2012: Richfield’s year in review

BMX riders Colton Walker, left, and Dustin Grice execute a side-by-side “Superman” during a stunt show that proved to be a top draw at Penn Fest in September, as hundreds gathered outside Penn Cycle in Richfield to witness some big air. (Photo by Andrew Wig – Sun Newspapers)

BMX riders Colton Walker, left, and Dustin Grice execute a side-by-side “Superman” during a stunt show that proved to be a top draw at Penn Fest in September, as hundreds gathered outside Penn Cycle in Richfield to witness some big air. (Photo by Andrew Wig – Sun Newspapers)

Residents cried “not in my back yard.” Gangs killed a carnival. Voters approved new funding — and new legislators. A street was given new life. People died violently at the hands of others. Richfield saw all that and much more worth remembering in 2012. So as the calendar turns, the Sun-Current takes stock, not necessarily in order of importance, at 10 events that impacted Richfield over the last 12 months, events that will continue to matter in 2013.

 

Affordable housing debate takes center stage

Debate over affordable housing in Richfield, sparked by the proposal for an income-capped apartment complex at the vacant city garage site, continued in 2012 as residents and city representatives questioned communities’ responsibilities in creating housing opportunities for residents of all walks of life.

Following months of debate that began in 2011, the Richfield City Council in June gave its final rejection to developer Ron Clark in his bid to build 70 units of income-capped housing on the site of the old city garages, off Pillsbury Avenue and 76th Street.

The decision came as a victory for opponents to the would-be complex, called Pillsbury Commons. They argued the complex would degrade property values and bring nuisance to their neighborhood. In the face of staunch opposition that packed the Richfield City Council chambers for a series of meetings, developer Ron Clark relinquished his purchase agreement for the property in July.

Clark’s proposal had changed in form throughout the debate in efforts to appease residents and the council, of which Sue Sandahl was the only member to ultimately support the plan. Opponents to the project argued that other communities, namely Edina, were not doing their fair share to establish new affordable housing in accordance with a quota established by the Met Council.

Due to requirements that came along with the $10 million in tax credits the developer had secured, all the units in Pillsbury Commons would have been limited to tenants making 60 percent or less of the area’s median income. That directive proved to be a main sticking point between the developer and detractors, many of whom suggested that a complex consisting of 80 percent market rate units would be more viable.

“Jony the Clown” a Minneapolis Aqua Jester, entertained a Richfield crowd during the city’s Fourth of July parade. The parade will continue but there will be no more clowning around at Veterans Park for Richfield’s Independence Day celebration. The annual Fourth of July carnival that takes place in the park was cancelled last year due to persistent gang activity. (Photo by Andrew Wig – Sun-Current)

“Jony the Clown” a Minneapolis Aqua Jester, entertained a Richfield crowd during the city’s Fourth of July parade. The parade will continue but there will be no more clowning around at Veterans Park for Richfield’s Independence Day celebration. The annual Fourth of July carnival that takes place in the park was cancelled last year due to persistent gang activity. (Photo by Andrew Wig – Sun-Current)

Gang presence kills Fourth of July carnival

Richfield Police highlighted crime and gang activity in recent years at the city’s Fourth of July carnival in a successful bid to shut down the annual attraction.

Hearing the recommendation of a police department that found itself strained in handling troublemakers each year at carnival site Veterans Park, the Richfield City Council approved halting the carnival in October. Concern over disturbances at the carnival reached a tipping point following the 2012 installment, when nine street gangs were identified in the park on July 4, according to a July memo from City Manager Steve Devich to the city council.

The memo also noted that police responded to 19 “calls for service,” including disorderly conduct, assault and weapons violations. Officers arrested two gang members possessing firearms and made contact with a third suspect who was carrying a handgun as he left the park, the memo states.

“Although there are a number of contributing factors for calls for service during the 4th of July events, the Police Department believes the carnival was the primary source of concern and attraction for the gang presence,” Devich wrote in the memo.

It took 35 officers to patrol the carnival last year, Police Chief Todd Sandell told the city council Oct. 23 before the body approved halting the carnival. “We’re concentrating all of our resources over at the carnival,” Sandell said.

The number of officers present was a disconcerting sign to Councilmember Fred Wroge. At times, the carnival “looked like an armed camp,” Wroge said.

“It doesn’t make for a family outing if you see 35 officers walking around, like we’re worried there’s going to be trouble there tonight.”

Despite hints like the heavy police presence, the public did not know the extent of crime at the carnival, said Katie Robison, president of the Richfield Fourth of July Committee, which is in charge of the carnival.

