Minneapolis now has a road map that could lead to the start of redevelopment of the city-owned Upper Harbor Terminal — the largest site likely to come available on its upper riverfront — within five years.

The vision for the area, outlined in the updated Above The Falls master plan, includes a riverfront park, business park and mixed-use development. But first, financing would need to be arranged for projects that emerge from a planning process approved recently by the City Council and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board for redeveloping the 48-acre site.

The former port offers a redevelopment canvas that's more than 40 football fields in size, but it comes with significant restrictions.

Although tests find only spotty soil contamination, the site is bisected by power lines and a rail line. Moreover, some aging port structures, such as storage domes and conveyors for commodities, have been deemed eligible for historic preservation. That means the city needs to determine if they can be reused or preserved.

"If we have to save that junk, I will be so disappointed," City Council President Barbara Johnson said.

The city and Xcel Energy have been discussing the cost of shifting the power lines.

Those uncertainties have made it difficult to determine where a riverside park would end and business and housing development to boost the city tax base would begin.

So two key agencies, the Park Board and the city's Department of Community Planning and Economic Development, are turning this year to a yet-to-be selected private-sector developer for market-driven advice on how to best use the site.

The focus initially will be on the northern half of the site, where complications are greatest. A master developer will be picked on qualifications rather than a specific proposal, given the site uncertainties, according to the city-park agreement. That developer would have the exclusive right to work with the public agencies on a plan that's feasible in the market and meets public goals, such as extending W. River Parkway and accompanying trails along the river, and creating a destination attraction near the Dowling Avenue freeway exit.

The two agencies also plan to solicit tenants who might relocate to the harbor, plus developers interested in working on a portion of the site under the master developer's plan. The timing of both solicitations is still undetermined, but the goal is to adopt a redevelopment plan in 2018.

"There's obviously more developer interest than there was a couple years ago," said Johnson, the area's council representative, citing the improved economy.

Area Park Commissioner Jon Olson said the process has benefited from strong support from Johnson and Mayor Betsy Hodges.

"It's exciting, the commitment they've made to bringing nice amenities to the community," he said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

More outreach planned

Some advocates also see a prime opportunity to bring new voices to the discussion.

The grass-roots Parks and Power campaign has pressured the Park Board to include more minorities, low-income people, those not speaking English and working parents in planning for park improvements and operations. It argues that the Park Board and previous river planning don't adequately represent those groups or measure the effect of proposed changes on poor communities.

The board itself has also been debating how to bring more racial equity into park planning, and it recently asked staff to revise the outreach plan for the harbor area.

That plan included a traditional community advisory committee appointed largely by city and park officials, river advocacy groups and neighborhoods. But planning staff already have begun scheduling outreach efforts in the adjacent neighborhoods, such as at the March 12 Northside Housing Fair. Staff are also working with the city's neighborhood liaisons on other ways to reach people.

"It's not business as usual for either one of us to plan like this," said park planner Kate Lamers.

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