The ambitious project to transform the Upper Harbor Terminal area in North Minneapolis is gathering momentum. Current proposals include an outdoor amphitheater, a hotel, retail outlets, and possibly housing. But as the calls for greater community engagement and buy-in get louder, the window for closer consideration is closing.
Two December public meetings put on by the project’s development team revealed the extent of both the planning and residents’ questions about those plans. On Saturday, Dec.8, and Tuesday, Dec. 11, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) brought representatives of United Properties, Thor Construction, Inc., First Avenue Productions, and members of the design team Coen+Partners to the board’s headquarters to discuss the state of planning to date and to field questions from those attending.
At the Tuesday meeting, Coen partner Robin Ganser began by noting that the City of Minneapolis and MPRB have had slightly different proposals. MPRB is approving only the regional park boundary, and it opens up the design and planning process for that park along the waterfront. Ganser said, “The goal is to have this project go in tandem with the city’s process. The city is going into a process that will deal with the land usage and infrastructure. That allows the development team to go into more detail before the two parts are truly woven together. At that point, we have a coordinated plan, then seek approval of the City Council, then the whole thing moves into phase one construction.”
Thor CEO Ravi Norman spoke about the project’s beginning: “From March of 2017 on, the process involved everything from door knocking to feasibility studies. And by late 2017 and early 2018, we were looking at early bonding possibilities.” Norman added, “Loud and clear for me on Saturday was that no matter how well we think we might have done in that process, there’s still some disconnect; people who felt that it could be done better…We’re not insensitive to that, but we are trying to get to a coordinated plan to hopefully reach an agreement at some point, and there will continue to be a more transparent and better outcome for everyone involved.”
He acknowledged that residents at Saturday’s meeting had made good points about sustainability and environmental justice. “We think about the river as an asset, and it was prescribed very clearly that there were some parameters about how we view that, but that doesn’t mean that we won’t do some pushing for something that may be transformational long-term.”
Brandon Champeau, senior vice president for development at United Properties, said, “It’s easier for us to move the ball forward talking about land use… The harder part is the program element. It’s hard to advance the conversation until we know whether we even have a building to talk about. Feedback from the talks we had in the past few months suggest the entire site should be part of it, including more housing and more jobs. The fact is, the site can’t do everything for everybody; we’re trying to put forward a balanced plan.”
A question was offered from the audience: “The primary element of the concept plan is for $48 million of privately-owned businesses, with 40 percent of funding from public money, and a hotel. A lot of people besides myself have expressed that this is a big concern. We don’t understand how those elements meet the community’s needs on this site. And after what I’ve heard, I don’t sense that you’ve heard that.”
Catherine Fleming, CEO of Business Direct and a member of the Metropolitan Parks and Open Space Commission, asked why there is only one proposal. “It looks like you went to a drawer and pulled out a plan you did 50 years ago, and this is what we get. Now, I know for a fact that you’re more innovative than that, so why are we presented with one option?” She added that she wants to see jobs and affordable housing, but only as a stepping stone to better housing. “We want green jobs, a restorative hub; we want ownership!”
Norman replied that there is a job-creation model to help bridge the work gap. He said that most of the job creation he’s seen happens through entrepreneurship and as an ownership model. “The best job is who gets to create the rest of the jobs, and that comes from owning the business. I believe that there are systemic inequities; that’s part of the reason I put my headquarters in North Minneapolis. We’re committed to creating jobs for people of color. We’re not going to do a project that does not have justice and equity built in.”
Dayna Frank, CEO of First Avenue Productions, spoke about the proposed amphitheater: “I feel there is some confusion about this. When we began engagement 18 months ago, we sought opinions on a variety of subjects. We talked about a wide range of destinations: a museum, a ballpark, music, and others. The overwhelming response (84 percent of respondents) we got was for music. We felt confident going into the feasibility stage that we were on the right track. A characteristic of a destination is ‘world-class,’ which is what we’ve designed. It comes with a price tag, to be sure, and if that’s not a characteristic of success anymore, then we will re-address the co-creation process.”
She added that part of the live-music component guarantees the operation and maintenance of the facility, requiring millions of dollars. She said what she’s offering is to put the weight of First Avenue’s financial resources and dedication behind it. One of the options that was offered as a destination during the engagement part was an amusement park, but that got little interest. “If it had risen to the top, we would have explored it,” she remarked.
Frank also addressed the question of the project’s effect on the economy of the neighborhood: “We look at every single dollar that this project will generate and determine how we can keep it in the Northside. We’re committed to ZIP code-priority hiring; committed to employing youth in the neighborhood. So that payroll that might go for security, for example, we want to go to Northside entrepreneurs.
“We’re not only doing ticketed performances; we’re having public performances, which is what Northsiders have told us they want. We’re not set up to do them, but we’re going to fund those people who are, along with the resources, the empowerment, and any expertise we can offer. We look at all the elements of the amphitheater and ask how we can use it as an economic growth element for North Minneapolis.”
Michael Chaney, community activist and founder of the food collective Project Sweetie Pie, said he felt there has been a “rush to judgement” to get the project done because of time limits for opportunity zones and bonding windows. He noted that people have been coming out for only the last few months, but in that period they have been “reigniting the idea of co-ownership and engaging the environmental community…We’ve all become stronger as a result of even this amount of engagement.”
Chaney added, “What is happening to Bloomberg money? We should be bringing those dollars, dollars that have already been delivered into Minneapolis, into the Upper Harbor Terminal project, because green enterprise is more than bike paths. Here’s an opportunity to slow down this process, get the full-bodied opportunity before us…We need to stop these false equivalencies, these false narratives. We do want a world-class project, but we need a whole lot more aligning of resources, and it has to happen soon.”
The Folwell Neighborhood Association sent a letter to Mayor Jacob Frey and the Minneapolis City Council, urging them to delay the approval of the Draft Concept Plan for the Upper Harbor Terminal “until local communities and the people impacted by development can be inclusively engaged in the process. The plan should also set measurable goals for the project that align with those of the North/Northeast Green Zone and the Minneapolis Climate Action Plan (CAP).”
The members of the Minneapolis Community Environmental Advisory Commission (CEAC) have also written to the City Council, asking for a delay “to require the inclusion of climate and resiliency goals in the concept plan and follow an inclusionary planning process, such as eco districts, and ask for additional time before approving any development plans for the UHT site. We also encourage the formation of a community advisory council comprised of Northside community leaders, particularly those from the McKinley neighborhood, and a technical advisory council, comprised of both city staff and non-city staff technical experts.”
Because of investigative work done on the Upper Harbor Terminal planning project, the MPRB is proposing some changes to the current Above the Falls Regional Park boundary. The proposed park boundary will be discussed at the next Above the Falls Community Advisory Committee meeting at 7 p.m.Tuesday, Jan. 8, at MPRB headquarters, 2117 West River Road N.