Sabri's Second Act

After 19 months in federal prison, controversial developer Basim Sabri is once again raising a ruckus

Jonathan Bates is having a rough first day on the job. The newly hired public relations man for Sabri Properties faces a hostile crowd of 50-plus residents in the basement of the Minneapolis First Seventh Day Adventist Church on a weeknight in August.

His task is to defend a 102-unit, five-story apartment complex that's planned for the former Midwest Machinery building in the Whittier neighborhood. With shirtsleeves rolled up and Power Point slides at the ready, Bates gamely tries to keep the crowd focused on the company's track record of investing in poor neighborhoods. "We're hoping to see crime deterred and property values going up," he says.

But when the floor is opened to questions, it's clear that Bates might as well try to sell pulled-pork sandwiches at a PETA convention. The residents raise concerns about traffic, parking, building materials, density, environmental contamination, and the company's history of flouting city rules and regulations. "This kind of behavior from a contractor is disturbing," says Barb Lickness, a longtime activist in the Whittier neighborhood.

Basim Sabri has long been a polarizing figure
Paul Demko
Basim Sabri has long been a polarizing figure

To no one's surprise, the residents ultimately vote 39-1 against the proposed site plan—but their decision is merely advisory. Despite this overwhelming rejection, Bates tries to put a positive spin on the evening. "I just want to thank you guys for giving me a very challenging job," he says at the close of the meeting.

The challenge apparently proved too formidable: As of last week, Bates was no longer employed by the company.

If any man could alienate his own PR guy, it's Basim Sabri. The south Minneapolis real estate tycoon has largely kept quiet since being released from federal prison in February, but the housing project slated for the Midwest Machinery building has once again put him in the crosshairs of angry residents.

Sabri has long been a polarizing figure. The Palestinian immigrant originally came here at age 20 to attend the University of Minnesota, but never earned a degree. His first job was working as a bellhop at the old Curtis Hotel. Starting with the purchase of a single apartment building for $15,000 down in 1983, he has built a small business empire over the years, primarily catering to immigrants. He took on Lake Street properties that were plagued by open-air drug markets and prostitution, transforming them into bustling marketplaces with an international flair.

"My philosophy has always been to accommodate immigrants," says Sabri. "I'm an immigrant myself."

The capstone was Karmel Square, named after Sabri's daughter. The 100,000-square-foot Somali mall opened two years ago in the Whittier neighborhood. It houses more than 100 shops—from money wire services to jewelry stores—along with a mosque.

Martin Mohammed, president of the African Chamber of Commerce, which is housed at Karmel Square, says it's one of the few facilities offering business opportunities for the city's burgeoning Somali community. "Immigrants need a starting point," say Mohammed. "That's really very, very important."

But Sabri's rise from bellhop to property magnate has also been marked by turmoil, divisiveness, and a general disregard for laws and regulations. For years he did battle with the Central Neighborhood Improvement Association, packing meetings with his supporters and employees in order to earn approval for his various projects. Sabri eventually succeeded in ousting the executive director and installing one of his workers as president of the group's board of directors.

Sabri Properties has also been repeatedly cited for violating city codes and ordinances. Last month, for instance, the company was ordered by the city's regulatory services department to halt renovations of a building on the 3000 block of Pleasant Avenue. An inspector determined that work was being done without the proper permits and by unlicensed contractors. It was the company's third warning on this particular property.

"He just kind of goes forward with his plans regardless of what the approvals might be," says Sixth Ward City Council member Robert Lilligren, who represents the Whittier neighborhood. "I would characterize it as preferring to seek forgiveness rather than approval."

Sabri insists that such citations are an inevitable part of doing business. "If you are going to be a statue in the mall, you're going to expect some pigeon shit," he says. "This is pigeon shit."

Sabri has also had a series of run-ins with police over the years, most stemming from a long-running dispute with his brother, Mohammed Sabri. In a 1995 lawsuit, Mohammed alleged that Basim and two other brothers tracked him into a convenience store and attacked him with a baseball bat. Then in 1996, Sabri was spotted crashing a moving truck into Mohammed's garage while spewing obscenities.

But Sabri's most notorious moment occurred in July 2001. FBI agents recorded the developer handing over $5,000 to then-City Council member Brian Herron. The money was intended to win Herron's support for a hotel development that Sabri hoped to construct along Lake Street. Unbeknownst to Sabri, the council member, facing his own charges, was cooperating with federal investigators. Herron resigned from office a week later and served a year in prison for extortion.

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