What’s making news in Minneapolis, reported by the Star Tribune’s team of city reporters. Send news tips to baird.helgeson@startribune.com.

Minneapolis lags on black history listings

Posted by: Steve Brandt under Minnesota History, Parks and recreation, People and neighborhoods, Politics and government, Urban living Updated: August 15, 2014 - 1:41 PM

The recent addition of the Arthur and Edith Lee house to the National Register of Historic Places highlights the paucity of black-oriented Minneapolis sites on the prestigious federal list.

St. Paul boasts five of the state's nine national register sites associated with black history.  The Lee home at 4600 Columbus Av. S. represents only the second such black-oriented listing for Minneapolis on the national list. It was the site of mob gatherings of thousands in 1931 when a black family bought the home in an all-white neighborhood.

To be sure, there may be additional sites that have been designated as worthy of historic preservation as important parts of the city's heritage under a local preservation ordinance. But one can use the city's searchable map of such landmarks to scan areas of long significance historically for black residents, such as the South Side area around Hosmer library, or the entire North Side, without finding a single locally designated site with an obvious association with black history or residents. That's aside from the city's lone other national regisrter site associated with black history, the Lena O. Smith home.

But one group has no trouble finding a collection of sites associated with or commemorating black history. That's the Major Taylor Bicycling Club of Minnesota, a group of black cyclists.

The club is sponsoring its annual Dark2Dawn ride on Aug. 23. The all-nght ride begins at 9 p.m. at Martin Luther King Park, 4055 Nicollet Av. S., winds to about a dozen sites in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and ends with a 6 a.m. breakfast. Registration is required for the $25 event that's a fundraiser for the club, named after the legendary black cyclist who competed professionally at the turn of the 19th century, setting world records for speed.

The moderately paced ride of about 50 miles is billed as a tour through African-American historical geography, and will feature speakers at each site.  In Minneapolis, the tour includes the Lee house, the historically black E. 38th Street and 4th Avenue S. business district, the Minnesota African American Museum, Bassett Creek and the Van White Bridge, the J.D. Rivers garden, the Homewood subdivision in the Willard-Hay neighborhood, and Morrill Hall at the University of Minnesota. St. Paul sites include St. Peter Claver and Pilgrim Baptist churches, the Hallie Q. Brown complex with Penumba Theatre, Minnesota History Center, and Union Depot. More information is at: http://tinyurl.com/m9kzhso

Until the Lee house designation, the only national register listing associated with black history in Minneapolis was the home of Lena O. Smith, an early black lawyer, and a longtime leader in the Minneapolis branch of the NAACP. She also representated the Lees in their negotiations with the the white-dominated homeowners association.

One black-oriented business long at the corner of 38th and 4th, the 80-year-old Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, is being considered for local designation.  More may emerge next year. That's when the city's heritage preservation staff hopes to focus more on properties associated with people of color, according to city planner John Smoley.

(Photo above: The Lena O. Smith house at 3905 5th Av. S., was the only Minneapolis site associated with black history on the National Register of Historic Places until July.)

        

Student designs aim to activate downtown spaces

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: August 15, 2014 - 10:15 AM

Photos: Student projects arranged downtown, courtesy of Streetscape Lab 2014

Can innovative street furniture improve the way people perceive downtown?

That was the question at the heart of a recent collaboration between the Downtown Improvement District and the University of Minnesota College of Design, which tasked undergraduate students working in an empty City Center retail space to activate public space and solve problems for downtown pedestrians.

Their rough prototypes were put to a field test for several weeks to see how the public would react. The projects included a standing counter for the food truck lunch crowd, free wooden chairs on Nicollet Mall, a hose spraying mist at hot pedestrians, signs featuring walking and biking times to local destinations and a wiffle ball field in Peavey Plaza.

