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The City of Minneapolis forces Porky’s restaurant on Central Avenue to close

Porky’s is a 50s-style drive-in restaurant on University Avenue in St. Paul. It has attracted a cult-like following among owners of antique cars and others nostalgic about the automobile-centered culture that existed in the United States a half century ago.

In 2003, the mayor of Minneapolis, R.T. Rybak, approached Trygg Truelson, the owner of Porky’s, about opening a similar restaurant in northeast Minneapolis. He suggested a location on Central Avenue near 19th street. A Clark’s gas station had previously been there. The site had been vacant for seventeen years.

Truelson learned that the city had blocked several development proposals for the site because of opposition from the Windom Park neighborhood association otherwise known as Windom Park Citizens in Action. Truelson made an offer to purchase the property. He also appeared at a meeting of the Windom Park organization to inquire if it would support his plan to construct a Porky’s restaurant at 19th and Central. The answer was “no”.

The Windom Park neighborhood association, like many others in Minneapolis, acts as a choke point for development proposals. City Council members often require neighborhood approval before the city will support a project. In this case, the Windom Park group may have opposed Porky’s because it was an automobile-oriented use of the land. Its members wanted Central Avenue to be “pedestrian friendly”. Two of its dominant members were Kevin Reich, a Minneapolis city employee who now sits on the City Council, and Doran Clark, believed to be a middle-management employee at the Target Corporation headquarters in downtown Minneapolis.

The City Council member who represented this area (Ward 1) at the time was Paul Ostrow. Officially he expressed support for Porky’s but, behind the scenes, Ostrow may have been sending other messages to the neighborhood group. After consulting with an architect, Ostrow encouraged Trygg Truelson to move forward with plans to open a Porky’s on Central Avenue.

City regulations required that a property owner have 600 contiguous feet of land zoned “C2” to get an unconditional use permit for a drive through. Truelson’s site had only 200 feet. To meet the regulatory requirements, Council Member Ostrow proposed that a police station adjacent to the property be zoned “C2”, giving Truelson the required 600 feet. The zoning application was submitted, nobody complained, and after 60 days the police property was rezoned to “C2”.

The next step was to take the proposal for constructing a drive-in restaurant to the city’s Zoning and Planning Commission. When Truelson presented his proposal, members of the Windom Park neighborhood group showed up to oppose it. The Minneapolis Zoning and Planning Commission rejected the application because it did not fit the vision of the “Minneapolis Plan”.

Even so, Truelson took his case to the Minneapolis City Council in December 2006. Council members Don Samuels and Paul Ostrow lobbied their colleagues on its behalf. Mayor R. T. Rybak also expressed strong support. Under pressure from the Windom Park neighborhood association, however, Ostrow was now proposing sixteen conditions for approval of Porky’s, Among them: the restaurant could not promote “cruising”, the exit ramp should steer cars back onto Central Avenue, one curb cut would be eliminated, and the restaurant would close at 11 p.m. Truelson agreed to the conditions.

The Minneapolis City Council voted overwhelmingly in favor of allowing Porky’s to proceed. Only 9th Ward Council member Gary Schiff and one or two others voted against the proposal. Schiff argued that the type of food served at Porky’s would increase Type 2 diabetes and childhood obesity. He also offered an amendment that the restaurant should offer bicycle racks and, more ominously, that it should have a wall made of concrete in back of the lot to muffle the noise.

Truelson’s plan included only a wooden fence. The requirement of a concrete wall would add $70,000 to the project cost. Several Council members, including Ostrow, spoke against this amendment after an architect explained the situation. Gary Schiff then remarked that “maybe my motion isn’t important.” Truelson took his words to mean that the motion was withdrawn. In any event, the motion was not voted upon. Don Samuels then moved to approve the project and the Council voted in favor.

With City Council approval, Truelson took his proposal to the city’s Zoning and Planning Department in the early spring of 2007. To his surprise, a staff person with that department, Tara Beard, told him that the plan needed to include a concrete wall in order to gain approval because the City Council resolution had imposed that condition. Truelson told Beard to look at the record; he was sure that Schiff’s amendment had been withdrawn. Because there were no written minutes of the meeting, Truelson suggested that Beard look at the videotapes. After viewing them, Beard conceded that the videotapes did not show that Schiff’s motion had been approved before the final vote was taken. She signed off on the plan on the basis of the restaurant’s having a wooden fence.

