Lawsuit: Downtown Minneapolis park not just a 'terrible deal,' but illegal, too

Where's Elmo, the Minneapolis edition: Which inanimate object in this photo isn't being shouldered by city taxpayers?

Where's Elmo, the Minneapolis edition: Which inanimate object in this photo isn't being shouldered by city taxpayers?

John Hayden spoke before the Minneapolis City Council at previous budget hearings.

The Northeast resident, who's currently an independent council candidate challenging incumbent Kevin Reich, questioned the logic of building a park nobody wanted and sticking taxpayers with the tab without asking. The panel ignored him. He's not through with them, yet.

Hayden filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the city of Minneapolis, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, the Minnesota Sports Facilities Association, and the Minnesota Vikings. Hayden's suit alleges the city is illegally operating and paying for much of the maintenance for the Commons park, the 4.2-acre green space adjacent U.S. Bank Stadium, a.k.a., the "Great Lawn," a.k.a., "the People's Park."

The city charter empowers the park board alone with owning and running parks. Yet the curious agreement that birthed the Commons calls for the city to lease the park back from the park board for $1.

Hayden's suit seeks to invalidate the Vikings' current rent-free use of the park, and calls for city funding for Commons' operation and maintenance, including Mayor Betsy Hodges' 2018 recommended budget appropriation of $750,000, to be killed immediately.

Moreover, Hayden charges Hodges' proposed five-year financial plan uses any leftover sales, entertainment, and/or lodging taxes to fund "vanity projects," such as maintaining the Commons, at the expense of investing in affordable housing and economic development initiatives like the Upper Harbor Terminal.

According to Hayden, four affordable housing projects, including Peris Development's home for foster kids in Lowry Hill, didn't get the crucial city funding they asked for recently because "we give money to sports team owners" by way of "the Commons, the Vikings' stadium deal, and the Target Center renovation."

The People's Park is the People's Park by checkbook only, Hayden says. The math supports him.

The city paid about $20 million for the park, though miscellaneous investments along the way have pushed that number closer to $25 million. Green Minneapolis, the nonprofit created by the Downtown Council and responible for managing the park, exists thanks to a city subsidy and fundraising. Green Minneapolis was supposed to convince private donors and business interests to pony up $22 million to complete the project. Its efforts have stalled at $14 million for some time.

Whether it's construction capital or annual maintenance, estimated anywhere between $2 million and $3 million, there's only one place left to turn for any Commons' shortfalls: Minneapolis taxpayers.

When it was first imagined in 2013, then-Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said its "operations" would "be covered by the commitment of nonprofit sponsorships."

That term's meaning has apparently expanded to include city residents. Hayden hopes his suit will be the tourniquet to stop further bleeding.

Vikings spokesperson Lester Bagley did not respond to repeated messages. The Stadium Authority's Jennifer Hathaway says it doesn't comment on pending litigation. Park Board spokesperson Dawn Sommers declined comment, saying she had yet to read the lawsuit. Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal brushed aside the case, saying, "This is a lawsuit without any basis in fact or law."

Hayden, who is a long shot to win the council seat that represents neighborhoods like Waite Park and Marshall Terrace, understands how his suit could be perceived as the play of a dark horse candidate looking for attention. He would argue the issues at hand transcend next week's election.

"I realized a long time ago that nothing was going to happen within the political process," he says. "That the mayor, the City Council, the Park Board, the MSFA, they don't care. I feel like if I didn't file a lawsuit nothing would ever come of it.

"I did this because what's going on here is detrimental to our city and no one in a position to change things ever talks about this stuff. This is a terrible deal for the taxpayers of Minneapolis. Everyone knows it. It's also illegal."