approving the new site plan, the Council placed several conditions on the development, some in direct response to neighborhood concerns. Sabri must stick to 77 units and cannot build any first-floor retail space without losing his permit.

Too little, too late, some said. Whitebird and Martinson wondered why calls about earlier unapproved work — removal of a brick façade, a change to the roof pitch — seemingly went unheeded.

City officials said they did respond, issuing numerous fines, fees and penalties. But concerned residents don’t often check up to see that a fine was issued.

Also, with about 50,000 construction permits open at any one time, there are limits to the oversight they can give any one project.

“We are not hard to fool,” Osborne said. “There are only a few dozen inspectors that go out throughout the city and inspect these things.”

“We rely on the public to follow our codes responsibly,” he added.

In late September, the recently approved Karmel Village site plan was under review. Permitted construction was limited to parts of the building included in the original site plan.

But at the site, Sabri led a tour of the fourth floor, including parts constructed, he said, “after the City Council blessed it.”

Did he have a permit?

“I haven’t got it, yet,” he replied.

Reach Dylan Thomas at dthomas@mnpubs.com.