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.

These days, McDonald is disinclined to talk much about her battles with Sabri. "If he doesn't get his way, he's going to work against you," she says. "He's an intimidator; that's how he operates."

 

Sabri's temper and temperament inspire a lot of whispering in Central: Never mind the pros and cons of a hotel on Lake Street; Sabri has a dark and troubled past. Listen carefully and you'll even overhear someone talking about how Sabri has been arrested.

"Well, I have!" Sabri laughs, wondering what the big secret is. "Many times!"

When it comes to the particulars of his extensive police record, Sabri grows uncharacteristically quiet. Largely because the bulk of his troubles revolves around an ugly, long-running dispute with the youngest of his five brothers, Mohammad Sabri. "I fought him," acknowledges Sabri. "I fought him very viciously."

In a 1995 lawsuit, Mohammad Sabri alleged that Basim and two other brothers followed him into a SuperAmerica on Lyndale Avenue South and began "beating him with a baseball bat." The root of the conflict is murky, but Basim allows that when one of his other brothers died in 1991, it created a rift in the family. Mohammad Sabri sued his brothers for medical expenses, pain, and mental anguish.

In November 1996, Basim was seen crashing a moving truck into Mohammad's garage door. He was also yelling obscenities and threatening his sister-in-law. A month later, Basim was seen removing two surveillance cameras from his brother's home. Police later found them in his kitchen cupboard.

In the wake of those events, the Hennepin County Attorney's Office brought charges against Basim for felony theft and felony damage to property. He later pleaded guilty to a gross misdemeanor and drew one year of probation.

After much wrangling in and out of court, Mohammad and Basim reached an out-of-court settlement in the 1995 lawsuit. "I definitely dispute the charges," Basim says. "That's why we had a settlement." The most recent entry in his Minneapolis police record is the December 1996 surveillance-camera incident. Basim says that the squabble is in the past, which is where he'd like to leave it. "It was not a pretty picture," he confesses. "I have made peace with my brother."

Nevertheless, Basim Sabri's history with the police fortifies opponents such as McDonald and David Piehl, who believe he has a reputation among many in Central neighborhood for being a bully. "I think he definitely has a volatile temper. It's intimidating," Piehl says.

Sabri says that he's been willing to work with even his toughest critics and that past family squabbles have no relevance to his work as a developer: "It's not about my history, what I eat for breakfast, and what kind of car I drive."

 

It's a sunny spring day and business is bustling at Karmel Square. At the center of the building is Karmel Coffee, where a group of Somali men have gathered around an ornamental fountain to sip coffee and trade the day's news. When Sabri talks about this spot at 2942 Pillsbury Ave. S., just off Lake Street, he beams with pride. It has become a key meeting place for members of the local Somali community. Before he arrived, Sabri claims, the spot was "a ghost street."

In recent years, he has been making the switch from residential to commercial real estate. And those who champion his cause point to both Karmel Square and a property at 301 E. Lake as examples of his dedication to meaningful redevelopment. The Minneapolis Community Development Agency (MCDA) bought the building, once owned by porn merchant Ferris Alexander, from U.S. Bankruptcy Court in 1991. The agency then shopped the property for years, unable to find a developer with both a workable plan and reliable financing. In early 1999 Sabri offered the MCDA $68,000 for the building, and MCDA staffers recommended his proposal over a competing bid from Urban Ventures. Today the building, which sits on a once moribund corner of Lake Street, is a bustling center of Latino commerce.

More recently, Sabri made a successful pitch to buy a vacant lot from the MCDA at 206 Elroy St., a few steps from Karmel Square. The 64,000-square-foot, $4.5 million project promises to be Sabri's biggest yet. He has inked a partnership with the Whittier Community Development Corporation, and so far his plans have met with rave reviews.

City Council member Jim Niland, whose Sixth Ward includes both Karmel Square and Sabri's latest project, has faith in the man and his mission. "I know he's been controversial, but I've certainly found him to be someone that I can work with," Niland observes. "He's certainly shown his ability to get projects done."

Sabri has never done a project in Lisa Goodman's Seventh Ward, but the city council member is ready to roll out the red carpet. "I have found him to be someone who takes on challenging projects and sees them through," says Goodman. "It's not like he picks off the easy ones. He has picked some extremely challenging sites. I believe that he has been a tremendous benefit to these immigrant business owners."

For all of his prickliness, Sabri knows how to play politics. While they don't agree on everything, even Sabri and council member Brian Herron--whose constituents include voters in Central neighborhood--are on good terms. "He is not the easiest person to work with," chuckles Herron as he considers Sabri's impatience with the grind of government bureaucracy. "But I have established a good working relationship with him."

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