U will renovate steam plant, despite city

Lynne Kozarek

In a last-ditch effort to force the University to move its Southeast Steam Plant off the Mississippi River, the Minneapolis City Council voted Friday to block the renovation of the plant at its current location.
But the vote might amount to nothing more than an empty gesture.
The ordinance states that the University needs a special permit from the city to build or renovate on the site where the steam plant is located. Because the plant is located on riverfront property, the city council says, it is interfering with riverfront development.
City Councilman Steve Minn, who represents southwest Minneapolis, was the only council member to vote against the measure.
“This is all for show,” Minn said, “we have no legal authority and our zoning authority does not affect the University.”
Councilman Brian Herron, who represents south Minneapolis, said the city council passed the ordinance to force the issue and push the University and the city to come to a resolution.
“Hopefully, people will rethink the decision to renovate and possibly even move the steam plant,” Herron said.
The council originally brought up the zoning ordinance last May, but decided to negotiate with the University rather than pass the ordinance.
Representative Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, said that the ordinance should have been passed long ago because if negotiations had been successful, the ordinance would have been null and void.
Kahn, who represents most of the University’s East Bank, claims that since the steam plant renovations are not part of the University’s academic mission and are under contract with a private company, the renovations could be stopped by the ordinance.
University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg disagreed with Kahn, saying that the University doesn’t need a special permit from the city.
“The University has a separate office that issues building permits to us,” Rotenberg said.
Rotenberg also said federal law does not permit the city to enact an ordinance targeted to a specific property owner.
“The city council has broad zoning authority, but they cannot single out and discriminate,” Rotenberg said. “They have been under pressure to do something about the steam plant and they caved in to political pressure.”
Herron said that the city has a commitment to revitalizing the riverfront and that Councilwoman Joan Campbell, who was the main sponsor of the ordinance, did not give in to political pressure.
“She is trying to adhere to the goals set up by the city,” Herron said.
The Southeast Steam Plant is located near the Stone Arch Bridge and provides heat for many University campus buildings.
The plant has been under scrutiny lately since members of the Legislature and environmental groups are fighting to have the plant moved to a location off the river.
In February, Senator Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, introduced a bill that would provide $6 million for the plant to be moved. The University said that since the bill came after the January 1 deadline set by the regents, the cost had gone up to $15.2 million. There would be costs involved in starting over, the University maintains, since preliminary planning has been done and renovations are scheduled to start this month.
Rotenberg said that the city could either decide to allow steam plant renovations to continue or they could come up with the extra money to fund the plant’s move from the river.
“When the site is renovated it will reduce pollution and be environmentally superior to an alternative,” Rotenberg said. “It doesn’t swallow up any new park land.”
Minn agreed that Campbell, who represents the area where the steam plant is located, was acting under political pressure.
“This is Councilwoman Campbell’s way of standing in front of the bulldozer without getting dirty,” Minn said. “The University will regard this like most people do a mosquito.”
Campbell was out of town after the vote and could not be reached for comment.
Rotenberg said renovations will go on as planned and the University will, in effect, ignore the ordinance.
“The ball is in the city’s court,” Rotenberg said, “If the city attorneys wants to pick a legal fight with the University, that’s their choice.”