Minneapolis plans to ask the Legislature for $20 million for the massive redevelopment of the former Upper Harbor Terminal on the North Side, even as leaders of a community group tasked with refining the plan have resigned or spoken out in protest.
The City Council made a new effort to engage the community this year in its plan to revitalize 48 acres of industrial riverfront above Lowry Avenue with an outdoor concert venue, housing, a community hub, parks and more. Residents of the predominantly black neighborhoods nearby have expressed fears that what’s built there wouldn’t benefit them, and in fact could force them to leave as the neighborhood gentrifies.
At the urging of Council Member Phillipe Cunningham, the council created an advisory committee and appointed more than a dozen residents from north and northeast Minneapolis. Yet the meetings over the past seven months failed to convince the committee’s leaders that the project is headed in the right direction.
Two of the group’s members, including its vice chairwoman, resigned in November. Last week, its outspoken chairman was stripped of his position by the remaining members. Earlier, the city removed the consultants who were facilitating the meetings, which had become increasingly tense.
Alexis Pennie, the former committee chairman and a North Side resident, said he came into the group looking to make the Upper Harbor Terminal more inclusive of his community. Instead, he felt they had become a rubber stamp for the development.
“I definitely think it’s a boondoggle,” he said of the project. “I know that we’re going to get some nice, bright, shiny buildings. If people think that’s equitable and good development, that’s unfortunate.”
Cunningham, while recognizing the meetings are at times frustrating, rejected the claim that the city isn’t listening to neighbors as it moves forward with the project, which is in his ward.
“There is good reason for the community to not trust the city, because the city has caused so much harm in the past,” he said in an interview. “It’s believable that the city is yet again leaving the North Side out of the process, and that is just not true. Not under my watch.”
However, some differences became irreconcilable.
Former committee vice chairwoman Tessa Anttila and member Paul Bauknight raised concerns about an exclusive rights agreement signed in 2017 by the city, developer United Properties, First Avenue Productions and Thor Cos., which was removed as a partner this year. They resigned in November, saying they could not support the project in good faith and calling the city “obstructionist” in a resignation letter.
“The project suffers from the same problems that lots of community development projects have: There’s too much focus on the physical development,” Bauknight said. “How it was being developed would not make some of the differences in the socioeconomic needs of the North Side.”
City officials said the committee’s interests have changed the direction of the project. They said the development team has relocated the concert venue, added a business park and placed a greater emphasis on job creation, affordable housing and community ownership.
Cunningham said the committee is on track to agree on a detailed plan for the redevelopment next year.
“There has of course been storming, where there’s been conflict and challenges, but also growth,” he said. “If we would’ve brought to the table everyone with the same perspective … we would’ve been doing a huge disservice not only to the North Side overall, but also to this process.”
Other committee members say the process has worked.
Markella Smith, executive director of the McKinley Neighborhood Association, said city officials have been more receptive to the committee’s feedback than in earlier meetings. This month, she organized an entrepreneurship fair for North Siders interested in owning businesses on the riverfront.
“I know there’s a lot of mistrust there, but at some point we have to start rebuilding that trust, and we have to believe that people will do the right thing,” she said.
Bill English, a committee member who has worked in the community for more than 40 years, said the Upper Harbor Terminal is the biggest opportunity for investment in the North Side.
“We have to stay at the table, be at the table, and demand the equity that leads to inclusion that was promised in this project,” he said.
The project is moving ahead on a tight schedule.
The development team secured $15 million in bonds from the state Legislature to put toward infrastructure by 2022, bonding money that will be matched by the city. It is expected to ask for $20 million more in the next session to build the concert venue, which could cost up to $49 million and hold up to 10,000 people. Legislators and community members have recently taken tours of the site’s decaying silos and domes.
The advisory committee will meet again in January.
Meanwhile, former members are looking at the Upper Harbor Terminal with trepidation.
“It could be something so beautiful, and I’m worried I’m going to look across the river and see so much sadness and loss for what it could’ve been,” Anttila, a northeast Minneapolis resident, said. “At this point I’m just feeling a little exhausted for how difficult we make this for ourselves.”