Twenty minutes was all it took to get the ball rolling on one of the most important land grabs in recent downtown Minneapolis history. At 3:30 p.m. on January 22, four lawyers representing the owners of the land for the Twins ballpark site and another representing Hennepin County convened in Judge Stephen Aldrich's 13th-floor chambers in the Hennepin County Government Center to discuss the county's wish to obtain the land where a new Twins stadium is supposed to be built by opening day 2010.
Going in, the parties (including another attorney representing a mortgage company) had essentially agreed that eminent domain proceedings were inevitable. In fact, lawyers representing the county and the landowners had discussed an agreement over the prior weekend: namely, that condemnation proceedings would not be blocked by the landowners, and the land was there for the taking. According to the standards of eminent domain law, the question was whether a new stadium for the team served a "public purpose," and the landowners were not going to challenge that.
Despite the seeming congeniality of the hearing, there are several sticky issues in play. The landowners and Hennepin County are far apart on the actual value of the 8.8 acres of land, and there's no reason to believe the dispute will be resolved soon. County tax records from 2006 assess the two parcels at a combined $9.8 million, a number that has fluctuated over the last five years. The county has a cap on how much it can actually spend on land acquisition, and right now is reportedly willing to spend $13.35 million for the site—a number that the owners believe is low.
Early on, Judge Aldrich wondered how the two sides had arrived at the impasse. "Oh dear," he remarked at one point. "Am I to understand that none of the parties agreed to the price before getting legislative approval [for a ballpark on the site]? There was no price required?" The attorneys all confirmed that the judge was correct.
Though the parties are still in negotiations, Aldrich subsequently asked both sides to submit names for a three-person panel to determine the value of the land. (By press time, the makeup of the panel, to be approved by Judge Aldrich, had not been decided.) Assembling a panel and determining a value could take as long as six months, and even then, there could be a trial if either side is unsatisfied.
By 3:50 p.m., Judge Aldrich had agreed to let condemnation begin and left the chambers. Dan Rosen, an attorney for the landowners, indicated an uphill battle. Rosen remarked immediately after the hearing, "Either side could reject the commission's award."
In the words of Marc Simpson, an attorney representing Hennepin County, "We've really just started here."
Back in May 2006, the Twins held a pregame ceremony in which Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed the ballpark bill that had just been passed by the Legislature. Practically every local politician who was anybody took the field to mingle with players ahead of time, slapping backs and shaking hands. It was a particularly joyous occasion for the three Hennepin County board members who promoted the stadium plan most avidly—Mike Opat, Peter McLaughlin, and Mark Stenglein. This particular deal, hashed out by Hennepin County and the Twins, would put the stadium on the so-called Rapid Park site just north of the Target Center, a plan that had been percolating for some two years.
But there was an uneasy feeling underneath all the ceremony before the game. Besides that, the public hearings at the county level—which began a year earlier—seemed to raise more questions that lingered at the ceremony. Who would be in charge of the ballpark? Who would pay for it? Would it have a roof? Nobody seriously considered such issues during the pregame signing.
Now, nearly a year after the Hennepin County deal took shape, questions about stadium design and construction, infrastructure costs, and naming rights hang in the balance, as well as a host of other issues. There are at least eight private and public parties involved in every imaginable aspect of the stadium, but rarely are any of them on the same page—or in some cases even communicating with each other. Some of the issues tied up with the stadium remain in early planning stages, and by all accounts it will take a heroic effort to complete the park within three years.
While many involved in the project express optimism, others aren't so sure. Mary DeLaittre, a local architect who was involved in a preliminary design task force that issued a report in October about how the stadium should be built to fit into the North Loop neighborhood, says that many design and construction recommendations are being ignored by key players such as the county, the city of Minneapolis, the Ballpark Authority, MnDot, and the Met Council.
"The report was the first step in creating a vision for the area and articulating the necessary next steps," DeLaittre notes. "It was met with great support from the various stakeholders and the public, but unfortunately the disparate planning efforts still do not appear to reflect the vision and principles laid out in the report." She adds: "I believe the most critical next step is finalizing the land purchase."
Ah, yes, the land. Groundbreaking for the stadium is slated to begin in March 2007, just a few weeks from now, but the county has not yet acquired the land where it will be built. And its owners seem nowhere near reaching an agreement to sell it.