"In many cases in downtown Minneapolis… a public place is less successful because of how it’s designed or programmed or the adjacent uses," said Ben Shardlow, the director of public realm initiatives at the DID, which is funded through assessments on downtown properties. "And in some cases, it’s because the street furniture that’s there is configured in such a way that it doesn’t work. Or, in more cases, it’s because there’s nothing there. There’s no furniture, there’s nowhere to sit, there’s no greenery.”

Shardlow said rather than try to refine the student prototypes into full-fledged models, they will use the findings to inform future designs about improving public space. Use of the counter, for example, will factor into future discussions about the facilities needed to support outdoor lunches downtown. Other collaborations downtown, such as a "parklot" on Hennepin Avenue, are supplying similar information.

“By making public places more livable and inviting, then it will increase use of those spaces," Shardlow said. “And fostering more positive activity is crucial in creating safe, lively public places.”

After arranging their projects, students watched from a distance how people interacted with them. Tom Oliphant, one of the course instructors, said it was thrilling to see pedestrians extend their hand to grab some mist from a hose arranged near Peavey Plaza.

“It was just this really teeny little intervention, and it just made their life better," Oliphant said during an exhibit of the projects last week.

In addition to free wooden chairs that were placed on 6th Street and Nicollet Mall, the DID put its own metal chairs near its office at the Young-Quinlan Building.

"It took a while for people to realize that they could sit down," said Kathryn Reali, the DID's chief operating officer. "I think people felt that … I must have to buy something before I can sit down in these chairs.”

Undergraduate Andra Zerbe, a rising junior, designed street signs that inform walkers and bikers how long it would take to reach nearby destinations. She was considering visitors to the All-Star Game who were unfamiliar with the city.

“Someone’s coming in, they want to know where to go. Here’s a suggestion," Zerbe said. "You use Google Maps afterwards to figure out exactly where you’re going. But here’s something that maybe you weren’t thinking about."

Instructor James Wheelers' class focused more on Peavey Plaza, where they created an ad hoc wiffle ball field replete with scoreboard and beside giant jenga sets and the Swedish game Kubb. The reflecting pool in the below-grade plaza is not currently active, giving people few reasons to venture down into the space.

“It was really about kind of figuring out how people would want to interact in a space that’s really kind of underutilized," Wheeler said. "And just trying some things out.”  

The ball field got some use during the All-Star Game festivities, from a little league team waiting to march in the parade to a group of men who discovered it later at night.

"We know that Peavey Plaza isn't going to become a wiffle ball field," Shardlow said in an e-mail. "But what did we learn about what happens when you give people something to do there other than sit?"

Hodges proposes 2.4% levy hike, more spending on public safety

Posted by: Eric Roper under Politics and government Updated: August 14, 2014 - 2:09 PM

By Eric Roper and Maya Rao

Highlighting investments in public safety and initiatives to reduce racial disparities, Mayor Betsy Hodges offered many specific proposals Thursday for growing city services in her first budget speech.

The mayor proposed raising the amount the city collects in property taxes, the property tax levy, by 2.4 percent. That's the largest increase in several years, on the heels of a boost in state aid after years of cuts.

Hodges said more than half of the levy increase is due to inflation and rises in the cost of current services. The precise impact on homeowners remains to be seen, since the levy is spread out among the city's growing tax base. The mayor claimed more than half of homeowners would see no increase or a decrease in their taxes.

"More than half of the proposed levy increase...maintains the status quo," Hodges said in prepared remarks. "When we voted last fall, however, we didn't vote for just the status quo. We didn't vote for business as usual."

(Explore the 2014 budget using this interactive tool)

Afterward the speech, Council President Barb Johnson said that she wants to look at whether the city really needs to increase the levy 2.4 percent, given the increase in state aid to Minneapolis and increasing revenues from sales taxes and other sources.

“Now we need to do the deep dive,” said Johnson.

Some of the largest investments Hodges proposed target police, fire and emergency response. She also highlighted a $3.5 million contribution to the Nicollet Mall reconstruction and $750,000 to expand the city's modest number of protected bike lanes.

The complete budget, which must be approved by the City Council later this year, has yet to be released.

