Ackerberg's Backyard

At last Wednesday's afternoon session, the Minneapolis Board of Variance granted The Ackerberg Group permission to rip up part of its headquarters' front lawn and install 12 paved parking spaces directly across from Lake Calhoun. But what sounds like just another quick-step in the business-as-usual shuffle at City Hall was actually a storm coming to a head with a narrow 4-3 vote. In its wake, it left a number of angry area residents who call the deal yet another example of upscale urban-renewal developers bullying their way into the city's dwindling green space.

The Ackerberg Group, a big-league real estate player which recently bought and renovated the former Ministers' Life building at 3100 West Lake Street, had first applied for the zoning variance last October, arguing that the absence of front-yard parking for their multi-occupant property was a "functional hardship" for tenants. Though plenty of spaces exist behind the building, the company's president, Stuart Ackerberg, claimed that forcing visitors to walk several yards through a courtyard and into a back entrance put an unreasonable burden on the building's "commercial environment." We don't actually need more parking, he said, but different parking. Convenient parking. Parking out front. Where the grass is now.

Area residents, along with Park Board officials, balked. Paving over green space was, to their minds, not only an eyesore, but an environmental travesty: the proposed parking lot would add tons of toxic run-off--silt, gravel, sand, chemicals, salt--to the already highly contaminated chain of lakes, and reverse the multi-million dollar clean-up efforts the city's put into practice in the last decade. "This is prime watershed parkland that's being turned into a dumping site," said Ruth Jones, who lives around the corner and advocates for water-quality issues with Minnesota Public Lobby. What's more, she maintained, the installation would increase weekend traffic by providing free parking in the already bottle-necked neighborhood, and open the doors to variances for other businesses who've expressed interest in front-lot parking.

Last October, the Board unanimously rejected Ackerberg's petition for a variance. So Ackerberg went back to the drawing board, hiring Braun Intertec to come up with a state-of-the-art grit chamber filtration system to remedy the runoff problem. Another consultant created a set of landscaping plans--including a berm screen, shrubs, and a couple pieces of corporate sculpture--to sweeten the package. At Wednesday's meeting Ackerberg presented the amended proposal, this time with the full backing of the Park Board and 7th Ward City Councilmember Pat Scott. During the subsequent discussion, board members swung between scowling at the idea of back-lot parking being a severe hardship, and praising the filtration system as a high-tech model for future projects. Ackerberg beamed. A couple opponents stood and damned the deal. And the Board, on its staff's recommendation, voted approval. The swing vote came from John Revere, who was swayed by what he called "fear of what Ackerberg might do if we turn this one down."

After his victory, Ackerberg offered the olive branch to disgruntled residents, and touted the Board for "helping us dream through this project." But Jones was not appeased. "He'll spend lot of money on shrubs and sculptures and an artificial drainage system--but in the end, sweet as it sounds, the thing will still be just another asphalt parking lot. And we'll have to live with it."

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