The path was now clear to start building. Public Works had approved the plan. Extensive soil remediation was done to remove the oil left from the Clark gas station. Construction continued through the summer of 2007. There seemed to be smooth sailing.

But then, with two months left for construction, city inspectors started showing up at the site. Members of the Windom Park neighborhood association began measuring the size of curb cuts. About two weeks before opening, Council Member Ostrow called Truelson. “You guys aren’t in compliance,” he said. Truelson fielded his list of complaints and promised to fix the problems. Ostrow, however, was now objecting to the plan because it did not include a concrete wall. Truelson tried to explain that Schiff’s motion requiring such a wall had not been adopted but Ostrow would not budge. “You’re not going to open,” he said.The city building inspector had given permission for the restaurant to open by issuing a certificate of occupancy. The head of the city’s health department had agreed to issue a food license. In mid December, opening day finally arrived. The Minneapolis Porky’s was ready for business.

Behind the scenes, however, Council Member Ostrow was working to get the health department to reverse its decision about the food license. Three days after the restaurant opened, a team of inspectors and police descended on Porky’s during the lunch period. The customers were ordered to vacate the premises immediately. Minneapolis inspectors posted red signs on the doors announcing that Porky’s was “not in compliance” with city regulations. It was illegal to operate such a business.

The restaurant closing stunned customers and employees alike. The lunch-time manager phoned in to a radio talk show on KSTP-AM to report that the Minneapolis Porky’s had just been shut down by the city. T.D. Mischke’s call-in show played up the news and soon radio listeners in the Twin Cities were a-buzz at this latest outrage by Minneapolis city officials.

Trygg Truelson received an angry call from Mayor Rybak. As Truelson later recalled, the conversation went something like this: “What’s going on here? Did you call KSTP? (no) Well, did you have one of your employees call KSTP? (no) I’ll never eat another f...... (or maybe it was g..d...) burger at Porky’s again.” The mayor went on and on, screaming at Truelson. Finally, Truelson asked calmly whether the mayor was done and hung up. He had said hardly a word.

The line was that Truelson had dealt the city a low blow by contacting KSTP radio. This message was posted on the web site “neighborsagainstporkys.blogspot.com: “Porky’s throws Ostrow under the bus.” Presumably, the phone call to KSTP had damaged Ostrow’s reputation. Ostrow was said to have been one of Porky’s strongest supporters. Therefore, Truelson was an ingrate. Ostrow was a victim of this unscrupulous business owner.

Porky’s was closed for the remainder of December. Truelson then hired a lawyer. In subsequent conversation, Minneapolis officials proposed that Porky’s might remain open if Truelson signed an agreement that he would construct a concrete wall by the end of summer in 2008. Truelson was against signing the agreement but the lawyer argued that he could later negotiate elimination of this requirement if the agreement was signed. Therefore, Truelson signed. It bought him some more time when Porky’s could legally operate in Minneapolis.

Council member Schiff had proposed the concrete wall to muffle the sounds coming from Porky’s that might disturb homeowners behind the lot. Truelson hired a world-renowned expert on noise abatement. This expert testified that a concrete wall would have only a minimal effect to reducing the noise. Most of the sound traveled over the fence, not through it. To place a few extra planks in the wooden fence would be equally effective in achieving Schiff’s objectives. Truelson’s lawyer took these findings to the Zoning and Planning Commission. Then the proposal went back to the Minneapolis City Council.

The meeting of the Council was held in May 2008. Council member Ostrow was not present at this meeting; Truelson was told that he had a doctor’s appointment. Truelson happened, however, to see Ostrow standing outside the Council chambers in the hallway next to a female intern. He was watching the video monitor of the Council meeting. Someone heard Ostrow say to the intern that he had instructed his colleagues not to approve the proposal for Porky’s to install additional planks in the fence. The Council did, in fact, vote against the proposal.

About this time, the Lowry Avenue bridge over the Mississippi river was closed. It would take several years for a replacement to be erected. Due to the bridge closing and a generally poor economy, Porky’s business on Central Avenue dropped to half its previous volume. Truelson now had to consider whether he wanted to continue operating the Minneapolis Porky’s, apart from the trouble he was having with the city.

