On a forgotten stretch of the Mississippi riverfront in north Minneapolis, Dowling Avenue turns to dirt. The pocked driveway curves among mountains of gravel and soil on its way to tattered domes full of fertilizer, unused grain elevators and belt conveyors, a decommissioned railroad spur, stacks of green and yellow shipping containers and a massive warehouse. A high voltage power line soars overhead.
Since the barges stopped coming in 2015, the Upper Harbor Terminal has been a post-industrial relic. Now the city of Minneapolis views it as a potentially transformative opportunity.
The city, Park Board and a group of developers want to rebuild the 48-acre tract 3 miles north of downtown into housing, offices, stores, restaurants, an amphitheater, parks and trails. They say a successful redevelopment could reconnect part of the North Side to the river and draw people and investment to a neglected part of the city.
With change coming, slowly but inevitably, local residents, politicians and a riverfront mushroom farm are alternately hopeful and apprehensive.
The project is the first big issue facing new Fourth Ward Council Member Phillipe Cunningham. Last week he strolled past the towering mounds of dirt and rock and stopped by one of the fertilizer domes at dusk, as exhaust streamed into the sky from the Xcel Energy power plant across the river.
Cunningham lives in the McKinley neighborhood across Interstate 94, and said that, despite the lack of activity on the project, people are already worried the development will raise housing costs and property taxes and price them out of their own community.
“It is really important to me that the Upper Harbor Terminal is a Midwest destination that reflects and benefits the community that it shares space with,” said Cunningham. “I don’t want Upper Harbor Terminal to be the beginning of the end of my community.”
Plans will be made public by early spring, but whatever is proposed, the path forward is littered with obstacles.
“It’s a very complicated site, so it’s honestly taking longer than we had hoped,” said Ann Calvert, a city of Minneapolis planner and the project’s coordinator.
What’s there now
The largest building on the site is a 110,000-square-foot warehouse that holds piles of scrap metal, pallets stacked with bags of magnesium sulphate, an ancient bulldozer in a puddle of congealed oil, an old Holidazzle float, and the most prominent local business on the site: Mississippi Mushrooms, an organic farm for edible fungi.
Inside four plywood house-shaped growing rooms lined up in one corner of the warehouse, Ian Silver-Ramp grows five varieties of mushrooms for sale to local restaurants or anyone who can find their way to his farm.
Last week, Silver-Ramp climbed onto the roof of the warehouse, which offered a windswept view of downtown and the river, frozen solid but for a swath of dark blue in the middle. A giant spigot shot fertilizer into a semi from one of the domes, which was spotted with dead weeds clinging to its cracks. He said he’d like the warehouse to be an incubator for green businesses like his.
“Tearing this all down is going to cost a lot of money, and then what are they going to build afterward?” said Silver-Ramp, who has five employees. “If they were going to build something that costs 10 times more to rent, that’s going to be hard for us. I like the industrial nature of it. It suits our business well.”
Silver-Ramp isn’t the only one worried about displacement.
“I would like to see growth, absolutely, being mindful about rising home prices,” said Allison Furrer Schaumburg, chairwoman of the McKinley Community board. “Our property taxes went up for the first time last year in five years, and I know that is absolutely a factor for homeownership, and it plays into rent prices.”
Juxtaposition Arts, a local nonprofit, talked to 400 North Siders about the Upper Harbor Terminal in the summer and fall. People want the development to include affordable housing, they said, and they want it to offer public access to the river. “They want the river to be a place where they can go with friends and family, and yes, access trails, the water and adjacent public spaces,” said Kristen Murray, who conducted the surveys for Juxtaposition Arts.
Cunningham, the council member, wants to help residents negotiate “community benefits agreements” with the developers — United Properties, Thor Construction and First Avenue Productions — to ensure that the project includes affordable commercial space for local businesses, or affordable housing, or provide local jobs at a livable wage. The community benefits agreements could be one condition for the City Council to approve the developer’s plans, Cunningham said.
Long road ahead
A multitude of details must be sorted out over the next two months, said Calvert, the project coordinator. Vehicles can get to the site only from Dowling Avenue. A traffic study is underway. The power line overhead must either be moved or buried. The grain elevators and fertilizer domes may qualify for historic status and preservation. The city, Park Board, and developers must figure out how much everything will cost and who will pay for what.
The city applied for a state grant to help pay for new roads, but didn’t get it. The city and Park Board are asking the state of Minnesota for $15 million in bonding for the project, and will likely have to match that with $15 million in funding of their own.
The terminal stopped functioning as a port when the Upper St. Anthony Falls lock was closed in the summer of 2015. The site is still managed by River Services Inc., a subsidiary of a national firm called River Trading Corp. River Services runs a skeleton crew there — three employees.
Jerry Christensen, the general manager, works out of a faux-wood-paneled office in the warehouse. He’s served on two committees in 20 years to come up with ideas of redeveloping the Upper Harbor Terminal. “They scrapped those plans,” he said.
The firm uses the domes to store fertilizer and fill up semi-trailers, and rents storage space to other companies. The crane cab above the old dock is broken down, its windows smashed and its machinery in a jumble.
When the company’s contract ends in December 2019, Christensen said, River Services will be ready to leave the site for good.