Street Fighting Man
Basim Sabri is always fighting for something or against someone. He can't help it. A stocky bundle of a man, the olive-skinned 41-year-old is perpetually scheming, animated by nervous energy and a steady stream of cell-phone calls. Mercurial, by turns comically playful, then menacingly brusque, he thrives on confrontation. He talks in profane torrents about his ideas, his plans, his projects, his allies, and his growing list of enemies.
His company, Sabri Properties, is headquartered in a Spartan, two-story brick building at the intersection of Lake Street and Fourth Avenue South in Minneapolis, an area that houses exactly zero of Minnesota's sixteen Fortune 500 companies. Residents still complain about sex and drug traffic along this stretch of road. But where other capitalists see a blighted inner-city neighborhood, Sabri sees opportunity. Problem is, not everyone fits into his vision. Sabri is a real estate developer and a landlord, after all. He is not--as he so fond of saying--Mother Teresa.
When Sabri bought the building at Lake and Fourth, for instance, he promptly raised the rent. One of the tenants, Central City Theater, couldn't pay. Tough luck. "He made it impossible for me to stay," says Judy Cooper Lyle, who ran the operation. Previously, Cooper Lyle and Sabri had served together in a neighborhood group. At the time, Sabri "was just as sweet as pie to me," she recalls. But that all changed when he bought the building.
Cooper Lyle's complaints echo those of many who live and work in the Central neighborhood. They believe Sabri is nothing but a manipulative bully who will fill his pockets by any means necessary; a man who needlessly divides people to achieve his own goals.
"You know what?" counters Sabri, in a characteristically booming, rapid-fire cadence. "I don't give a shit. I'm not a charity, I'm a businessman. I'm not Catholic Charities. I'm not the welfare office. I'm here to make a business go. Running a business is different than being a nice guy."
Those who benefit from Sabri's ambition can be fiercely, devotionally supportive. They see him as a savior who is bringing new, vibrant life to Minneapolis's previously dilapidated core. In the last two to three years, Sabri has acquired and redeveloped a half-dozen commercial properties in and around south Minneapolis's Central neighborhood. His most visible projects include Karmel Square, a Somali market just a block off on Pillsbury Avenue and Lake Street; the International Bazaar at 301 E. Lake St., packed with small Latino stores selling everything from clothing to CDs to food; and 315 E. Lake St., home to a host of immigrant-run businesses.
"I was so pleased when he did 301 and 315 E. Lake Street because they'd been dead and hideous for a long time," observes longtime Central resident and activist Wizard Marks. "That was wonderful. There are people working and people with their own little businesses. It used to be hookers, pimps, and drug dealers."
With characteristic pride, Sabri notes that both his friends and foes have a point. He makes no bones about being a businessman. Meeting the bottom line means completing deals, even stepping on a few toes. But Sabri also fashions himself as an urban missionary who gets results. "I could be an asshole, and I could be the sweetest guy," he chuckles.
Sabri's latest scheme has the neighborhood buzzing--and will test the effectiveness of his overall approach. Sabri owns a plot of vacant land that sits behind the Roundup Beer Hall on Lake Street and an exit to 35W, where he hopes to partner with AmericInn International to build a hotel. Sabri would develop some retail space on the first floor. The Chanhassen-based AmericInn would put their corporate name on the franchise. Those who believe in the project say such a structure would be a boon for the shaky neighborhood, spurring another round of revitalization and investment. But neighbors worry the hotel would simply serve as a haven for the area's already sizable population of drug dealers, addicts, prostitutes, and johns. "It's garbage," argues Central resident David Piehl. "It's not appropriate for our area. It's a suburban solution to an urban space."
Hotel or no hotel, there's no doubt Sabri is becoming a force in south Minneapolis. For proof, a person only has to walk six blocks to the east of Sabri's office, where six years of redevelopment plans have come and gone and the old Sears building still sits empty (the City of Minneapolis is in the process of buying out the previous developers, who were not moving fast enough for the city). In characteristic fashion, Sabri says he's got a few ideas about the old retail store. And given his recent track record, it might be the Sears building's last, best hope: "If the city gets it back, I think I do have a plan."
