In the wake of last year's rejection of Hennepin County's first choice for a new social services hub in north Minneapolis, a replacement site is about to be rolled out.
The aim is to avoid the fate of the previously proposed site at West Broadway and Irving Avenue N., which smacked up against community opposition and ultimately was rejected by the Minneapolis City Council.
The proposed new site is a squat, vacant building on the corner of Plymouth and Emerson Avenues N. that offers roughly 25,000 square feet.
"You never know how these developments are going to go; it can take a turn at any time," said Don Sabre, head of administrative and community-based services in the county's Human Services and Public Department.
By the end of 2014, the county will have decentralized its entire social services operation, dispersing it from the original headquarters at Century Plaza in downtown Minneapolis to six smaller sites.
It's already opened a hub in Brooklyn Center and approved sites in south Minneapolis and Bloomington. It also is negotiating for a site in Hopkins and has chosen one downtown, the Health Services Building at 525 Portland Av. S.
But a site in north Minneapolis has been more elusive, despite the high demand for social services there.
For now, county residents converge on Century Plaza, near the Minneapolis Convention Center, to receive and apply for help with food, housing, child care, employment and just general assistance.
Wesley Smith was there recently and stepped up to thank a county employee as she handed out brochures about upcoming meetings about the proposed north Minneapolis site. Smith, who now works as a schools recruiter and lives in Richfield, formerly was a planning analyst at a NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center in north Minneapolis.
"We can sit up here and say, 'We don't want that,' but there's want and there's need, especially for people who use public transportation," he said. "If we're talking about North Side improvement, why would this not be an improvement?"
This time, more support
The argument against the West Broadway site was that it didn't fit with city plans to transform the artery into a major commercial corridor with restaurants, retail and coffee shops. Opponents said placing a social services site there would reinforce West Broadway's reputation as troubled and poverty-filled.
Other concerns were that the hub would further congest the corner, also home to Minneapolis public schools' new headquarters. And Jordan neighborhood residents expressed dissatisfaction with the process, saying they weren't informed early enough.
Thus, the distribution now of brochures that read, "Hennepin County is building a future with North Minneapolis. Help us make it happen."
The county will conduct multilingual community meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday (May 14-15) and May 22 at 700 Humboldt Av. N., 612-377-7422.
"We've tried to be inclusive and reach what we hoped would be a good sampling of residents," Sabre said.
The Northside Residents Redevelopment Council has signed on to the site — a good sign for the county. The previous site faced strong Jordan neighborhood opposition.
At Century Plaza on a recent afternoon, Stephanie Lemon-Suggs, a mother of three who lives in north Minneapolis, said she is eager for a new hub that doesn't involve logistical problems and cost. Coming downtown is difficult for her partner, and their car needs repairs. And the next nearest hub "is all the way up in Brooklyn Center, so I've got to hop from bus to bus to bus," she said.
In addition, parking near the plaza can be a headache — and expensive, a hurdle for those already struggling with financial problems.
North Side developer the Ackerberg Group was on board with the earlier site, and with this one. Ackerberg is expected to redevelop the building and lease it to the county.
When the last site fell through, Stuart Ackerberg said he wouldn't fight neighborhood opposition. "It's got to be a win-win," he said at the time.
Hennepin County Commissioner Linda Higgins represents the area. "That's a building that's been vacant a long time," she said. The site is amid other industrial buildings, offices and near housing, but not in an area designed for commercial pedestrian traffic.
Sabre and Higgins, however, noted that there are good bus connections to the site. "If we can have something that's more easily accessible, the people will appreciate it," she said.
Barring another rejection, the goal is to begin work on the building this fall. "We're hopeful," Sabre said.
So far, it's been smooth, or as Higgins said, "I haven't had people yelling at me."