Rich Pogin, the spokesperson for the three private companies that represent some 150 shareholders in the land, says the main issue is that the county has never dealt with him or his company, Land Partners II, squarely. He is resigned to the fact that the county will eventually get the land through eminent domain proceedings, but he's upset about what he deems bad-faith negotiations by the county. Further, he claims, he and his main public partner, Bruce Lambrecht, are being unfairly painted as greedy developers who want to derail the deal—even after they lobbied lawmakers at the Capitol to consider their site for a stadium in the first place.
"I've always been a believer that keeping the Twins, and building this stadium here was the right thing to do, with an impact on the city's economics that would be phenomenal," Pogin says, before adding: "If it ever happens."
Even Mike Opat, the Hennepin County commissioner who has been the main architect of the ballpark plan for two years, admits that things are messy. "The metaphor I can come up with is that there's a swan swimming on the surface, silent, not making a wake, but there's a whole lot of paddling beneath the surface," Opat says, pointing out "complicated" negotiations with the county and the team, the Ballpark Authority and the team, and the like. "But all negotiations, with the exception of Land Partners, have been productive."
To further muck up matters, the ballpark bill explicitly says that the county can't spend more than $90 million for land acquisition, site remediation, and infrastructure. Though he refuses to break down the various costs, Opat says it's vital that the county avoid overpaying for the land. "And if we can't get a price that's acceptable to the county," Opat concludes, "we might have to walk away."
More than 20 years ago, Rich Pogin and Bruce Lambrecht, along with some 100 investors, began buying up vacant lots and other properties northwest of the Warehouse District. The idea then, Pogin says, was that there would be a huge explosion in residential housing downtown, and the duo eventually bought eight parcels of land, assessed by 2006 county tax records at $20.25 million, through their three companies—Land Partners II, Minikahda Mini Storage LTD, and Duddy Limited Partnership, which fall under the umbrella of Investment Management Inc.
The two certainly possessed some insight, as nobody thought much about the mostly industrial parcels in the neighborhood called the North Loop. A wave of revitalization was just hitting the Warehouse District, the Target Center and adjoining parking ramps loomed on the horizon, and I-394 hadn't been built yet to move people quickly in and out of downtown. In time, though, the neighborhood caught up with their plans.
"Bruce brought me down here in 1999 and parked his car and said, 'You know, we've got at least 500 million bucks of infrastructure here. We've got the roads, we've got parking, we've got the rail coming in. It's kind of a plug-and-play deal,'" Pogin recalls his partner saying. "And I said, 'This is a real bad idea. It will cost a whole bunch of money, it will never go through, and all you're buying is an eminent domain action.'"
But within a few years, Lambrecht seemed visionary. For all of the stadium sites that were in play for the Twins over the years, the team was suddenly, by late 2003, zeroing in on one site, the parking lot Land Partners II owned, bounded by Third Avenue North and Seventh and Fifth streets—the area that lies between Target Center and the Hennepin County garbage burner. Mike Opat, the county commissioner, had convinced the team that the best way to curry favor at the Legislature was to quit pitting sites and cities against each other and just focus on one.
By February 2004, the city of Minneapolis had approved potential sale of the Rapid Park site for a potential Twins stadium, and the county and Land Partners had brokered an agreement that dealt with the economics. That agreement, notably, involved the sale of the two parcels for $12.95 million, and additionally, Land Partners II would get another five acres of land just west of the proposed stadium site that were owned collectively by the city, county, and MnDot. The attraction was, as Pogin notes, a "huge land swap."
"In their mind [the five acres] wasn't worth much; in our mind it was worth a lot," he says, noting that the land had been zoned for high-density residential. "I thought, oh my god, government and business really can work together."
Soon after, Pogin and Lambrecht began marketing the site and the surrounding neighborhood—the land owned mostly by their companies, it should be noted—as "Twinsville," posting signs in the neighborhood and lobbying extensively at the Capitol. But in the 2004-05 legislative session, lawmakers were still stinging from state and local budget crunches, and the will to pass a stadium measure in lieu of other business just wasn't there. The setback for the Twins was much noted in the media, but for Pogin and Lambrecht, the close of the session dealt an even harsher blow: The land swap deal was set to expire at the beginning of 2005, and surely no stadium bill would pass before then.
Soon thereafter, Pogin and Opat started talking tough, each taking shots at each other over the value of the land. At Hennepin County public hearings, county leaders were told not to speculate on the subject publicly. Opat started hinting that he'd still push for a stadium bill, even if that meant getting the land via condemnation. And Pogin and Lambrecht, for their part, partnered with Houston-based Hines Interests, an internationally known office and residential developer, saying they were going forth with massive development plans with or without a stadium.