Sabri is pacing. It is a late afternoon in early April, and a standing-room-only crowd has gathered for a community meeting at Urban Ventures, an austere-looking building near the corner of Lake Street and Fourth Avenue South, just down the block from Sabri Properties. There are several items on the agenda, but most of the 100 people that have filed into the room are here because of AmericInn.
Sabri has come to pitch the hotel plan to neighbors and the Business Development Committee of the Central Neighborhood Improvement Association (CNIA). When the city reviews proposed projects, it typically considers opinions expressed by affected neighborhood groups. And a number of activists in Central neighborhood believe Sabri began stacking the deck for his hotel pitch a year ago.
At the time, elections for a new slate of CNIA board members were just around the corner, and the organization was under fire. Sabri's basic charge, for instance, was that the CNIA and its executive director, Jana Metge, had not been responsive to neighborhood needs--a problem he says stemmed from a lack of minority representation. Others argue that the board was well integrated, and they claim Sabri simply viewed the group as not responsive enough to Sabri.
What's more, critics say that the developer packed last May's meeting with friendlies, many of whom were elected to the board. CNIA president Zachary Metoyer, for instance, works for Sabri as a consultant. Metoyer's wife Val is also on the CNIA board and works full-time as an office manager for Sabri Properties. In the heated aftermath of that election, Metge was fired. She is suing the current board over her termination, and Sabri is named in the civil suit. (City Pages made two calls to Metge for comment. They were not returned.)
Beyond his relationship with the board, Sabri has a reputation for filling meetings with allies, employees, tenants, and others who will vote in favor of his schemes. At today's gathering, for example, people who work in Sabri's office are present (Sabri greets one young woman, referring to her as one of his best workers). "I do pack meetings. It's no secret," Sabri acknowledges. But he claims to do so only to ensure a truly democratic process. Critics see other motives.
"Profit," says Central resident Robert Schmid. "There's no question in my mind it's profit. And he doesn't like dealing with the bureaucracy that the City of Minneapolis has put in place, so he does what he can to shorten the path." Schmid, who resigned last year as CNIA's treasurer, agrees that Sabri can be a force for good in the neighborhood but believes that progress is often mitigated by Sabri's pugnacious tactics: "Metaphorically speaking, he leaves a trail of blood. He came into Central and he's done some good work, but he divided the community and he didn't need to." To Schmid's way of thinking, last year's board election serves as an illustration.
Central resident Piehl also takes umbrage at the way Sabri influenced last year's CNIA election. "He told me flat out that he gets what he wants because he knows the system and he will discredit anyone who gets in his way," he says. "So there's this constant character assassination going on that kind of frightens Minnesotans."
Piehl is particularly bothered by the latest proposal to build a hotel near Lake Street. When Basim first acquired the land, it was being studied for an artists' housing proposal, in which he initially feigned interest. Sabri says he changed his mind because the plan didn't make financial sense. Piehl says it's just another example of manipulative behavior.
Activist Wizard Marks, who has lived in Central for 27 years, sees things a little differently. "The fact that Mr. Sabri is much better at organizing than his opposition is just sour grapes," says the DFL-endorsed candidate for Minneapolis Library Board. "Whenever anyone comes in to do something that would be a help, we do everything we can to make them miserable. It's weird. He makes it easier for them because he's such a bellicose person."
Once the CNIA meeting begins, Sabri stops pacing and tries to break the ice by talking about his own humble beginnings as a bellboy. "You've got to start somewhere," he tells the crowd. AmericInn vice president Jon Kennedy assures residents that the hotel is "going to fit very nicely in that neighborhood." Not everyone buys the pitch, but it's clear where this group stands. So clear, in fact, that Eighth Ward city council member Brian Herron twice rises to plead with Metoyer to give the opposition a chance to be heard, rather than limiting the time for discussion. After more than an hour, most of the people who showed up in the first place have voted and long since gone home. It's not even close: 76-16 in favor of the project.
