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.

In early May, Herron convenes another neighborhood meeting in Central to discuss AmericInn. There will be no formal vote tonight. Herron just wants everyone to have another chance to air concerns. From the beginning it is clear Sabri will be on the defensive. Petitions against the project are being passed around the room, and several attendees tote pink and orange signs that read, "No Hotel" and promote a recently posted Web site: www.nomotel.com

For the better part of the next two hours, a debate rages about drugs and prostitution, and many people loudly assert that a hotel is simply not the right "fit" for a neighborhood on the brink. The crowd of some 50 people suggests various alternatives, including a mixed-use residential and retail project. "A coffee shop would be nice," offers one neighbor.

Sabri spends much of the evening preaching communication, openness, and dialogue. He even pokes fun at those he has battled with over the issue. At one point Sabri refers to Piehl as a "pain in the ass" with a snicker and a wink.

"We're not against development per se," claims Corrine Zala, who owns property adjacent to Sabri's proposed hotel site. "We're not unreasonable people if you come to us in a reasonable way." She then gives credit to Sabri for some of the projects that he has done in the neighborhood. Sabri, in turn, praises Zala for "speaking from the heart."

Herron has heard enough. He says it is not his job to "force" the hotel upon the neighborhood, noting that his office had received only three phone calls in favor of the project, in contrast to dozens of calls opposing the plan. Sabri offers to come back with an alternative proposal in a week. "Some of us might have to make some sacrifices," he says. The comment immediately rankles the opposition. Sabri apologizes for his word choice. "I said I'll compromise."

 

As the fracas in Central simmers, Sabri is setting his sights on another south Minneapolis neighborhood, where he is preparing to do battle with Jim Graham, a former candidate for the Sixth Ward's city council seat and volunteer project manager for Ventura Village. "Ventura Village is the next thing on my list," Sabri says of the area, which used to be part of the Phillips neighborhood. "I think Ventura Village people need me. They need to be liberated from the Jim Graham regime. I will go over to Ventura Village and make sure that people have their right to participate."

Sabri doesn't own property in Ventura Village, but he showed up at a neighborhood meeting in mid-April to speak on behalf of a housing proposal being shepherded by Steve Wash. Wash, whom Sabri refers to as a friend, serves on the CNIA's board.

Graham claims that prior to arriving at the meeting, Sabri was already boasting about his plans. "Basim had made a statement that he had taken over two other neighborhoods and Ventura Village would be the third," he says. "[Sabri] brought a large number of people from outside the neighborhood who attempted to bully their way into being able to vote in our meeting."

Sabri disputes the claim that he recruited anyone to attend the Ventura Village meeting. But he is quick to point out that Graham and others were blocking the participation of minorities at the meeting. That charge doesn't wash with Robert Albee, assistant director of the American Indian Housing and Community Development Corporation, who was also at the meeting. "I'd love to show people a photograph of all the Indian people who were in the audience and who did vote," says Albee. "I found those accusations to be extremely offensive."

Another attendee, Ventura Village board member Holliar Tyner, believes that Sabri came off as adversarial. "He wants to create chaos," he says. Tyner also makes it clear that the neighbors in Ventura Village are not going to overthrow their board, like the residents of Central. "We are not going to let Basim take over this neighborhood. If he wants to go to war, we're prepared to go to war."

Ultimately, the housing proposal was voted down. But Sabri seems unrepentant. "I will be back there," he insists.

Why? Depends on whom you ask. "Basim doesn't live in our neighborhood," Graham concludes. "He is coming to try to liberate us from our money. I wonder which community Basim has gone in to 'free' without looking for development opportunities."

 

A week after the last contentious meeting in the Central neighborhood, Sabri, Herron, and about 30 neighborhood residents gather under a makeshift tent that Sabri has propped up on his dirt-covered vacant lot on Second Avenue. Architectural drawings rest on two easels in front of some chairs. Those convened would do well to sit down, because Sabri is winding up to throw a curveball.

Sabri reveals that he is now prepared to move the hotel project to the east side of 35W, in the Lyndale neighborhood. As for the ground he's standing on now: He will build and develop two four-story buildings, with retail on the first level of each, and a total of 34 housing units. Just what the naysayers wanted.

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