Street Fighting Man

neighborhood prophet or capitalist pariah. basim sabri doesn't care what people think of him--as long as they stay out of his way.

Sabri has come to pitch the hotel plan to neighbors and the Business Development Committee of the Central Neighborhood Improvement Association (CNIA). When the city reviews proposed projects, it typically considers opinions expressed by affected neighborhood groups. And a number of activists in Central neighborhood believe Sabri began stacking the deck for his hotel pitch a year ago.

At the time, elections for a new slate of CNIA board members were just around the corner, and the organization was under fire. Sabri's basic charge, for instance, was that the CNIA and its executive director, Jana Metge, had not been responsive to neighborhood needs--a problem he says stemmed from a lack of minority representation. Others argue that the board was well integrated, and they claim Sabri simply viewed the group as not responsive enough to Sabri.

What's more, critics say that the developer packed last May's meeting with friendlies, many of whom were elected to the board. CNIA president Zachary Metoyer, for instance, works for Sabri as a consultant. Metoyer's wife Val is also on the CNIA board and works full-time as an office manager for Sabri Properties. In the heated aftermath of that election, Metge was fired. She is suing the current board over her termination, and Sabri is named in the civil suit. (City Pages made two calls to Metge for comment. They were not returned.)

Beyond his relationship with the board, Sabri has a reputation for filling meetings with allies, employees, tenants, and others who will vote in favor of his schemes. At today's gathering, for example, people who work in Sabri's office are present (Sabri greets one young woman, referring to her as one of his best workers). "I do pack meetings. It's no secret," Sabri acknowledges. But he claims to do so only to ensure a truly democratic process. Critics see other motives.

"Profit," says Central resident Robert Schmid. "There's no question in my mind it's profit. And he doesn't like dealing with the bureaucracy that the City of Minneapolis has put in place, so he does what he can to shorten the path." Schmid, who resigned last year as CNIA's treasurer, agrees that Sabri can be a force for good in the neighborhood but believes that progress is often mitigated by Sabri's pugnacious tactics: "Metaphorically speaking, he leaves a trail of blood. He came into Central and he's done some good work, but he divided the community and he didn't need to." To Schmid's way of thinking, last year's board election serves as an illustration.

Central resident Piehl also takes umbrage at the way Sabri influenced last year's CNIA election. "He told me flat out that he gets what he wants because he knows the system and he will discredit anyone who gets in his way," he says. "So there's this constant character assassination going on that kind of frightens Minnesotans."

Piehl is particularly bothered by the latest proposal to build a hotel near Lake Street. When Basim first acquired the land, it was being studied for an artists' housing proposal, in which he initially feigned interest. Sabri says he changed his mind because the plan didn't make financial sense. Piehl says it's just another example of manipulative behavior.

Activist Wizard Marks, who has lived in Central for 27 years, sees things a little differently. "The fact that Mr. Sabri is much better at organizing than his opposition is just sour grapes," says the DFL-endorsed candidate for Minneapolis Library Board. "Whenever anyone comes in to do something that would be a help, we do everything we can to make them miserable. It's weird. He makes it easier for them because he's such a bellicose person."

Once the CNIA meeting begins, Sabri stops pacing and tries to break the ice by talking about his own humble beginnings as a bellboy. "You've got to start somewhere," he tells the crowd. AmericInn vice president Jon Kennedy assures residents that the hotel is "going to fit very nicely in that neighborhood." Not everyone buys the pitch, but it's clear where this group stands. So clear, in fact, that Eighth Ward city council member Brian Herron twice rises to plead with Metoyer to give the opposition a chance to be heard, rather than limiting the time for discussion. After more than an hour, most of the people who showed up in the first place have voted and long since gone home. It's not even close: 76-16 in favor of the project.

Meanwhile, Sabri is chatting casually in a hallway outside the meeting room. He got word of the tally well before it was announced.

 

Palestinian-born Sabri grew up surrounded by conflict. "I was jailed as a little kid," he recalls. "I was shot in the stomach by an Israeli soldier. I could not raise my flag." Politics aside, Sabri had a hunger for finding deals from an early age. His father was a postman, and the family did not have much money. "When I was in the sixth grade, I was cleaning the post office and cleaning a bank so I could help bring some revenue into the family," Sabri recalls.

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