Meanwhile, Sabri is chatting casually in a hallway outside the meeting room. He got word of the tally well before it was announced.
Palestinian-born Sabri grew up surrounded by conflict. "I was jailed as a little kid," he recalls. "I was shot in the stomach by an Israeli soldier. I could not raise my flag." Politics aside, Sabri had a hunger for finding deals from an early age. His father was a postman, and the family did not have much money. "When I was in the sixth grade, I was cleaning the post office and cleaning a bank so I could help bring some revenue into the family," Sabri recalls.
When he was 14, Sabri cut a deal with an Israeli bleach manufacturer to distribute its product. Sabri peddled the bleach from store to store in his homeland, and he reminisces about cornering the market as if he were discussing a new development: "I was the sole person distributing bleach!" he boasts. "As a Palestinian family, you have to learn to be a survivor."
In 1979 the 20-year-old Sabri came to the U.S. to attend the University of Minnesota, joining family members who were already living in the Twin Cities. Sabri's first job in America was working as a bellhop and busboy at the old Curtis Hotel.
By his own account, he was not flush with cash. In 1983 Sabri was living on the second floor of a building at 27th and Dupont in south Minneapolis, paying $200 a month in rent. Sabri treated his apartment like his "castle," putting in skylights, redoing the plumbing, and retiling the kitchen, all without telling his landlord. When then the owner of the building revealed that he was selling the property for $125,000, Sabri decided to buy it himself. "I said 'No problem'," recalls Sabri with a laugh. "I didn't have 125 dollars."
The owner offered to sell on a contract for deed, provided that Sabri could come up with a $15,000 down payment in three months. Sabri abruptly quit school, bought a van, and started a moving company. He raised the money and made it happen: his first real estate deal. "That is how I started. I still own it to this date." From there, Sabri bought up more than 20 residential properties in south Minneapolis.
"There's a lot of people who think I come from money," says Sabri, narrowing his eyes before exploding with a declaration. "I come from zero!" And Sabri, who initially planned to pursue a degree in political science, never made any formal study of business: "You don't study it. It's like sex. You either know it or you don't."
The Dupont property would also come to symbolize Sabri's tenacity, both political and economic. The 100-year-old building included a retail space that had been used over the years for a variety of different businesses, including a grocery store, a dry cleaner, and a construction firm. Technically, however, the building was not zoned for certain commercial uses. So in 1991, after Sabri signed a lease with a tenant who wanted to open a hair salon, he applied to the city for a variance. But some neighbors didn't like the idea.
The city's zoning department initially approved Sabri's request, but another city agency took a position against the variance, citing the opposition of the Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association. Sabri, who rarely hesitates to sue if he feels he has been wronged, filed suit against the city in late 1992. "It was a bunch of assholes ganging up on me," he snorts.
As it turns out, an ambitious woman named Lisa McDonald was an active member of the neighborhood association, and a staunch opponent of Sabri's. Now McDonald is a member of the Minneapolis City Council. And according to her version of events, neighbors simply didn't think that a zoning change was appropriate for a corner otherwise surrounded by homes. Sabri still sees the conflict as an attack on an immigrant businessman. "There's a lot of hidden racism among white Caucasians against foreigners and blacks. That's reality," he observes.
"[Racism] has nothing to do with it," McDonald counters. "He says that about everybody that opposes him."
While the dispute dragged on, McDonald launched her first campaign for city council. Sabri spent money trying to defeat her. McDonald won, and when she took office she made her feelings about the hair salon known to the City Attorney's Office. Talks of a settlement between Sabri and the city unraveled. "I acted on the direction of my neighborhood board," McDonald maintains to this day.
In May 1999 the Hennepin County District Court ruled that the city's action in denying the variance request had been "unreasonable," but the judge wasn't convinced that Sabri had incurred any significant damages. City appeals were rejected, and he was ultimately awarded $5,200.
