Sabri's Second Act

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

After nearly four years of legal wrangling, Sabri was convicted of three counts of bribery. In addition to the $5,000 payment, he admitted that he offered Herron $10,000 to threaten the owners of a Taco Bell with condemnation, and a 10 percent cut of any government grants that the City Council member could procure for the project. He was sentenced to 33 months in prison and fined $75,000.

Sabri ultimately served 19 months, splitting his time between federal prisons in Leavenworth, Kansas, and Yankton, South Dakota. His sentence was reduced for good behavior and the completion of alcoholism treatment. "I have not drank since I came out, but I was a lush before," says Sabri.

He made his triumphant return to the Twin Cities via limousine in February, sober and 35 pounds trimmer. "It's not bad," he says of prison. "It makes you a better and stronger person."

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

The involuntary vacation has done little to alter Sabri's approach to business. The purpose of the Midwest Machinery project is to provide affordable housing for Somali immigrants, particularly those who work at Karmel Square, which is less than a block away.

Rashid Omar, a real estate agent with Medina Realty, says that there's an urgent need for cheap housing to accommodate the large size of most Somali families. "The bottom line is that this is a project that this community needs," says Omar, who is marketing the units for Sabri. "It's all about supply and demand." Even before construction has commenced, 25 families have signed up to rent apartments.

But such arguments have done little to persuade Whittier residents that the project is appropriate for the neighborhood. Jim Roscoe has owned a duplex directly across the street from the Midwest Machinery building for five years. The abandoned site has been the target of development plans for most of that time.

Most recently, the Cornerstone Group proposed converting it into condominiums. An initial plan to construct 53 units was supported by the neighborhood, but when the project expanded to 121 condos, it ran into opposition. That conflict—coupled with environmental concerns and a downturn in the condo market—led to the project's disintegration.

Cornerstone sold the building to Sabri in July. Now Roscoe and others are wishing they'd conceded to the former project. "It was too dense, but I'm kicking myself now for not supporting it," he says.

Roscoe is providing a tour of the neighborhood. It's National Night Out, and Pleasant Avenue is closed off to through traffic. A teenage rock band makes a racket at the corner of 28th Street, while neighbors gather to grill hot dogs and hamburgers nearby. The block is largely free of automobiles, but Roscoe says this is far from ordinary. "Typically on this block, every parking space would be taken," he says.

The primary reason for this congestion is Karmel Square. The popular mall has turned a relatively quiet residential block into a busy thoroughfare. Neighbors fear that the proposed apartment complex will profoundly exacerbate the problem. "I've had tenants move out because there's nowhere to park," says Dave Nelson, a landlord in the area.

Roscoe points out other reasons for residents to be suspicious of Sabri's plans. A former pool hall in a building owned by Sabri is plastered with a notice stating that the business doesn't have the proper license to operate. Another building across the street is affixed with a stop-work order due to permit violations.

But simmering just beneath the surface are racial issues. By focusing on the Somali community, Sabri has made it touchy for the project's opponents, who are largely white, to attack the proposal.

Chris Ledoux, who lives in an apartment complex just down the block from the Midwest Machinery building, questions whether the project will violate federal housing laws by discriminating against non-Somalis. "Is that fair housing practices?" asks Ledoux, who is openly gay. "I understand what it's like to be a minority, but is this fair?"

Others are less diplomatic in their assessment. On 29th Street, a group of residents are grilling burgers and drinking beer. They'll only talk about Sabri and the proposed apartment complex with the promise of anonymity. One woman says she hasn't invited company over in two years because she's embarrassed by the neighborhood. "I've been threatened," she says of the Karmel Square customers. "They've run after me. The women have threatened me."

Another neighbor is even more contemptuous of Sabri's efforts at community development. "This is a complete toilet," he says of the neighborhood. "It's a slum." He then adds: "I have nothing against Somalis."

Sabri isn't shy about playing the race card. "The reality is this: People don't like me and they don't like my clients, period," he says. "I hate to use the word racism, but that's what it's all about."

Since the August meeting, Sabri Properties has slightly scaled back the project. It now calls for just four stories and 89 units. But this accommodation has done nothing to placate area residents. At the Whittier Alliance's most recent community affairs meeting, a resolution of "no confidence" passed unanimously—a merely symbolic repudiation. The proposal is slated to go before the planning commission for approval in October or November.

Despite the continuing resistance, Sabri is confident that the project will move forward. He hopes to have display units ready to show potential tenants by March. "They don't have to love me," Sabri says. "But I have to be treated like everybody else. We have laws in America."

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