Judge’s ruling puts Commons Park up in the air

A ruling by a Hennepin County judge has put the status of a downtown Minneapolis park near U.S. Bank Stadium into limbo.

On Dec. 31, Judge Bruce Peterson ruled the city violated its charter by entering into a lease agreement with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board to operate the Commons park, a decision that makes it unclear who will manage the space going forward.

The ruling came as no surprise to pro se plaintiffs Paul Ostrow and John Hayden, who sued the city on the grounds it cannot operate a park and that the use agreement is unfairly weighted in the Vikings favor. “In our view the law on this has always been very clear,” Ostrow, a former City Council member, said.

The city attorney’s office has already stated it intends to appeal.

“With due respect for the bench, we believe that the court got it wrong in this case,” City Attorney Susan Segal said in a statement.

The Park Board, which typically operates all parks in Minneapolis but has leased this space back to the city, said it will join in that appeal.

“The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board is responsible for managing parks within the city and that is exactly what the Board did by entering into an agreement with the city for the Downtown Commons,” the MPRB said in a statement to the Southwest Journal. “We believe our agreement with the city is lawful; we disagree with the judge’s ruling and we will be working with our partners at the city on our next steps.”

In his ruling, Peterson wrote the charter prevents the City Council from doing what the MPRB is charged with doing, operating and maintaining parks and that the city is contracted in this case to operate and manage the Commons.

“Neither in its brief nor at the hearing on this matter did the city provide any explanation for this stark inconsistency,” Peterson wrote.

Ostrow and Hayden say any appeal of the decision would be frivolous, and that they hope the Park Board will seize the opportunity to create a new use agreement for the site with the Vikings and the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority that will allow them to put revenue generating restaurants on the grounds and hold more events in the space to make the park an asset to the MPRB. They say that because the current use agreement was not negotiated directly with the Park Board, it would likely be thrown out in court.

“I don’t think there’s any way the Vikings can compel the Park Board to follow the terms of that use agreement,” Ostrow said.

The Commons has been a source of debate among the city and Park Board since U.S. Bank Stadium was approved by the state legislature in 2012. In 2013, Ryan Companies entered into a use agreement for the Commons with the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority that allowed the MSFA and Vikings to use the space for game days and other events and created an understanding that Ryan Companies would later turn the space over to the city or its “designee”. In 2014, the Park Board adopted a resolution declaring the Commons was did not “truly qualify as a public park”.

In 2017, the city conveyed the Commons to the Park Board. The same day, the Park Board leased it back to the city, which runs the park via the nonprofit Green Minneapolis. Funding for the park is gathered from Green Minneapolis, Ryan Companies, the Vikings, parking ramp revenue, and, in 2018, the city contributed $750,000 of downtown asset funds to the Commons. The Park Board has approved the use of park dedication fees in the area to be spent on improvements at the Commons.

“This is the most convoluted arrangement, and it reeks,” Hayden, a former City Council candidate, said.

Hayden said they hope there are no more appeals in the case, and the park commissioners and City Council members will take it upon themselves to hold votes on the Commons instead of letting their respective legal representatives keep fighting the case.

“We need the Park Board now to step up for the people’s interest,” Hayden said.

The city has argued that the Commons does serve the public interest, and that other than a half block of space that was used for security during the Super Bowl, was open to the public for all of 2018. The city said the Commons brought in more than $14 million in property taxes in 2018.

Park Board President Brad Bourn said that while he voted against the agreement, he believes the Park Board is within its rights to lease the space back to the city for management and that he’ll be advising the board to follow the city’s lead as legal proceedings move forward. He said the MPRB was always interested in the Commons but lacked the ability to recapture revenue on the space. While he feels the lawsuit is well intentioned, Bourn said it’s important to separate the issue from feelings about the Vikings or publicly funded stadiums and that no matter who runs the space, covenants on the land will require it be designated for the Vikings to use on and around game days.

He said commissioners will be updated on the situation during a strategy session on Jan. 16.

“The city is our partner and we are going to work with our partners, but there’s nobody in the country better equipped to manage public green space than the MPRB,” he said.

A court trial is scheduled in the case for May 13.