For Sabri, the money involved pales in comparison to the battle over what he saw as a matter of principle. "It took 11 years and maybe $60,000, but I won," says Sabri, who still blames McDonald for a ten-year fight over a minor zoning issue. "I think a municipality like the City of Minneapolis has to learn their lesson. Kick their ass!" Today his building houses an upholstery firm and a landscape architecture business. "What a waste over a goddamn hair salon," he concludes.
Sabri no longer resides in Minneapolis. At the end of last year he moved to suburban Shorewood, where he lives with his wife, five-year-old daughter, and a small spread complete with goats, chickens, pigeons, and peacocks. Nevertheless he's behind a group called Citizens for Minneapolis Mayor, whose main purpose is to denounce Lisa McDonald's bid for higher office. Sabri even took time out of one of his Saturdays in late March to attend the Tenth Ward DFL endorsing convention--the ward McDonald has represented for eight years. He made sure delegates got a copy of a small, green piece of literature entitled "Don't Be Fooled," which contained two short paragraphs outlining why McDonald should not be elected mayor: "She is a fox dressed in Democratic clothes and a Republican body."
These days, McDonald is disinclined to talk much about her battles with Sabri. "If he doesn't get his way, he's going to work against you," she says. "He's an intimidator; that's how he operates."
Sabri's temper and temperament inspire a lot of whispering in Central: Never mind the pros and cons of a hotel on Lake Street; Sabri has a dark and troubled past. Listen carefully and you'll even overhear someone talking about how Sabri has been arrested.
"Well, I have!" Sabri laughs, wondering what the big secret is. "Many times!"
When it comes to the particulars of his extensive police record, Sabri grows uncharacteristically quiet. Largely because the bulk of his troubles revolves around an ugly, long-running dispute with the youngest of his five brothers, Mohammad Sabri. "I fought him," acknowledges Sabri. "I fought him very viciously."
In a 1995 lawsuit, Mohammad Sabri alleged that Basim and two other brothers followed him into a SuperAmerica on Lyndale Avenue South and began "beating him with a baseball bat." The root of the conflict is murky, but Basim allows that when one of his other brothers died in 1991, it created a rift in the family. Mohammad Sabri sued his brothers for medical expenses, pain, and mental anguish.
In November 1996, Basim was seen crashing a moving truck into Mohammad's garage door. He was also yelling obscenities and threatening his sister-in-law. A month later, Basim was seen removing two surveillance cameras from his brother's home. Police later found them in his kitchen cupboard.
In the wake of those events, the Hennepin County Attorney's Office brought charges against Basim for felony theft and felony damage to property. He later pleaded guilty to a gross misdemeanor and drew one year of probation.
After much wrangling in and out of court, Mohammad and Basim reached an out-of-court settlement in the 1995 lawsuit. "I definitely dispute the charges," Basim says. "That's why we had a settlement." The most recent entry in his Minneapolis police record is the December 1996 surveillance-camera incident. Basim says that the squabble is in the past, which is where he'd like to leave it. "It was not a pretty picture," he confesses. "I have made peace with my brother."
Nevertheless, Basim Sabri's history with the police fortifies opponents such as McDonald and David Piehl, who believe he has a reputation among many in Central neighborhood for being a bully. "I think he definitely has a volatile temper. It's intimidating," Piehl says.
Sabri says that he's been willing to work with even his toughest critics and that past family squabbles have no relevance to his work as a developer: "It's not about my history, what I eat for breakfast, and what kind of car I drive."
It's a sunny spring day and business is bustling at Karmel Square. At the center of the building is Karmel Coffee, where a group of Somali men have gathered around an ornamental fountain to sip coffee and trade the day's news. When Sabri talks about this spot at 2942 Pillsbury Ave. S., just off Lake Street, he beams with pride. It has become a key meeting place for members of the local Somali community. Before he arrived, Sabri claims, the spot was "a ghost street."
