In Minneapolis, a new era for neighborhoods

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 31, 2011 - 10:03 PM

Power, money once in the hands of residents will shift downtown.

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A family from Mexico City had lunch last week at Mercado Central, a gathering place for the Hispanic community in Minneapolis. The city is ending a program of direct investment in neighborhoods that was credited with revitalizing housing and fostering development.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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For 20 years, a $300 million civic experiment won international plaudits for reshaping Minneapolis from the neighborhoods up. Now the city is preparing for life after the Neighborhood Revitalization Program.

On Jan. 1, the program's director for most of its existence, Bob Miller, will lose his job and the governing board of the quasi-independent NRP will be replaced. The program's functions will be taken over by a new city neighborhoods agency that's part of Mayor R.T. Rybak's administration, but many longtime neighborhood activists think they won't have the same power they wielded for two decades.

"City Hall listened when we had some money to play with, when we said we have $300,000 and we want you to fix this street," said Rita Ulrich, director of the Nokomis East neighborhood group, one of more than 60 funded by NRP. "I'm not sure that they're going to listen when we say we want you to spend $300,000."

In the late 1980s, city leaders worried that the arrival of crack cocaine, the decline in rental housing caused by federal tax law changes and a sense of deterioration would cost the city its middle class.

The Legislature responded by authorizing the NRP, which sent property tax revenue from city development projects to priorities set by neighbors.

Up to $20 million annually went to parks, schools, libraries and, especially, housing.

NRP is credited for fostering the multicultural haven of restaurants on Nicollet Avenue S. known as Eat Street. It allowed a North Side neighborhood to research suspicious property sales, leading to the federal take-down of a vast mortgage fraud ring. It generated thousands of fix-up loans or grants to property owners.

Dramatic cut in funds

One co-founder, former Council Member Tony Scallon, recalled how NRP money financed a book of plans for expanding bungalows that helped keep his Longfellow neighbors from moving as families grew.

"That's why I think NRP was a great success," he said. "Right now, Longfellow is a hot neighborhood."

Not all the spending won rave reviews. NRP financed so many murals that they became a sore point with the program's critics. Renters and minorities often weren't represented in proportion to their numbers. Fights over control of the sudden flow of dollars to the city's neighborhood groups caused a few of them to implode.

Still, NRP won recognition from the United Nations to the federal Housing and Urban Development Department, and was the model for cities like Seattle to launch their own neighborhood programs. Nine of 13 current City Council members served on neighborhood boards in the NRP era.

But since the program's funding ended in 2009 without renewal, neighborhood groups operating on leftover NRP funds have been fighting a losing battle with City Hall over how much money to put into neighborhoods.

The post-NRP neighborhood program will be run out of City Hall during a budget crunch in which city leaders have strained to find $5 million a year for neighborhood programs, far less than NRP's $20 million annually.

Bob Miller, the scruffy bureaucrat who ran NRP and frequented neighborhood meeting halls, said exerting some influence on NRP's relatively small part of the city's budget is what brought residents out to vote on what they wanted in their neighborhoods. If less money and tighter city control mean residents don't think they'll have much impact, they'll stay home, Miller said.

"I don't think they want neighborhoods to have any real power at all," said Miller, who briefly ran for mayor against Rybak in 2009.

Peter Wagenius, a senior policy aide to Rybak, said the end of NRP doesn't mean the end of neighborhood clout. "People showing up is what gives them their power," he said.

Stretching scarce dollars

City Hall has been planning for life after NRP for more than four years, but key decisions remain.

The city's annual $5 million was intended to keep neighborhood offices open and staffs paid, plus establish two pots of money for improvement programs. One pot was to be split among neighborhoods, giving each a small amount to spend on improvements as residents saw fit. The other pot was held at City Hall, and neighborhoods could compete for it. But neither is ready to go.

The money for this was to come from property taxes reaped from the city's development districts. But in a last-minute budget switch in December, Rybak and the council decided they'd devote that money to property tax relief in 2012 and 2013. They instead will dip into unspent NRP money that neighborhoods had already earmarked for projects.

That plan left some neighborhoods with little money to spend until the new program kicked in, while others, such as Nokomis East, lost much of the money that residents had drawn plans to spend, most of it on housing programs.

The neighborhood lost some $600,000 of $1.6 million it expected in NRP's second phase. In contrast, it got $95,000 this year from the city to keep running, about enough to staff an office with two people. They'll try to make the neighborhood's remaining $1 million from NRP last as many years as they can.

Results vary

Ulrich, the neighborhood group's director, said she's not optimistic that neighborhoods will have much influence at City Hall in a post-NRP era, given their track record so far.

"Neighborhoods pretty much universally said no" to that City Hall proposal, she said.

Under draft rules for life after NRP, a neighborhood's proposals will be assigned to a city department to work with the neighborhood on a program.

On the North Side, Roberta Englund, who staffs two neighborhood groups, said she's had some good luck with the city's new neighborhood department so far. The city sent $600,000 to six neighborhoods after the May 22 tornado, and the department is supporting them in developing their plan to spend roughly $240,000 to help beleaguered homeowners with fixes like roof or chimney repairs. But at the same time, a pending city development plan for the tornado-damaged Penn-Broadway area has had no neighborhood input, Englund said.

But some say that regardless of the fights over how much money neighborhoods ought to get, they can remain influential if they stick to the basics of community organizing.

"The more you are focused at the street level and focusing on neighbors and making sure their voices are heard, the more everything will come out all right," said Jay Clark, who now trains neighborhood organizers at the University of Minnesota.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

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