Neighbors: Jamil Ford is the architect of our future

Jamil Ford is the co-founder of Mobilize Design & Architecture. Since 2010 he has helped design over ten buildings on the Northside, including the new Estes Funeral Chapel and the Commons at Penn.  Photo by David Pierini  

Jamil Ford is the co-founder of Mobilize Design & Architecture. Since 2010 he has helped design over ten buildings on the Northside, including the new Estes Funeral Chapel and the Commons at Penn. Photo by David Pierini  

Jamil Ford grew up in North Minneapolis and has had a hand in designing more buildings here than he can count.

The co-founder and president of Mobilize Design & Architecture (MDA) got his start designing buildings in his backyard, constructing clubhouses with friends, and in an architecture and engineering program at North High, which was offered when he was a student there in the mid 90s. 

It’s hard to find a corridor in North Minneapolis that Ford, now 40 years old, hasn’t touched. He designed Venture North bike shop on Glenwood. He helped remodel Breaking Bread, Kindred Kitchen, NEON and Sammy’s Avenue Eatery on West Broadway.  He worked with Devean George on the Commons at Penn, and he designed the Hennepin County Human Services Center on Plymouth. 

Currently, Ford has his hands full with the new Estes Funeral Chapel on Penn and Plymouth and the NorthPoint Expansion across the street. Up at 42nd and Fremont, he’s envisioning “Baldwin Square” – a $4 million proposed renovation of 1920s era building into MDA’s headquarters and other office and commercial spaces, including a possible restaurant, bookstore, and black box theater. The name pays homage to James Baldwin, an important figure for Ford who reflects often on the ways racism has impacted his life and community. 

With all of his work, Ford hopes to do more than design buildings; he wants to ensure longtime Northside community members get to live in the neighborhoods of their dreams. This month, he spoke with North News about the future of North Minneapolis and paying his good fortune forward.

By Kenzie O'Keefe

What inspired you to become an architect? I grew up a couple blocks away from North High. I was part of the arts and communications program there, which focused on architecture and engineering. I met [local architect] Mohammed Lawal at a school career fair. He had started a metro-wide youth architecture program, and I ended up being in one of his original cohorts. A counselor landed me an internship with HGA, an architecture firm, during my junior year. I started out doing a little bit of everything and getting great exposure to architecture. That led me to my studies at the University of Minnesota.

What did you do after you finished school? When I graduated I decided to stay and continue to work in my community. I built a house in Heritage Park. I had one daughter already and then had two additional children. I think my experience growing up here made me want to be the change I wanted to see for this community. 

What led to you starting your own architecture and design firm, Mobilize Design & Architecture (MDA)? Back in 2010 I was laid off from my job at Collaborative Design Group (CDG). It gave me an opportunity to look at where I was going in my career. I reached out to David Witt, who I had worked with at CDG, and he became my business partner. Then Venture North became our first project. We were able to complete the job on time and with a reduced budget. Then Devean George created an opportunity for us – the Commons at Penn. 

How do you pick the projects you work on? A lot of our work comes from word of mouth relationships and producing good work that allows individuals to seek us out. When a client wants to involve a community and go beyond themselves and the exterior walls of their space, it takes that project to the next level and inspires us to do the work we do. 

Ford designed the Hennepin County Human Services Center on Plymouth Ave. N in 2014.  Photo by David Pierini      

Ford designed the Hennepin County Human Services Center on Plymouth Ave. N in 2014. Photo by David Pierini  


What project are you most proud of so far in your career? Our most notable are the Commons at Penn and the Hennepin County Human Services Center on Plymouth. With the Hennepin County building, we created the transparency that neighborhood residents specifically asked for. We worked directly with Juxtaposition Arts and the youth in their environmental design studio. We made a connection between employees who work there, residents who utilize their services, and individuals who have nothing to do with the building other than walking by.

If you could design anything for North Minneapolis, what would it be? An arts and entertainment district on West Broadway that reflects on the history of North through arts, culture, and entertainment. Through that space we’d increase opportunities for jobs, local amenities, exposure to culture arts – performance, visual, many or all forms of art. We’d create a space for artist housing, creating an opportunity for both local exposure with a large national or international opportunity for people to come as a destination. 

Lots of people are talking about gentrification. What’s your take on it here? I think we have to be very proactive in our approach to [creating] the community we’d like to see moving forward. We need to be intentional about keeping and maintaining our cultural characteristics versus allowing the North Loop to spread this way and oversaturate us with other folks and their ideals and their concepts of economic development that do not support the values that are here.

What’s your role as a designer and architect in that work? I think it’s critical to push the envelope to how we go beyond just meeting the needs of today and ourselves. I try to get [clients] involved with the youth and the community as a whole so there is community ownership. 

You have three children and you’re raising your nephew. What are you like as a parent? I want the flexibility for my children to explore and embrace their differences. I’ve always pushed and inspired them to become something they envision versus a push down approach. I’ve always wanted my children to have the liberty to explore what’s out there. Giving them access and exposure is critical to me; keeping them involved in church is critical to knowing that what we do as young adults will have an impact on how we live our lives in the future. 

Photo by David Pierini  

Photo by David Pierini  

Who inspires you? Jesus Christ and his story. He lived with the people and was in the trenches. He didn’t mind going into scary or fearful places. I don’t have to look far for individuals that inspire me. My father grew up in a family of sharecroppers in Louisiana, picking cotton. He turned nothing into a success story for him and his family. In terms of architects, I don’t need to look internationally. I can look here – Mohammad Lawal has had a great impact on my life. There was a time when I dropped out of school when I was at the U. He helped me get back into school just by having a conversation. 

What motivates you? There are 6 Ps that [I] live by personally and in my business: have a plan, be prepared, be persistent, perform, get paid, and pay it forward. Paying it forward is embedded within me. Wherever I have an opportunity to reach back, I do. 


Kenzie O'Keefe