With millions on the line, North Minneapolis looks to the riverfront

The 2018 Minnesota Legislature Bonding Bill included $15 million in matching grant funds for the redevelopment of the Upper Harbor Terminal (UHT). The City of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board have been tasked with funding the remaining $15 million. With $30 million on the line for starters and the potential for millions more to be spent on an assortment of amenities, the question is not how will North Minneapolis be changed by UHT’s redevelopment, but what say will Northsiders have in that change?

By Cirien Saadeh | Staff Reporter

A 50-acre stretch of North Minneapolis riverfront, the Upper Harbor Terminal, is moving closer to dramatic redevelopment, and the transformation will almost certainly change North Minneapolis’ relationship with the Mississippi River. The UHT site is currently home to industrial land, a former industrial waste dump, and a number of potential historical landmarks, but a community performing arts center and an amphitheatre, new affordable housing, and, possibly, a variety of eateries and restaurants, amongst several other ideas, are all envisioned for its future. Project planners have conducted an assortment of preliminary engagement activities, in phases, since 2016, but questions remain: what does North Minneapolis have to say about the project? What do people know about UHT and what do they want to see there?

Discussions regarding the property’s redevelopment began in the 2000s as both the City’s Office of Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED) and the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board (MPRB) began to consider strategic planning for UHT and other properties. At the time nothing was done, but then Congress required that the lock at the Port of Minneapolis be shut down in order to keep Asian carp (an invasive species) from traveling downriver. 

It was not until 2016 that more serious discussions began to take place. At the time CPED and MPRB shared a request for qualifications; they received a proposal from one development contract, United Properties, who invited THOR Companies and First Avenue Productions into the development process with them. In 2018 project planners approached the Minnesota Legislature for $15 million dollars in funding which would support the pre-design work and some infrastructural updates. The request was approved and matched by the City of Minneapolis. Many have grand visions for the underutilized site, but others are concerned about the project's potentially damaging impact on the community. If hundreds of millions of dollars are invested, the community has the opportunity to build wealth and enjoy new amentities. But these possible benefits could mean the potential for current Northsiders to be pushed out by rising property values and amenities that aren't culturally relevant to them.

According to Ann Calvert, who works for CPED, deeper and more expansive community engagement is set to begin as planners enter the next phases of what might eventually become a massive development, though no official dates have been set yet.

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The City of Minneapolis hopes to recreate the site as a reestablished riverfront parkway and destination setting, while also connecting Northsiders to some amenities it currently lacks. Northside residents and leaders want to ensure that their voices are not only heard in the engagement process, but that North Minneapolis is fully reflected in the vision and eventual development.

CPED Director David Frank believes the UHT’s redevelopment will be positively transformative for the Northside but recognizes that there may be some unintended consequences. For example, he says that despite project planners efforts to include affordable housing in the vision, they cannot control the efforts of surrounding landlords and property owners who might wish to raise rents if the site’s redevelopment goes according to plan and the area becomes an increasingly desirable place to live.

In an effort to offset these potential consequences, project planners have sought community engagement from across the City of Minneapolis.

“We tried to do engagement at many different levels because there's no one method. So sometimes it was popping up at events like FLOW. A lot of times what we've tried to do is piggyback on events that were happening in North and then take a bus out to the site,” said Kate Lamers, a project planner with the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board.

In 2016, project developers began working with North Minneapolis-based Juxtaposition Arts’ Environmental Design Team. Their intergenerational leaders and youth apprentices led doorknocking efforts, site visits, and hosted community discussions for North Minneapolis and Northeast residents in 2017. JXTA’s work was the second round of engagement opportunities focused on the redevelopment. These engagement sessions, according to Kristen Murray, whose focus is tactical urbanism and community engagement for the organization, touched on major themes brought up in previous engagement sessions, and attempted to dig deeper into community perspectives. Themes included mobility and leisure, facilities, art and culture, music, shops and markets, eateries, green spaces, youth and kids, and miscellaneous thoughts and concerns. 

According to raw data from JXTA, Northsiders wanted to see hangout places and play areas; grills and picnic areas; green spaces; a Green Garden Bakery kiosk, a community center for teenagers with a clinic and cooking classes; a movie theatre; a farmers market; music for all ages; local non-food vendors; craft fairs and flea markets; river access and activities; a mini market; seafood and health food eateries; and an arcade. Northsiders also discussed using the UHT redevelopment to provide jobs for houseless and low-income people; safety concerns; and the environmental safety of the river and the surrounding land; and support for Northsider entrepreneurs.

Non-Northside residents wanted to see park amenities for adults and youth; addressed safety concerns; public sport spaces; bike trails and public transit access; movie nights; river access; socially relevant art; and an arcade.

Project planners say they will continue their engagement efforts in order to dig even deeper into community perspectives, but no timeline has been set yet. Juxtaposition Arts has organized the raw data from 2017, but has yet to release any demographic information. At least 150 of the 400 people who participated in 2017 engagement activities told organizers that they live in North Minneapolis.

Northsiders and North Minneapolis leaders have continued to stress the importance of being involved in the visioning process.

“If North Minneapolis is written out of the will, then what will happen is another generation of isolation, bigotry, and redlining,” said Michael Chaney, Executive Director of Project Sweetie Pie. Chaney imagines an eco-village that draws together North Minneapolis’ food and agricultural justice organizations and needs in an effort to support their work and make North Minneapolis a nationally recognized food justice leader while building the Northside economy. According to Chaney he participated in engagement activities and is organizing some of his own.

“We should not be thinking about food at this space as if it’s an add-on or a nice spice; the whole space needs to be about food and agriculture. This is on the headwaters of the Mississippi; we can become a lighthouse for the nation around food and agriculture,” said Chaney.

Ward 4 Councilmember Phillipe Cunningham says the redevelopment of UHT, which sits entirely within his ward, is an opportunity to build community wealth within the Northside. Cunningham says he is committed to ensuring the redevelopment includes new affordable housing, though if and how much affordable housing will be available is still unknown.

“There’s a way for them to do this development organically, without tearing this all down, so people can grow on it and we want to be part of that,” said Ian Silver-Ramp, founder of Mississippi Mushrooms. According to Silver - Ramp, the City of Minneapolis recently awarded a
$7000 grant to Mississippi Mushrooms to install solar panels on their farm located on the Upper Harbor Terminal.

Ann Calvert with CPED says, aside from continued engagement efforts, project planners expect to take at least the next 18 months to finalize a design on the property and to open up project bids and confirm project developers and designers.

Redevelopment discussions formally began under the tenure of former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. Rybak, who currently heads the Minneapolis Foundation, is not involved in the project in an official capacity but urges project planners and community members to think big.

“I hear people talking about big bold visions and I hear people talking about reflecting the community and I sometimes hear a subtext that there's a tension between those two ideas,” said Rybak. “We have a golden opportunity to really create a jewel and it would be a tremendous shame to think small.”

Mathias Durie