“It was a compliment to the police department that nobody knew how bad it was,” Robison said.

“Nobody knew how many guns were there. Nobody knew how many people were taken down, because (the police) handled it.”

Measures to guard against the presence of gangs and weapons, while keeping the carnival, were rejected. One option, of shutting down the weeklong carnival the evening of July 4, when most of the disturbances occurred, was found to be unfeasible. “That is when the carnival makes most of its money,” Robison told the council.

While public safety concerns prompted the decision to end the carnival, some felt that ending the celebration would serve as a concession to the criminal presence.

“There is a nagging feeling that the bad guys win, and it really aggravates me,” Councilmember Pat Elliott said during a study session regarding the carnival.

“But I don’t know what the alternative is.”

Other aspects of Richfield’s Fourth of July celebration, such as the street dance, parade and fireworks, will continue.

Redistricting split yields new legislators

Richfield voters elected new leadership after legislative redistricting split a previously unified city into two segments.

Redistricting meant Richfield would have be represented by four state legislators, but only one of them would call the city home. The lone Richfield resident in the Legislature is Rep. Linda Slocum (D-Richfield), who was re-elected over Republican Craig Marston to serve in House District 50A. Slocum moved within Richfield to stay in the House, as redistricting placed Rep. Jean Wagenius (D-Minneapolis) within the same legislative boundaries.

Wagenius was re-elected in House District 63B over Republican upstart Matt Ashley of Minneapolis. Wagenius will continue representing a portion of Richfield while the city will have new representation in the State Senate; Sen. Patricia Torres Ray (D-Minneapolis) defeated Republican Patrick Marron for the Senate District 63 seat.

Representing Senate District 50 is another new legislator, in Melissa Halvorson Wiklund of Bloomington, who beat Bloomington resident Vern Wilcox for the seat. The triumph of Wiklund, who was serving as chair of the Bloomington School Board when she ran, came at the cost of Sen. Ken Kelash (D-Minneapolis).

When redistricting caused a geographical conflict between Kelash and Sen. Paul Thissen (D-Minneapolis), Kelash planned to move at least just a few blocks south into Richfield, and into Senate District 50. That plan became unnecessary when Wiklund secured the Democratic endorsement last spring.

Newly elected Garcia angers her predecessor

The election of Edwina Garcia to the Richfield City Council made ripples when comments she made in victory irked the man she would replace.

Garcia called for an “attitude adjustment” on the council as she celebrated victory late on Nov. 6, suggesting that council members take a more open-minded approach to their jobs, especially regarding redevelopment.

“I think we need to approach a lot of things in a totally different way than what we’ve been doing,” she said as her 2,943–2,025 victory over opponent David Buzicky became clear. Garcia also called for city staff to more thoroughly hear out developers’ proposals.

Wroge was quick to take issue after the comments were published. “She’s really starting off on the wrong foot here with these statements that she’s made,” he said.

The outgoing two-term council member questioned Garcia’s approach. “Will she ask for information or is she going to shoot from the hip all the time?” he wondered, calling Garcia’s statements “an insult to all five of us” on the council.

Garcia figures to bring a leadership style that does indeed contrast with that of the aggressive Wroge. “Garcia won’t bowl you over,” Mayor Debbie Goettel said. “She has a very different style but I still think she will ask a lot of questions.”

Garcia served as a member of the Richfield City Council in the 1980s and as a state legislator in the 1990s. Goettel hopes Garcia’s experience in the Legislature will help Richfield secure funding for an underpass at Cedar Avenue and 77th Street that has long been on the city’s wish list.

“I’m hoping that she knows the ropes over there,” the mayor said. “We’re not getting a lot of help from our state representatives.”

Doris Rubenstein watches a plane fly over her home at Wood Lake Village in north-central Richfield. Rubenstein was vocal in her complaints about airport noise that she says is new to her neighborhood. Rubenstein felt noisy conditions should qualify her for financial assistance in remedying the noise, although her home falls just outside the zone designated for such help. (Photo by Andrew Wig – Sun-Current)

Doris Rubenstein watches a plane fly over her home at Wood Lake Village in north-central Richfield. Rubenstein was vocal in her complaints about airport noise that she says is new to her neighborhood. Rubenstein felt noisy conditions should qualify her for financial assistance in remedying the noise, although her home falls just outside the zone designated for such help. (Photo by Andrew Wig – Sun-Current)

New complaints over airport noise

Noise from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport was scrutinized in 2012 as the Metropolitan Airports Commission looked at plans designed to alter flight paths over Richfield and offer relief to some residents.

