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(SUN POST FILE PHOTO BY KEVIN MILLER)

Community development Director Meg Beekman speaks at a May 1, 2019, community engagement event focused on Brooklyn Center’s so-called Opportunity Site at the Brookdale Library. Mayor Mike Elliott and Councilmembers Marquita Butler and April Graves called for more community engagement on the project Jan. 4.

A Brooklyn Center City Council discussion on the Opportunity Site redevelopment project was disrupted Jan. 4 following a verbal disagreement between a councilmember and a resident.

Despite this, both the council and residents expressed an interest in increased community engagement on the project.

“This project is too big and too consequential for us to just move forward without engaging the community,” Mayor Mike Elliott said.

The so-called Opportunity Site is an approximately 80-acre area of the city planned for redevelopment. The area is bounded by Shingle Creek Parkway on the west, Bass Lake Road and Highway 100 on the south and southeast, and Summit Drive on the east and north.

The city owns approximately 35 acres of this site and has entered into a development agreement with Alatus LLC to redevelop the land.

The overarching plan for the site is to develop a mixed use, walkable downtown area, but formal development proposals are yet to be seen. The city and its consultants have been developing a master plan for the area which is expected to be finished in April.

Disagreement

Councilmember Dan Ryan interrupted comments from a resident during the work session, prompting some community members and council members to express disappointment with the interaction.

The work session was hosted on Zoom, a transition from the city’s recent use of Webex as a meeting platform. As a result, there were technical issues for some viewers and participants.

Ryan was unable to activate the microphone on his device, and provided his comments during the meeting by calling Reggie Edwards, deputy city manager, who held his phone near his computer microphone. As a result, Ryan was at times difficult to hear.

Alfreda Daniels, who ran for a council seat in the 2020 election, was delivering comments on the city’s engagement work when she was cut off by Ryan.

“I’m also very confused because I had a communication, an email communication with someone with the alliance that stated that, if I may quote, because I have questions,” said Daniels, before she was cut off by Ryan.

“Mr. Mayor, I very much appreciate the comments that this citizen is making about these various issues,” Ryan said, before cross talk from other meeting participants obscured a small portion of his comments. “But not at this time. This is not germane to the discussion at hand. It is diverting us from the essential business that we have to conduct tonight, especially as difficult as it has been because of the technology options.”

“Councilmember Ryan,” said Elliott, as he began to respond.

“Run the meeting however you want I guess, because you’re the mayor, alright? Bye,” Ryan replied.

Resident, Melissa Carey, one of several residents who took issue with the exchange, said that it was not acceptable to interrupt residents, particularly when the discussion is focused on race and equity and people of color are trying to be heard.

Elliott said he was “really dismayed,” and that the council needs to listen to resident input.

“The only comment I made earlier was a concern because of the very difficult and complicated issues we’re trying to deal with in a work session earlier, that we needed to keep to topics that were germane to the work session, not that I was uninterested in any way from hearing from community members about a range of pertinent issues. I think there was a misunderstanding,” Ryan said. While he continued to speak, the remainder of his comments broke in and out and were unclear.

“If this was an attempt of an apology from Councilmember Dan Ryan, I think he failed horribly,” Daniels said. “This is unacceptable. I personally, I am very used to this type of behavior, whether it is from Councilmember Dan Ryan or other people. As a black woman this is something that I encounter every day.”

Councilmember Marquita Butler apologized for the exchange, saying Ryan’s comments were disrespectful to both the mayor and the community. “I as Councilmember Butler do not condone the behavior displayed tonight,” she said.

After the public comment portion of the meeting was finished, the council adjourned the meeting before completing the agenda.

“I’m triggered on several different levels right now, and really don’t feel like I have the capacity in me to continue to be in this meeting and really bring my best self forward,” Councilmember April Graves said.

Ryan did not respond to an opportunity to comment further on the meeting before the Sun Post’s press time.

“I certainly hope all councilmembers realize the long-term impact their response to a project of this size can have for Brooklyn Center citizens,” Elliott said in a written statement after the meeting.

”We can afford the time for the people who live here to give their input. It was unfortunate that essential public input was shunned by one of the councilmembers, so much so that he left the meeting. We hope that was a one-time response. This proposal is one we must think through carefully because of its potential for a devastating impact in the future.”

More engagement

Engagement work for the Opportunity Site project has been conducted in multiple phases.

That engagement has included in-person workshops, surveys, pop-up events, as well as partnerships with community organizations including the Brooklyn Bridge Alliance for Youth, the Organization of Liberians in Minnesota, CAPI USA, and Juxtaposition Arts.

Other outreach work has specifically targeted youth and immigrant populations, according to project partners.

The COVID-19 pandemic pushed engagement work away from in-person meetings and into the digital realm.

Moving forward, in partnership with the Brooklyn Bridge Alliance for Youth, the city is planning to develop an equity development scorecard and benefits document as part of the master plan.

Elliott, Graves and Butler spoke to a need for increased engagement before moving forward with the project.

The city ought to engage more residents about their preferred land uses, as well as any public benefits they expect to see from the redevelopment, Graves said. Considering the cost of attempting to engage with every resident, the city could consider obtaining a representative sample of residents, with a focus on groups that are not normally engaged, she said.

“If anything, we just need to be that much more intentional on how we continue (our community engagement) as we move towards implementation,” she said.

Butler largely concurred, saying she has met 40-year residents who know little about the project. She said anticipated community benefits are important, and while her preference is to engage every resident, the city could look to representative samples if that’s what can be accommodated in the budget.

“As big as this project is, we really have to do a better job of getting this information out to people,” Butler said.

“The community wants to be engaged on this very important and consequential development,” Elliott said. Door-knocking across the city is an important part of that work, he said.

Involving community organizations to access underrepresented communities shows that the city is trying to value everyone’s opinion, Ryan said.

“It seems obvious that we have a situation where we haven’t engaged” with the public, resident Phillip Gray said.

Engagement work will likely require a blend of many techniques to adequately gather meaningful feedback, said Nelima Sitati Munene, executive director of African Career, Education and Resource, Inc.

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