Regarding public safety, Hodges proposed:

- Adding ten more police officers for an authorized force of 860 sworn officers. The cost of this was not specified, however.

- Committing $1 million to add 20 community service officers to the police department. "Community service officers are our most effective ladder into the Police Department," Hodges said.

- Spending $960,000 for an 18-person police cadet class next year.

- Funding the implementation of a police body camera program with $1.1 million in one-time capital funding and ongoing operating dollars.

- Allocating $800,000 for two fire department recruit classes in 2015. The precise size of these classes was not specified.

- Hiring four more 911 operators for a cost of $346,000 (following controversy in that department).

Council Member Blong Yang, chair of the city's public safety committee, noted the police department was already aiming for a staffing level of 860 officers – they’ve said this would occur by the end of the year. “So it’s not a change,” Yang said. “It’s keeping steady, I think.”

Regarding 911 staffing, Yang said it was a “slight increase, but it’s not a huge increase.”

To reduce the city's racial disparities, a key focus of her administration, Hodges proposed:

- Adding an additional $1 million to the city's affordable housing spending.

- Spending $70,000 on parental support, including "providing culturally specific parent education to increase parenting skills through education, individualized coaching and parent-peer support."

- Adding additional money for elections staff and communications to improve the city's outreach with minority communities.

- Increasing staff in the civil rights department's contract compliance unit and boosting funding for the city's STEP-UP program by $75,000,

- Creating two positions in the city coordinator's office to ensure city services support goals around equity.

Another proposal would fund durable markings at bicycle conflict areas, high-use vehicle lanes and crosswalks. Hodges also suggested adding more money to clear corners and bikeways of snow during the winter.

Hodges' first budget comes during a time of growth for the city. She said the city has already surpassed $1 billion in the value of construction permits, which did not happen until October in 2013.

"Growth in cities is quickly becoming the status quo rather than a new trend," Hodges said. "People across the country continue to move into our urban cores."

Council Member Cam Gordon described the proposed levy increase as modest.

“I think it’s a levy increase that will probably be mostly accommodated by the growth in the tax base, so we’re not going to see … lots of property tax increases that are very dramatic,” Gordon said.

Fire Chief John Fruetel praised the mayor’s addition of resources for fire inspectors.

 “She mentioned a lot of growth going on in the city and I think it’s important to keep ourselves positioned to effectively respond to that growth,” Fruetel said.

Photo: Hodges gives her first State of the City speech earlier this year (David Joles)

INTERACTIVE: Explore the 2014 Minneapolis budget

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: August 13, 2014 - 7:23 AM

It's budget week in Minneapolis.

Mayor Betsy Hodges is slated to deliver her first budget this Thursday, in a speech that will likely propose concrete initiatives to advance her agenda of reducing racial disparities, growing the population and running the city more efficiently.

Now is a good time to understand just what comprises the $1.2 billion budget, which funds everything from sewer maintenance to housing inspections.

Use this interactive tool to explore how the money is spent and where it comes from.

Only about a third of the city's budget is comprised of the discretionary general fund, where the City Council spends most of its time making changes. About a third of the general fund is supported by property taxes.

The rest of the funds, including water and sewer utilities, are dedicated to specific purposes and generally have dedicated revenue.

Total spending has fallen about 4 percent since 2011, but general fund spending has risen by 21 percent. The total number of full-time employees, meanwhile, has dropped by 1.5 percent in the same period.

Largely because of the dedicated funds, the Public Works department spends more than any other in the city. They budgeted $52 million this year for managing water, for example, and $48 million for collecting and treating sanitary waste.

The Police Department has a larger staff, however, with funding for 985 full-time employees -- including non-sworn staff. That may not be a reflection of actual department staffing, since the city frequently plays catch-up with retirements.

Another major category is debt service, which comprised $122 million of the city's budget this year. A full breakdown of those costs was not available from the city's Finance Department.

Take a tour through the budget and leave any reflections in the comments below.

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