U pulls out of North Side center

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 9, 2008 - 5:16 AM

The decision leaves supporters disappointed and the school looking for space for family programs.

The University of Minnesota has decided to pull out as a main tenant of a planned $60 million social services building on the North Side of Minneapolis, citing worsening finances.

The university's decision last week means that innovative programs aimed at keeping families together and improving parenting skills won't be offered at the planned building near Plymouth and Penn Avenues. That's where the county's NorthPoint health and social service center is based.

"I'm just very, very disappointed. I was very, very enthusiastic about it," Council Member Don Samuels said Wednesday. He and other North Side political leaders expended political capital for the university's plans in the face of some critics who accused the school of experimenting on black families.

Robert Jones, a senior university vice president, blamed a worsening financial picture for the university and the nation, and higher lease costs than the university could afford.

He said the university remains committed to renovating the nearby Plymouth-Penn shopping center as a base for a smorgasbord of university outreach programs ranging from pre-kindergarten preparation to master gardening. He said that the school will look elsewhere in the community for space for its research-based family programs headed by Dante Cicchetti.

But Samuels said his understanding is those programs will be based at the university, with satellite space on the North Side, not based in the community.

Jones said that the construction cost of about $380 per square foot for the county's new building raised red flags for the university about its potential lease costs. "That caused us great concern," he said.

Gary Cunningham, NorthPoint's former top executive, said the county is short-sighted if it's letting lease rates get in the way of a university program that promises big savings in the county's $31 million annual cost for removing children from troubled homes and placing them in alternative settings.

County officials tried to negotiate when they learned of the university's decision late last week. "I told them flat-out I'd make it appealing for them," said Commissioner Mark Stenglein, who represents the area. "It was a shock to me," he said.

But he said the university's falling reimbursement rates for family services contributed to the decision. The university was to occupy up to 40 percent of the building, which was to be built on the site of an older building that would be razed. The county was to occupy the greatest share of space with human services programs, and a YMCA fitness center also was planned for the site.

"We all believed that this is exactly what the community needed," Samuels said. Part of the university's emphasis was to be on treating families with child abuse and other family issues. "To lose the North Side being the central location for that service is very disappointing and it feels like the partnership is less than it could have been."

Samuels said the decision will be discussed at a 4:30 p.m. meeting today at NorthPoint.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

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