The land at University Avenue and 37th Avenue NE has sat vacant for decades. Now, a trio of developers wants to park, maintain and operate school buses on it. Neighbors on both sides of the Minneapolis-Columbia Heights border are saying, “No way!”
At issue is an eight-acre site Hennepin County once thought it would use for light rail operations. When that idea faded, the county cobbled together two more small pieces it would purchase from the Canadian Pacific Railroad, declared it “excess property” and put out a request for proposal (RFP) in February 2018.
Zoned for light industrial development, part of the parcel has also served as a community garden since 2008. Use of this land for residential purposes is prohibited, according to a July 11 memorandum to the Minneapolis Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED) department. Hennepin County tax records show that the parcel has not yet been sold. The railroad still owns its two pieces of the property.
According to Hennepin County Commissioner Irene Fernando, “The current purchase agreement states that MTN [Metropolitan Transportation Network] will buy the site at 37th Ave. NE and University Ave. for a price of $1.85 million. However, the purchase is contingent on MTN’s ability to secure financing and municipal approval for its purchase before Aug. 2, 2019. Should MTN not fulfill these obligations by Aug. 2, 2019, the purchase agreement will be terminated. If MTN satisfies the contingencies in the purchase agreement by Aug 2, 2019, a closing date is anticipated on or before Aug. 30.”
Metropolitan Transportation Network is a privately-owned company operated by Tashitaa Tufaa, CEO and president, and Feysal Sheika, special projects manager. They provide bus transportation for students and have operations in Fridley, North Minneapolis and Sauk Rapids. MTN also operates a third party examination program endorsed by the State of Minnesota to train school bus drivers. The company has been around since 2004. MTN contracts bus services with the Minneapolis Public Schools; the number of buses they provide depends on their bid.
MTN is represented in the RFP by NEOO Partners Inc., recently formed by two former employees of Thor Cos., which pulled out of the Upper Terminal Harbor development because of financial difficulties. D’Angelos Svenkeson, Denetrick Powers and Todd Austin were all present at a July 9 meeting at the Columbia Heights Library where they showed residents of Northeast and Columbia Heights the plans for the bus facility, plans they did not have available at the June 17 Columbia Park Neighborhood Association picnic and annual meeting, where neighbors first heard about the proposed development.
The MTN proposal would move the company’s current headquarters from Fridley to Northeast. A 55,350 sq. ft. office and bus maintenance garage would be built on the corner of 37th and University, nearest the new senior housing development across the street in Columbia Heights. The site would also provide parking spaces for 111 school buses.
Those 111 buses are a major concern to folks in the senior housing and in the Columbia Park neighborhood. “I don’t want to wake up to the sound of idling buses,” said one Columbia Heights woman at the July 9 meeting. “I don’t want to smell them, either.”
Posting on the NextDoor website, Columbia Park resident Cass Markovich calculated that if a line of 111 buses drove from the proposed barn on University to the Columbia Heights Library, “as the first bus was arriving at the Library, the last bus would just be leaving the Barn.”
Other concerns include potential traffic snarls and pollution/runoff from a very large swath of asphalt. In a letter to city planner Shanna Sether, Columbia Park resident Sue Bembenek wrote, “There is a former creek that runs under this site and along 5th Street. The watershed in this area should be greatly scrutinized especially where and how the runoff from this property will affect the area and the watershed.”
Sether had concerns, too. In her memo to the CPED Committee of the Whole, she questioned placement of the building, saying it does not reinforce the street wall, and does not facilitate pedestrian access and circulation. There are no clear pedestrian pathways connecting the public sidewalk to the proposed building. Current Minneapolis regulations require windows in 30 percent of the walls to “maximize natural surveillance” (a crime deterrent), and the building lacks them. CPED also acknowledged the potential for vehicular access and circulation conflict with pedestrian traffic and with surrounding residential uses. The 111 school buses would exit the site to 5th Street NE, adjacent to residences.
Asked about the opposition, Todd Austin replied, “Nobody loves a bus barn.”
The proposal went to CPED’s Committee of the Whole July 11.