In a November meeting, MAC chose to delay a plan that would implement satellite guidance in take-off routes over Richfield, Edina and south Minneapolis and condense air traffic over Highway 62, as opposed to the comparatively broad current patterns.

MAC’s decision meant Richfield residents who have complained of hearing new jet noise would have to wait for relief. They had hoped a new satellite guidance system, called RNAV, would concentrate flights over Highway 62, but in November MAC ruled to delay deciding whether to implement the technology at runways affecting Richfield.

Safety concerns from a near-collision in 2010 prompted MAC to spread out traffic away from Highway 62. As a result, a new selection of residents has complained of airport noise. MAC has compensated the homeowners most affected by the noise by paying for home modifications meant to mitigate the nuisance, but the maps of the mitigation zones were finalized in 2007. That leaves any newly affected homeowners without obvious recourse, although MAC disputed claims those homes would qualify for mitigation.

Any affected residents will have to wait years to be relieved by the RNAV technology, if it comes at all. RNAV was ready to be rolled out in spring 2013, Federal Aviation Administration representative Dennis Roberts said during the November MAC meeting, when a decision on RNAV was delayed until 2014.

Edina residents and representatives showed in force to the November meeting to lobby for the RNAV delay, calling for further consideration. Sen.-elect Melissa Franzen (D-Edina) termed the Edina effort termed as “all hands on deck.” Edina is not covered by airport noise the mitigation zones.

Murder returns to Richfield

After going the previous two years without a homicide, Richfield again saw a number of violent deaths in 2012.

Richfield Police found one man dead and another victim badly wounded at a Richfield home on March 2, later charging Minneapolis resident Leon Henry Anderson, 23, with the slaying of Richard Parker Webb, 79. A criminal compliant says Anderson inflicted “complex homicidal violence” upon Anderson, who was found dead at his home on the 7300 block of Elliott Avenue.

The complaint says the victim knew Anderson and his wife, 62-year-old Toni Jackson-Webb, who survived the attack but was found at the scene with her throat slashed.

Another violent death occurred July 4, when Georgia Lynn Rogers, 42, was found dead following a drunken struggle at a Richfield apartment complex. A criminal complaint told of an altercation at a residence on the 7700 block of Penn Avenue between Rogers and Milton Ellery Geshik, 49, who was charged only with violating a no-contact order.

Geshick told police that Rogers attacked him during a drunken argument. Geshick’s brother said he saw Geshick punching back at Rogers but was unsure if any punches landed on the face. Geshick said he, Rogers, and his two brothers “all watched a movie and passed out” following the altercation, and that he found Rogers not breathing the following morning.

About three months later, a Richfield man was killed in an officer-involved shooting. Jeffrey Michael O’Connor, 25, died of multiple gunshots the morning of Oct. 5, according to the Hennepin County Medical Examiner.

Richfield Police said they responded to a home on the 6600 block of Park Avenue in Richfield that morning in response to domestic disturbance involving a man with a knife. Details on what specifically precipitated the shooting have yet to be released, pending the completion of the county’s formal investigation.

The three officers involved in the shooting were initially placed on paid administrative leave, but were back on duty about a week after the shooting, Police Chief Todd Sandell said.

In addition to fresh investigations, a 14-year-old cold-case regarding a gang-related murder was reopened last year when charges were filed against Brooklyn Center resident Michael Joseph Scott, 44, in connection with a 1998 slaying that occurred outside of  Chi-Chi’s restaurant in Richfield. A criminal complaint says Scott was the shooter in the retaliatory homicide of Minneapolis resident Gilbert Toomer, 27. Another victim was seriously injured in the confrontation.

Defendants in the Richfield murders, Scott and Anderson, still await trial.

Richfield was touched by tragedy again in September when Richfield native Andrew Engeldinger, a 1994 graduate of the Academy of Holy Angels, was identified as the gunman who killed five of his co-workers and a UPS driver before killing himself at Accent Signage in Minneapolis.

“Our hearts go out to the families of the people killed and those who were wounded in this tragedy. Nothing we can say can make up for their loss,” said a written statement from his family. “Our son struggled for years with mental illness. In the last few years, he no longer had contact with us. This is not an excuse for his actions, but sadly, may be a partial explanation.”

Levy referendum passes amid consternation

Boosters of Richfield Schools conducted a successful, intense campaign last year in convincing Richfield voters to approve an increase of $60 per pupil to the district’s general operations levy.