With the start of the 2005-06 legislative session, Opat and his cohorts on the county board began their push again for a bill that would make the site the home of the Twins. While deals were being made at the Capitol, Lambrecht and Pogin waited. And waited. According to Pogin, the two never heard from the team or the Twins until August 2006, several months after the Twins ballpark bill was signed. And regarding land acquisition, Pogin claims the negotiating team for Land Partners had its first meeting with the county in January. "Negotiations for this should have started in January of '06, not '07," he offers.
Opat, for his part, disputes this as "more hyperbole" from Pogin and Lambrecht, and says there have been meetings with the landowners, Hines, and the Twins. Whatever the case, it's been clear that Land Partners was still holding out hope for something akin to the cash-and-land-swap 2004 agreement.
"We had an option agreement then, because that's a good deal," Pogin says, adding that at least 51 percent of the shareholders in the land voted for the 2004 agreement. "What the county is saying now is, 'No, no, no, no. We have a number, and we want you to take it.' The adjusted value that they want it for now doesn't even meet the adjusted value in the original agreement. It's almost the same number, adjusted for inflation, but it's missing 216,000 square feet of land."
Pogin adds, "There's no way they ever would have expected us to be a voluntary seller with this deal. They were planning eminent domain all the time."
Opat counters that the landowners are simply making a case for a higher value of the land now that the ballpark is looming. "We're condemning the land for use for a public purpose," he says. "[Pogin and Lambrecht] have for years suggested that this land be used for a public ballpark. If they are going to change their mind, then we can't go any further."
Opat claims that Pogin and Lambrecht are essentially trying to get as much of the $90 million set aside for land and remediation money as they can. "We've heard from these guys, 'You have $90 million, tell us your infrastructure costs, and give us the rest,'" Opat says of Land Partners. "Subtraction is not part of the equation here. The value of the land is the value of the land. It's been from them, 'What do you have and let's talk,' and we're saying no."
So it comes down to eminent domain proceedings. The court-appointed three-person panel charged with determining a value is supposed to judge the land in terms of present value, without considering the ballpark that is going there. No doubt the land is worth more than it was 10 years ago, as the Pogin/Lambrecht dream of a downtown housing boom has come to fruition. At the same time, there's reason to believe the housing boom is over, that the market was overpriced, and a correction in the downtown real estate market has set in. (Is it, for instance, worth more than it was when the 2004 agreement was brokered?)
"It sounds like there's a lot of room for dispute," observes Mac LeFevre, a prominent Minneapolis eminent domain attorney who was involved in similar proceedings concerning the Metrodome site nearly 30 years ago. LeFevre adds that condemnation disputes over ballpark sites aren't "very common because a new ballpark doesn't come around very often," but that there are laws around the country guaranteeing that stadiums do meet the threshold of "public purpose." Still, LeFevre cautions, a three-person panel might not see a stadium as the best value for that land. "They might see a world where buyers and sellers would value it more highly if there wasn't a ballpark going there," he says.
In other words, Pogin and Lambrecht may very well be right, and the panel might conclude the land is worth more than the $13.35 million the county is willing to spend. If that happens, there will be no stadium on the land.
But if Opat is worried, he doesn't show it. "You know what the land's like without a stadium—it's a parking lot, in a ravine," he concludes. "And if they really think that the condo market's hot enough that it should be something else, then [the landowners] should go balls to the wall and figure out how much they're going to get. We're not going to pay that number."
For Pogin, there's also a moral question involved. "Everybody on the government side and the Twins side is running away from that [2004 land swap] agreement," he says. "It's scary how the government decides it can just take land all the time. And they're doing it so out of context that it's outrageous. I mean, I'm going to try not to say anything inflammatory, but it's absurd. It's completely and totally absurd.
"Turns out, in '99," he concludes, "when I said it was going to be a really bad deal, I was being optimistic."
For all the differences between Opat, the fast-talking public servant, and Pogin, the calculating businessman, the two do have one thing in common: Each has ambitious stadium plans hanging on the wall of his office. And, they both note, none of the plans they have are anywhere near final. Plans for the ballpark, as it turns out, change almost week to week.
Land acquisition aside, there are certainly other complications for the stadium site, nearly all of them revolving around the size of what nearly everyone considers a very small site for such an ambitious undertaking. Some have wondered whether a ballpark can fit on the site at all.
"The primary attraction of the site is the location of the Warehouse District, the entertainment district, and lots of other stuff," Opat cracks. "The challenge of the site is its location by the Warehouse District, the entertainment district, and lots of other stuff.