City officials realized the changed situation. They began offering extensions of time to build the concrete wall. Originally, Truelson had until August 2008 under the terms of the signed agreement with the city. That time passed and Porky’s remained open. Truelson was fined $400 for noncompliance with the agreement. The fines increased each time Porky’s was found to be in violation. It was agreed that, if Truelson built the concrete wall, these fines would be abated. He did not.

In April 2009, the city of Minneapolis took away Porky’s food license. At this point, Nora Truelson, Trygg’s mother, appeared at a meeting and announced the family’s intention to close the restaurant. They could afford neither the fines nor the operating losses that they were sustaining.

At another meeting, Trygg Truelson learned that he could appeal the decision about the revoked food license to a city appeals board by paying a fee of $550. If the neighborhood association supported this appeal, the City Council would probably grant the request.

Trygg’s brother, Thor, attended a meeting of the Windom Park neighborhood association to assess the members’ thinking. The association board made it clear that it would not support the proposal for a reinforced wood fence. Trygg then decided that it was pointless to pay another $550 to support a proposal that stood no chance of being approved.

Porky’s remained open through 2009 and into the spring of 2010. Then, on April 12, 2010, the restaurant closed. Truelson says that he might have been willing to sustain operating losses for a certain period of time, but persistent inability to reach an agreement with the city of Minneapolis concerning the fence made Porky’s long-term operation problematic.

The closing of Porky’s in April 2010 brought an immediate loss of jobs for ten restaurant employees. Additionally, it eliminated a social gathering spot for a healthy number of senior citizens in nearby high rises who used to congregate each day at Porky’s for coffee and conversation.

One would imagine that the closing of this business also had an adverse impact on the Minneapolis tax base and the city’s reputation as a place to do business. Porky’s might have become an iconic social and cultural institution in northeast Minneapolis, as it has been in St. Paul, making Minneapolis a more interesting and exciting place to live. City politics killed that possibility.

Possible lessons

First, self-styled “progressives” (such as Council Member Gary Schiff and members of Windom Park Citizens in Action) in the vanguard of current political thinking may have seen Porky’s as emblematic of the carbon-emitting automobile culture and of fast-food menus linked to poor health. Their solution was not to persuade people to eat healthier and adopt lifestyles that leave a smaller carbon foot print but to force legitimate businesses to close that symbolize “undesirable” practices.

Second, Minneapolis city politics gives inordinate power to neighborhood associations. Members of these groups usually have little or no personal financial stake in the development projects they evaluate. They tend to attract neighborhood busybodies who, in some cases, like to control other people and seem important. In general, these types of people despise private-sector business while favoring non-profits linked to “noble” causes.

Third, city ordinances give unwarranted power to City Council members to meddle in the development plans of businesses, even ones that operate without public subsidy. Some members such as Gary Schiff (chair of the Zoning and Planning Committee) aggressively solicit campaign donations from developers while treating noncontributors with disdain. Something is wrong when a single council member, perhaps on a whim, can require an expensive concrete sound barrier to be erected next to a restaurant with little proof of effectiveness or need. Minneapolis city officials like to micromanage local businesses, expecting deference and campaign contributions from those wanting to be treated fairly.

Fourth, members of the Minneapolis city council generally lack business experience. Their prime concern is not to represent the best interests of city residents or protect the city’s tax base but curry favor with those in the city’s political infrastructure. Since the DFL party endorsement offers a great advantage to candidates for Minneapolis city office, it is important for elected officials to appease members of neighborhood groups and other nonprofits whose members are likely to be delegates at DFL conventions. A Council Member such as Paul Ostrow is torn between supporting economic development in his ward and appeasing his political base in the neighborhood associations and elsewhere. Mayor Rybak faces the same dilemma. In a crunch, they come down on the side of the political base.

Fifth, the treachery exhibited by Minneapolis city officials towards Porky’s restaurant cannot help but give Minneapolis the reputation of being an uncertain and even dangerous place to do business. In today’s poor economic climate, no city or state can afford to have this reputation among prospective business investors. The City of Minneapolis needs to maintain its tax base.

In this case, Minneapolis city officials were shooting themselves (the city) in the foot but, as short-term officeholders with other offices to pursue, some elected officials obviously did not care.

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