Motivating the levy campaigners were the previous year’s results, when the district was surprised to see its levy request fail by fewer than 200 votes. After the district asked for a $119 per pupil increase in 2011, voters proved much more receptive to the district’s comparatively modest proposal of 2012, which amounted to a property tax increase of  $16 per year for the average Richfield homeowner.

With the previous defeat fresh in his mind, Supt. Robert Slotterback said he expected a close call for the 2012 levy referendum. Voters had the option to let the $301 operating levy expire, to renew it, or approve the increase.

“We’re not going to get 90 percent,” Slotterback said before the vote. “In fact it will be very close, just like last time.”

But when the votes were tallied the evening of Tuesday, Nov. 27, Richfield residents gave a sweeping endorsement to the levy increase, 12,348 votes to 7,092, or 64 percent to 36 percent.

The results made for an evening of relaxed breathing for district leadership, when they had reason to expect otherwise. “I didn’t have anybody come up to me and say, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to get 70 percent,’” Slotterback said following the referendum victory.

The group that extensively campaigned for the referendum, Citizens for a Quality Community, also expected a tighter squeeze. “I thought the first (question) would maybe pass in the 50s (percent-wise),” said CQC spokesman Brian McGlinn, noting the actual result was “higher than any of us had ever dreamed of.”

Their work had paid off. CQC’s effort included citywide canvassing aided by the services of up to 80 volunteers, McGlinn said. Meanwhile, Slotterback went on tour throughout Richfield, presenting facts on the levy to about 50 small groups, including retirement communities, churches, parent groups and other  community-focused organizations.

In seeking votes for the referendum, the campaigners were also seeking a vote of confidence in the schools, which in recent years have faced flat state funding and test scores in need of improvement.

Considering the district’s obstacles, McGlinn called the referendum’s result “humbling and encouraging,” and said, “It really shows that Richfield sees the school as a community asset and something that is positive for everyone.”

For voters, the referendum had become a question of bang for the buck. “They think the school district is giving us a good value,” Slotterback said.

The work in appealing to voters continues next fall, when the district will go out to renew its technology levy. Another operating levy referendum will go to voters in 2014, too.

To Slotterback, the need to constantly appeal to the public is getting old. “What a crazy way to fund,” he said.

With the levy increase of 2012, Richfield is still well behind neighboring communities in its levy total. Richfield levies $1,159 per pupil per year compared, for example, to a wealthier community like Edina, which levies $1,852.

Those numbers prompted Slotterback’s question: “Because their per capita (income) is higher, does that mean Richfield should get less?”

Carrying a sign protesting the Richfield School Board’s decision to install lights at the Richfield High School baseball stadium, an angry district resident walks briskly out of the district boardroom as a special school board meeting adjourns. The special session was called to re-address the decision on the lights after numerous district residents voiced their displeasure over. (Photo by Andrew Wig – Sun Newspapers)

Carrying a sign protesting the Richfield School Board’s decision to install lights at the Richfield High School baseball stadium, an angry district resident walks briskly out of the district boardroom as a special school board meeting adjourns. The special session was called to re-address the decision on the lights after numerous district residents voiced their displeasure over. (Photo by Andrew Wig – Sun Newspapers)

Residents bash decision on stadium lights

The installation of lights at the Richfield High School baseball stadium became a source of controversy for district residents who argued against the upgrade as an unnecessary and poorly timed indulgence, while supporters of the feature saw the lights as a source of community pride and an additional revenue stream.

The Richfield School board approved the installation of the lights in June, before board members called a special session to address the  displeasure that came forth from a vocal group of residents questioning the decision, especially in the face of budget cuts in the district.

The board initially approved the lights in a 4-2 vote June 11. The effort to overturn that decision fell one board member short on June 28, when the board voted 3-3 for the lights during the special session that packed the district boardroom with district residents arguing for both sides.

Among the chief concerns of opponents to the district decision was how spending $212,000 on the lights in a multi-year lease-purchase agreement would appear to voters, especially considering last fall’s impending levy referendum.

“My biggest fear is that the lights will serve as a literal beacon for those who feel the school district has too much money or does a poor job managing it,” said Tim Paulus, one of several district parents who spoke up during the June 28 meeting’s public comment period, which preceded a brief period of statements from council members.

Proponents of the lights argued that the  football stadium’s new rental operation, made possible by the installation of new turf, was far surpassing expectations, approaching $100,000 per year. The district plans to pay for the lights with that revenue. Those favoring the lights also argued they would lead to increased rental revenue from the baseball stadium, too.