"The price of poker here is it's a tight site. If you want it to be a compact urban ballpark, some of the things you're used to now, you're not going to be able to get," continues Opat. "The footprint isn't really the issue. We know we can spend $390 million and have a ballpark on this site. Would it be nice to have more? Yeah, but I'd like more things on my house now too. But more land, and de facto more money, that's not in the public interest."
Neil deMause, co-author of the stadium tome Field of Schemes and curator of a blog with the same name, notes of the Rapid Park site, "What is it, 10 acres or something? When the Red Sox were talking about replacing Fenway Park, their new design was going to be 15 acres. The Twins have their work cut out for them."
Preliminary plans, for instance, project no seats in centerfield or right field, something that makes deMause liken the potential stadium to the old Forbes Field in Pittsburgh or Crosley Field in Cincinnati, relics of a bygone era. "That said, I think that a restricted site can actually be a huge plus for a stadium—look at [San Francisco's] AT&T Park, which is much more compact and less of a shopping mall in part because it was hemmed in by the bay," deMause adds. "If it forces the Twins to do something crazy like cantilever the upper deck over the lower one instead of setting it way back over the concessions concourses, you might actually see a stadium where the cheap seats are worth sitting in."
All of this is conjecture, of course, as the Twins ready their first schematic plans for the stadium, which are scheduled to be released later this month. And although ground hasn't been broken yet, already trouble has surfaced with the site. For starters, it's largely agreed that the stadium will permanently close a part of Third Avenue North to accommodate a public concourse and viewing deck—something that was not envisioned when original stadium hearings were held. In late December, the Star Tribune reported that the extension of the Hiawatha Light Rail line would come up on only one half of North Fifth Street, dumping potentially thousands of commuters and game-goers on a platform that's not much more than 20 feet wide. And on January 29, an environmental impact statement commissioned by the county showed that traffic issues would plague the neighborhood and downtown once games were being played there.
And then there are government entities colliding. The Met Council, for instance, is pushing for infrastructure work now for the Hiawatha, North Star, and Central Corridor rail lines, without apparent regard for the ever-changing stadium plans. The city is going about various planning and zoning issues related to the site, MnDot is looking into potential car-commuter problems, and the county is negotiating with Burlington Northern over how far the railroad will divert tracks that run through the site. In short, the ballpark is supposed to be a development tool that will gentrify and beautify the area north of downtown—if all the pieces can be made to fit, and the schedules of numerous entities coordinated. Ultimately, there have been murmurs around town that no one is truly in charge.
"We're looking at it, we have an interest in it, we convened the [design study] group," Opat says. "I'm a little upset it was said that nobody's in charge, because that's not the case. We're looking at the design and seeking input from all kinds of different sources. We're accommodating rail, I would argue, almost to an uncomfortable point. We're going to spend $90 million on public infrastructure here. We're going to try to have this thing be a jewel."
But in order for that to happen, some think that plans will have to come together in nothing short of a miraculous fashion—something akin to Franco Harris's legendary 1972 "immaculate reception" for the Pittsburgh Steelers, in landowner Pogin's estimation.
Dan Kenney, head of the Ballpark Authority, acknowledges that there are obstacles to completing the project. "But these are good urban planning issues," he says. "What I'm hearing is that there are questions about connection to downtown and livability issues."
Kenney emphasizes that he remains "enthusiastic and optimistic" about the process. But it's worth noting that Kenney, who has a long history in city planning, was Opat's assistant before the Ballpark Authority was created. "What I'm seeing is a number of city and community reps going, 'How does this fit?'" he says. "They're going to drill down to the last detail."
This appeared to be true at a meeting of yet another government entity, something called the Ballpark Implementation Committee, on January 24. There, Earl Santee, a senior principal at HOK Sport, stood for questioning before a number of City Council and county board members. The St. Louis-based HOK is the lead architecture firm on the project, and has worked on 14 professional ballparks, including Camden Yards in Baltimore, AT&T Park in San Francisco, and Petco Park in San Diego, as well as the Xcel Energy Center arena. (HGA, a local firm, is also involved in the stadium design.)
City and county leaders peppered Santee with all sorts of questions, ranging from the location of box office windows, whether there will be 40,000 seats or 38,000, what the view will be like from the public plaza that's closing Third Avenue North, and whether there would be "visual connections" to the city from within the park. At one point, Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglein offered, "You must have dealt with all of this kind of stuff when you were doing Petco Park."
Santee paused. "Actually," he said, "this is tougher. I've said it before—this is one of the toughest sites we've ever worked on." He then went on to cite a number of transportation and energy issues. "That's what makes this project so special. These challenges will make it special to the community."