Extreme Makeover: Lake Street

Hennepin County and Minneapolis are spending millions to rebuild south Minneapolis's main east-west thoroughfare in a new image. But whose vision is it?

When it came time for questions from reporters and a handful of area business people, the two mayoral candidates turned over the proceedings to a number of community members who had been on various advisory committees surrounding the project. Questions followed: How much would the project cost? Who was paying for it? How long would it take? At one point, a Somali man who ran a shop in Plaza Verde spoke up. "This is all news to me," he said. "I knew about the street being torn up, but I didn't know about the cost." He trailed off, and then added: "I just got a bill saying I would be assessed for this, thousands of dollars, something I knew nothing about. Who do I talk to about this?" Blank stares and silence met his question.

Hanging around the perimeter of the assembly was a man named Tom Johnson. Johnson is portly and unassuming, but by all accounts he's played the point role in shepherding the Lake Street plan. Johnson didn't speak at the unveiling in May. He is not an employee of the city, county, or state. Instead, he works for a Minneapolis law firm called Smith Parker, whose role in the Lake Street deal has been irksome to critics. Smith Parker bills itself as a "small practice chosen to represent some of the largest interests in Minnesota," according to its website. "Yet we're not just a firm for 'the big guys.'"

Still, they have done very well by the big guys. The website boasts that "our clients have given us the opportunity to address some of the great challenges in law and public policy." Smith Parker has been involved in "successful representation of the Metropolitan Council to assure the construction of light rail transit; counseling America's largest urban lake restoration; ... and formation of award-winning public-private partnerships to revitalize urban neighborhoods and guide sustainable growth in the Twin Cities' transportation corridors."

Johnson himself is not a lawyer, though he is listed as the firm's transportation consultant. His CV lists such posts as deputy chair of the Minnesota Waste Management Board, assistant chief administrator at the Metropolitan Transit Commission, director of marketing and public affairs for MnDOT's Office of Minnesota Road Research, and unit chief of MnDOT's Office of Environmental Affairs. The presence of Johnson and Smith Parker in the project would seem to indicate that Lake Street is in the hands of an accomplished public-private negotiator--and a deft legal team ready to fend off any potential lawsuits.

Ken Avidor, an agitator who was asked to join the Lake Street "Project Advisory Committee" (PAC) three years ago, then was asked to resign after four months because of his protests over lack of mass-transit planning, still wonders at Smith Parker's involvement. "They have no urban planning experience," he notes. "They talk about public-private partnerships in order to get things done. But what happens to the community and the democratic process when these guys are involved? They do an end around, because they represent very powerful interests. They see themselves as power brokers."

Louis Smith, one of the partners at Smith Parker, serves as counsel for an entity called the Midtown Community Works partnership. Formed in 1998, the MCW has played a significant role in the Lake Street rehab. It acts, in effect, as a one-stop shop for planning, promoting, and consulting on the project. The notion came up, according to the organization's website, because "while a renaissance of south Minneapolis was underway, a largely neglected yet extremely valuable area of the city had been overlooked." The website also notes that "the MCW Partnership is comprised of top executives of prominent corporations and non-profit institutions" who "realize that in order to sustain this renaissance, they must create a path for targeted public and private investment within the Lake Street Midtown Greenway Corridor.

"As discussion among these influential leaders progressed," the primer continues, "a vision of an economically, socially, and environmentally revitalized corridor emerged."

While community involvement and betterment are among the nominal goals to which MCW is dedicated, there are relatively few community folks overseeing what it does. Its board includes McLaughlin, the Hennepin County commissioner representing the area, Mayor R.T. Rybak, and a handful of City Council members. The board is chaired by Nate Garvis, vice president of government affairs for Target Corp, and its other members are Met Council head Peter Bell, Abbott-Northwestern hospitals president Richard Sturgeon, Wells Fargo executive Kelly Gosz, Xcel Energy's Dan Pfeiffer, and Rick Collins, vice president of the developer Ryan Companies.

Ryan has had a hand in several high-level projects around Minneapolis, including the Target on Nicollet Mall and the renovation of the Grain Belt Brewery. Its revenues in recent years have been in the $500-$700 million range. Ryan is also redoing the million-square-foot Sears tower. The revamped 77-year-old building will house some 1,500 employees of Allina.

In a flourish of commerce-speak, the Sears building has been renamed the "Midtown Exchange." It's part of a larger Smith Parker-led marketing campaign to rename this stretch of Lake Street "Midtown," in an obvious nod to the success of Uptown on its west. The marketing campaign's cost is projected to be $500,000. As part of the May launch event, a new logo was unveiled. It's vaguely multicultural--a sandstone-colored background, lettered in various colors to represent "diversity," and a slogan: "Midtown: Color. Flavor. Rhythm."

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