Opponents to the lights said the revenue stream from the rental is not guaranteed, and that the funds should be directed toward academic initiatives rather than athletics. “So make no mistake,” district parent Peter Lavin told the board, “this is a classroom versus athletics question.”

Standing pat in the face of such criticism during the special meeting were board members Deb Etienne, David Lamberger and Chairperson Sandy Belkengren. Boardmember John Ashmead opposed the lights, reversing his original vote. The two who initially voted against the lights, board members Todd Nollenberger and John Easterwood, maintained their stance.

Baseball boosters hoped a county grant would come through in 2012 to help with ongoing stadium renovation costs while also offsetting the cost of the lights. The district won a $264,000 grant the year prior to fund a renovation that increased the high school baseball stadium’s handicapped access while adding a new press box, bleachers, backstop and dugout roofs. Boosters saw none of the $264,600 in grant money they requested from the county last year.

Musical chairs in the principal’s office

The resignation over the summer of Richfield High School Principal Joshua Fuchs meant the school would see its fourth new principal in as many years to start the 2012-2013 school year.

Fuchs was cryptic in explaining the decision he announced to the district in May, letting a quote from linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky do the talking. “If we choose, we can live in a world of comforting illusion,” says the quote. Refraining from elaboration, Fuchs pointed to the words, engraved on a metal bracelet he wore, when asked why he was leaving.

Additionally, he said in a written statement, “My resignation is solely to ensure that my desired professional direction and employment are aligned.”

Addressing recent turnover at the position, Fuchs spoke of his commitment to the position when he was hired the year prior. “When I made the promise to stay, that was my intentions (sic),” he said in writing.

Supt. Robert Slotterback called the separation “amicable.”

Jason Wenschlag left his job as principal at a Wayzata elementary school to replace Fuchs  to begin the current school year. Wenschlag, however, was assistant principal at RHS and then principal of Sheridan Hills Elementary before temporarily leaving the district.

His hire meant the top job at RHS had changed hands three years in a row. Fuchs had replaced his predecessor, Steven West, who  left the district for an administrative role with Eden Prairie Schools after one year at the RHS helm.

In returning to Richfield, Wenschlag cited a better personal fit, partly due to the location of his south Minneapolis home, a 10-minute drive from RHS. “I saw it as a unique opportunity not only to get back to what I had personally and professionally, but also to step up,” he said.

Outside Arc’s Value village in Richfield, Joshua Ashburn paints the face of Noah Stenberg, set against the unprecedented backdrop on Sunday of a Penn Avenue that was wide open for pedestrians, but closed to motorized vehicles for Penn Fest. Noah’s father, Gary, inspects the work. (Photo by Andrew Wig – Sun Newspapers)

Outside Arc’s Value village in Richfield, Joshua Ashburn paints the face of Noah Stenberg, set against the unprecedented backdrop on Sunday of a Penn Avenue that was wide open for pedestrians, but closed to motorized vehicles for Penn Fest. Noah’s father, Gary, inspects the work. (Photo by Andrew Wig – Sun Newspapers)

Penn Fest takes off with ‘open streets’ event

Penn Avenue was closed off for a day in September. It wasn’t due to construction, but instead to the cooperation of a number of groups that had public health, community-building and commercial interests in mind.

Funded by a grant from Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Minnesota, the avenue was closed between 63rd Street and 75th Street as pedestrians and bicyclists filled the street the afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 16. It was the first “open streets” event in Richfield, and gave a boost to the coinciding the annual Penn Fest.

Penn Central, the group of community organizers with the goal of promoting the Penn Avenue as a commercial corridor, worked with Blue Cross-Blue Shield and the city to organize the event, which featured an assortment businesses and community groups lining the road in booths promoting their causes.

Those volunteering at the event testified to the added buzz brought by the “open street.” The crowd consisted of “definitely more people that would not have come normally,” said Jan Matthews, who handed out maps and coupon books at one vehicle-free intersection.

Accompanying the buzz was entertainment such as a series of concerts on small stages that dotted the mile-and-a-half-long stretch and a BMX stunt show that wowed spectators outside Penn Cycle. More than 500 onlookers took in the stunt show, said Dustin Grice, who runs the riders’ Minneapolis training facility, Twin Cities Fantasy Factory.

Organizers expressed hope in staging another Penn Fest featuring the “open streets” concept again this September. Penn Fest has taken on a greater role as a community event since Cattail Days, another celebration that took place around the same time of year, was discontinued after 2011.

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