In recent years, he has been making the switch from residential to commercial real estate. And those who champion his cause point to both Karmel Square and a property at 301 E. Lake as examples of his dedication to meaningful redevelopment. The Minneapolis Community Development Agency (MCDA) bought the building, once owned by porn merchant Ferris Alexander, from U.S. Bankruptcy Court in 1991. The agency then shopped the property for years, unable to find a developer with both a workable plan and reliable financing. In early 1999 Sabri offered the MCDA $68,000 for the building, and MCDA staffers recommended his proposal over a competing bid from Urban Ventures. Today the building, which sits on a once moribund corner of Lake Street, is a bustling center of Latino commerce.
More recently, Sabri made a successful pitch to buy a vacant lot from the MCDA at 206 Elroy St., a few steps from Karmel Square. The 64,000-square-foot, $4.5 million project promises to be Sabri's biggest yet. He has inked a partnership with the Whittier Community Development Corporation, and so far his plans have met with rave reviews.
City Council member Jim Niland, whose Sixth Ward includes both Karmel Square and Sabri's latest project, has faith in the man and his mission. "I know he's been controversial, but I've certainly found him to be someone that I can work with," Niland observes. "He's certainly shown his ability to get projects done."
Sabri has never done a project in Lisa Goodman's Seventh Ward, but the city council member is ready to roll out the red carpet. "I have found him to be someone who takes on challenging projects and sees them through," says Goodman. "It's not like he picks off the easy ones. He has picked some extremely challenging sites. I believe that he has been a tremendous benefit to these immigrant business owners."
For all of his prickliness, Sabri knows how to play politics. While they don't agree on everything, even Sabri and council member Brian Herron--whose constituents include voters in Central neighborhood--are on good terms. "He is not the easiest person to work with," chuckles Herron as he considers Sabri's impatience with the grind of government bureaucracy. "But I have established a good working relationship with him."
In early May, Herron convenes another neighborhood meeting in Central to discuss AmericInn. There will be no formal vote tonight. Herron just wants everyone to have another chance to air concerns. From the beginning it is clear Sabri will be on the defensive. Petitions against the project are being passed around the room, and several attendees tote pink and orange signs that read, "No Hotel" and promote a recently posted Web site: www.nomotel.com
For the better part of the next two hours, a debate rages about drugs and prostitution, and many people loudly assert that a hotel is simply not the right "fit" for a neighborhood on the brink. The crowd of some 50 people suggests various alternatives, including a mixed-use residential and retail project. "A coffee shop would be nice," offers one neighbor.
Sabri spends much of the evening preaching communication, openness, and dialogue. He even pokes fun at those he has battled with over the issue. At one point Sabri refers to Piehl as a "pain in the ass" with a snicker and a wink.
"We're not against development per se," claims Corrine Zala, who owns property adjacent to Sabri's proposed hotel site. "We're not unreasonable people if you come to us in a reasonable way." She then gives credit to Sabri for some of the projects that he has done in the neighborhood. Sabri, in turn, praises Zala for "speaking from the heart."
Herron has heard enough. He says it is not his job to "force" the hotel upon the neighborhood, noting that his office had received only three phone calls in favor of the project, in contrast to dozens of calls opposing the plan. Sabri offers to come back with an alternative proposal in a week. "Some of us might have to make some sacrifices," he says. The comment immediately rankles the opposition. Sabri apologizes for his word choice. "I said I'll compromise."
As the fracas in Central simmers, Sabri is setting his sights on another south Minneapolis neighborhood, where he is preparing to do battle with Jim Graham, a former candidate for the Sixth Ward's city council seat and volunteer project manager for Ventura Village. "Ventura Village is the next thing on my list," Sabri says of the area, which used to be part of the Phillips neighborhood. "I think Ventura Village people need me. They need to be liberated from the Jim Graham regime. I will go over to Ventura Village and make sure that people have their right to participate."
