The Minnesota Twins have not yet appointed an architect to complete the design work on the new stadium that is scheduled to open in time for the team's 2010 season. Last week, Twins President Dave St. Peter confirmed that completing that part of the process is "probably about 30 to 60 days out."
Yet without that definitive design in hand, officials from Hennepin County have no firm parameters upon which to negotiate more than a dozen purchases of land, air rights, easements, and other matters of stadium infrastructure with a host of public and private entities. At first blush, the process of constructing the ballpark in downtown Minneapolis is threatening to become nearly as laborious as the battle to pass legislation funding the thing with taxpayer dollars.
But there is at least one element of this tangled stadium situation that is moving smartly apace. On September 19, the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners voted 5-2 to approve a resolution authorizing the county to seize all relevant property rights and interests around the ballpark site through eminent domain if necessary. In other words, even if the county and various property owners can't agree on a purchase price regarding ballpark-related real estate, the government can snatch the land and leave it to court-appointed mediators to figure out how much it is worth.
Hennepin County officials continually stress that a mutually negotiated price between the property owners and the government is the preferred path that will be diligently pursued both before and (if necessary) after the county files for condemnation of the land under the eminent domain law. But they also express confidence that, even after this year's passage of a state law tightening the criteria for when eminent domain can be invoked, they are on solid legal ground.
"I've been told we have an ironclad position," says County Commissioner Mike Opat, the public official who deserves the most credit (or blame) for passage of legislation authorizing a new Twins stadium. "But that doesn't mean somebody won't go to court and contest it."
The most likely foe would be Hines, the Houston-based development firm that also happens to own large chunks of real estate in downtown Minneapolis. Last year, Hines entered into a partnership with Land Partners II (an investment group that includes Gov. Tim Pawlenty's friend and campaign donor Bruce Lambrecht), which owns the eight-acre site—the Rapid Park lot in the Warehouse District—that will be a majority of the footprint of the eventual stadium.
While there are plenty of other pieces of the stadium infrastructure plan that need to be negotiated, most of them involve public entities such as MnDoT and the city of Minneapolis, which, as Opat notes, "had a hand in making the Twins stadium happen and are compelled to help us." And aside from the Hines/Land Partners II parcel, most of the other private property issues involve relatively minor concerns such as easements and air rights. "Hines is by far the biggest negotiation that needs to be done," Opat says. Numerous phone calls to Hines VP Bill Chopp, designated by Land Partners II as their spokesman on the proposed ballpark site, were not returned.
Whether Hines has a leg to stand on in court, the firm can certainly mount a strong common-sense argument that the county is putting the cart before the horse when "negotiating" the purchase of the ballpark land parcels. Everyone agrees that the county can't be certain of what it needs to purchase until the architectural design of the stadium has been completed. Yet according to Hennepin County Director of Finance and Budget Dave Lawless, "We are on a timetable to have the land available and cleared, which requires that we initiate condemnation in October." The timetable cited by Lawless has the county taking possession of land on the ballpark site by March—the condemnation process under eminent domain takes up to 130 days.
But unless the Twins hit the front end of St. Peter's 30-to-60 day estimate on design plans, the county will be taking steps to seize the Hines/Land Partner II parcel before it can accurately describe to the land owners how it fits into the eventual stadium design.
Then there is the matter of price. Bruce Lambrecht and Rich Pogin from Land Partners II reportedly offered to sell the Rapid Park site to the county in exchange for $13 million and a pair of lesser land parcels in 2004, but pulled the deal off the table in January 2005. Since then, Land Partners II entered into its agreement with Hines, and plans for massive housing and commercial development on the site have been touted and amended in conjunction with the mercurial downtown real estate market and, of course, passage of the stadium bill. Now, the price of the Hines/Land Partners II parcel is obviously subject to negotiation.
Lawless claims that there is no coercive intent behind the county making plans for eminent domain. "I wouldn't describe it as leverage so much as to make sure we have appropriate land control in a timely fashion," he says.
But there is a limit on what the county can spend. "Everybody knows that the stadium legislation restricts us to $92 million in infrastructure costs," Opat says. "That includes all acquisition and improvement costs. I would hope that knowledge would lead folks to be cooperative and work toward a fair agreement." And if a stalemate ensues? "Then we would take possession [under eminent domain] and we would trade appraisals, and if they were too far apart a court-designated process would arrive at a number later," Opat says, stressing that the eminent domain proceedings can be halted by a negotiated agreement at any point in the process.
Not that Opat is particularly carefree. "But we still have to be concerned about this," he continues. "The first step is determining a fair and reasonable cost for the land, but we also have to consider the cost of steel and concrete and everything that goes into infrastructure after that. If we wind up needing to spend more than $92 million, I don't know what will happen to make that work."
On many levels, building a new Twins stadium puts both the team and the county in relatively uncharted territory. "This far exceeds anything we've done. The county has never had to acquire any land of this magnitude," notes Marcia Wilda, Hennepin County's leasing and land management manager.
Even Opat, whose indomitable optimism has fueled the stadium push from the beginning, concedes that "there are a lot of balls in the air on this and it is still very early in the process.... I don't think anybody is dragging their feet, but when you have a tight site, even the plusses like parking and mass transit bring a lot of complexity, from having to design and build around that too," he concludes. "It is a complicated site."