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A Mill site deserves something unique, special — and accessible

The Mississippi River and the adjoining riverfront is one of the great treasures of the Twin Cities area and the birthplace of Minneapolis. In the historic St. Anthony Falls neighborhood, near the Stone Arch Bridge, sits the Pillsbury A Mill, considered a historic landmark and designated as one of 13 “endangered historic sites” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation

It is important to preserve the A Mill site. It deserves something unique and special that is accessible to the public. An earlier plan for the site by a local developer called for a mixed-use complex that would couple historic rehabilitation with new construction. The plan did not come to fruition when the economy slowed down.

Now comes a proposal by another developer, Dominium, seeking city approval to turn the A Mill site into a 255-unit housing-only project for artists, using significant tax subsidies. The plan is unimaginative, has a limited focus, does not envision mixed uses, does not take public access or open space into consideration, and will be an economic burden on taxpayers for years to come.

 As neighbors and preservationists, we believe the A Mill site needs to fit into a comprehensive plan for the riverfront that includes the remaining historic structures like the old grain silos, which are not now part of the proposed plan. Dominium says it only builds housing projects. But there are so many more possibilities for interpretive preservation and development. Like the river, we should let our imaginations flow freely.

Other possibilities

While the city has not sought alternatives to the Dominium plan, there are other realistic possibilities. For example, University of Minnesota architecture students and the School of Architecture have come up with a number of designs [PDF] that take the entire area into account and provide for integrated mixed use that includes housing, retail, parks, open space and preserves and revitalizes the riverfront. These design ideas would make the riverfront a focus of our urban landscape and make the riverfront, in the words of the university project, a “destination for citizens, businesses and investors.” The point is that it is a much more comprehensive way of looking at the riverfront than just one sole-purpose narrowly focused project.

Building affordable housing in this location is extremely costly because of the renovations needed to the historic buildings. Under the current proposal, the average cost per unit of low-income housing is $372,000, or two to three times what it should cost for such housing in the rest of the metro area and also well above the $221,000 average home price in the Twin Cities.

The $95 million proposed housing project will require at least $70 million in direct public subsidies. The $60 million in tax credits that will flow to the developer are a direct reduction of federal and state revenues as large corporations use the credits to reduce their tax liability. The cost is borne not by the companies, but by those who rely on federal and state government to fund state jobs, public pensions, education and safety-net programs.

A lost opportunity as well

The proposed project also represents a lost opportunity for the city, already facing property-tax increases, to expand and increase the property-tax base. Some $10 million of Tax Increment Financing for this project will ensure that this valuable parcel will not add any meaningful property-tax revenues to the city, which so desperately needs those revenues.

Before it is too late, why not slow down the process and consider a private-sector or perhaps a foundation-supported mixed-use project for this site? Just next door, the Doran project on the other side of the A Mill is building market-rate apartments and did not require Tax Increment Financing.

Timing is crucial because City Council committees will begin considering this plan in the next few weeks.

This is not a fight about neighbors who don’t want to give others a chance to enjoy the riverfront the way we do. The riverfront is for all Twin Cities residents and visitors. It’s about developing the right mix of housing, business and preservation and protecting our cherished resource, the Mississippi, in a fiscally responsible way. It would be truly exciting if the A Mill site, which was state-of-the-art and important in its time, would become, through careful planning, relevant again for another 100 years. The stakes are too high to rush through a proposal that prompts more questions than answers. Our cherished riverfront and the citizens of the Twin Cities deserve better.

Kathleen Flynn Peterson and Robert Stanek are
homeowners on the east bank in historic St. Anthony Falls and neighbors of the A Mill site.

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