Sabri doesn't own property in Ventura Village, but he showed up at a neighborhood meeting in mid-April to speak on behalf of a housing proposal being shepherded by Steve Wash. Wash, whom Sabri refers to as a friend, serves on the CNIA's board.
Graham claims that prior to arriving at the meeting, Sabri was already boasting about his plans. "Basim had made a statement that he had taken over two other neighborhoods and Ventura Village would be the third," he says. "[Sabri] brought a large number of people from outside the neighborhood who attempted to bully their way into being able to vote in our meeting."
Sabri disputes the claim that he recruited anyone to attend the Ventura Village meeting. But he is quick to point out that Graham and others were blocking the participation of minorities at the meeting. That charge doesn't wash with Robert Albee, assistant director of the American Indian Housing and Community Development Corporation, who was also at the meeting. "I'd love to show people a photograph of all the Indian people who were in the audience and who did vote," says Albee. "I found those accusations to be extremely offensive."
Another attendee, Ventura Village board member Holliar Tyner, believes that Sabri came off as adversarial. "He wants to create chaos," he says. Tyner also makes it clear that the neighbors in Ventura Village are not going to overthrow their board, like the residents of Central. "We are not going to let Basim take over this neighborhood. If he wants to go to war, we're prepared to go to war."
Ultimately, the housing proposal was voted down. But Sabri seems unrepentant. "I will be back there," he insists.
Why? Depends on whom you ask. "Basim doesn't live in our neighborhood," Graham concludes. "He is coming to try to liberate us from our money. I wonder which community Basim has gone in to 'free' without looking for development opportunities."
A week after the last contentious meeting in the Central neighborhood, Sabri, Herron, and about 30 neighborhood residents gather under a makeshift tent that Sabri has propped up on his dirt-covered vacant lot on Second Avenue. Architectural drawings rest on two easels in front of some chairs. Those convened would do well to sit down, because Sabri is winding up to throw a curveball.
Sabri reveals that he is now prepared to move the hotel project to the east side of 35W, in the Lyndale neighborhood. As for the ground he's standing on now: He will build and develop two four-story buildings, with retail on the first level of each, and a total of 34 housing units. Just what the naysayers wanted.
"This is what I gathered from you folks," says Sabri, pointing to the sketches. As some residents pick apart Sabri's new proposal, Herron pleads for fairness. "I know people ain't playing the violin for the brother," Herron says of Sabri. "But every drawing he does costs money."
Many seem surprised, even pleased with the sketches. There is a problem, however. Sabri's scheme calls for displacing two occupied houses at the south end of a block he doesn't own. The owners of those homes, David Coral and Corrine Zala, both emphatically tell neighbors that they don't want to sell. Sabri says that he needs the land to make the project financially viable. "Reality is this," he says. "We have to look at the bigger picture."
Sabri doesn't own the land he needs in Lyndale neighborhood, either, so now he will have to start the neighborhood approval process all over again. But in Central, at least for the moment, he can take off the gloves. "I think he's on the right track, and what I'm hearing from people is that they love it," gushes Herron. After the meeting, Sabri chats and cracks jokes with foes, folks such as Coral and Piehl.
Still, even though Piehl and Coral like the changes, they aren't prepared to let Sabri off the hook entirely. "You don't come up with plans like that in a week. The hotel was leverage to get those other two lots," Piehl figures. "It's, 'I'm going to build what you hate, or if you give me a little bit more, I'll build what you want.' I think he was aware some time ago that it wasn't going to fly, and continued it as a threat." Sabri says that he's been mulling a housing idea for some time, but he claims that the hotel would still be his preferred project on the site: "I believe what I proposed is very reasonable."
Central neighborhood. Ventura Village. Sabri always seems to have another plan up his sleeve--another way to save south Minneapolis from itself. Does he want to make money? Of course. After all, he's not Mother Teresa: "I am the same Basim Sabri as I was when I was poor as hell. Money does not rule me; it's not everything. You take all my money away today and throw me in China, you know what? I'll find something to do."
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