For more than 50 years a city-owned barge facility in north Minneapolis known as the Upper Harbor Terminal served as the Port of Minneapolis. With the closure of the Upper St. Anthony Falls lock in 2015, the upper river closed to commercial navigation and the 48-acre site with a mile of Mississippi riverfront has become something else: an opportunity to set a new standard for how to transform civic assets into engines of community well-being.
We are deeply disappointed that city leaders are about to squander this rare opportunity. Despite widespread opposition from neighbors and stakeholder groups, on Jan. 22, the City Council’s Economic Development and Regulatory Services Committee is poised to approve a plan brought forward by developers that privatizes most of the site, reduces public parkland and ignores community wealth-building and ownership opportunities.
The Upper Harbor Terminal has long been seen as a linchpin in a larger plan to transform the riverfront in north Minneapolis from predominantly private, industrial land to public parks, trails and adjacent redevelopment that creates opportunities for community wealth-building.
Unlike most proposals that come forward where the developers are entitled to build what they want with their own money so long as it’s consistent with the site’s zoning, this site is entirely in public ownership. The city can decide what kind of development goes here, who benefits from it and who is allowed to participate in the decisionmaking process.
Unfortunately, in this case, the city essentially outsourced the planning to private developers who drove the priorities and defined who would benefit. Just one static plan (recently slightly revised) was offered for community comment. Not a single alternative concept was publicly explored, so community members never had a chance to compare and contrast the benefits and costs of different approaches. The result is a limited plan that leverages the value of the river mostly for private benefit.
The plan’s centerpiece is an extravagant, privately-owned $48 million, 10,000 capacity concert venue situated very close to the river’s edge. For this private business, the developers expect to seek 40 percent of the needed funds from public sources. Adjacent to the concert facility, the plan calls for a private riverfront hotel. Both the hotel and the concert venue would be within the boundaries of the Above the Falls Regional Park. Overall, the development plan reduces the amount of public parkland from 28 acres as proposed by the Minneapolis Park Board in 2013 to 19.5, a 30 percent reduction in riverfront park.
We are not advocating throwing out the entire plan. Many elements have merit and could add value to the site. An amphitheater or performance venue could be a valuable amenity — especially if it were smaller, publicly owned and situated within the park (think Lake Harriet Band Shell). The current plan proposes housing on a portion of the site, including a significant percentage of affordable units, which would allow neighbors with lower incomes to enjoy the benefits of riverfront living. And the plan proposes improvements to Dowling Avenue that would make it easier and safer for residents of existing neighborhoods to cross I-94 and enjoy the riverfront.
We believe that an economic development of this significance in north Minneapolis should be driven by the principles of economic justice. As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality.”
On Jan. 22, the city’s Economic Development and Regulatory Services Committee should reject adoption of the plan in its current form and instead adopt a planning process that truly engages neighborhood residents and community stakeholders as co-creators and partners alongside developers, city and park board staff.
We support community residents’ calls for a process that starts from an equity framework that serves the larger socioeconomic goals of the community consistent with Dr. King’s vision and sees the great Mississippi River as an asset that bestows its gifts equitably to all people.
Whitney Clark is executive director of Friends of the Mississippi River. Paul Bauknight is a North Side resident, fellow at the Minnesota design center, urban designer and activist.