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Upper Harbor Terminal: The fatal flaw

Concept rendering of the community performing arts center
City of Minneapolis
Concept rendering of the community performing arts center at the Upper Harbor Terminal.

The Upper Harbor Terminal (UHT) located along the Mississippi River is approximately 48 acres in north Minneapolis. It is isolated from the majority of the area by the interstate, with limited street access. As, in the past, it is prime real estate for industrial development. Recently, the city acquired the property for redevelopment.

Because of its location, terminating at the Mississippi, and with the above restrictions, increasing access via cars, public transport or “foot traffic” is problematic and costly, at best. Its presence along the Mississippi allows for the completion of a vital segment of the Grand Rounds pathway and ease of access from the water but severely restricts its benefit as a park for the residents of north Minneapolis.

The fact that the 25 acres of the highly developed North Commons Park in the heart of the community is underutilized speaks to the use of a portion for a park. At best, such a “park” at UHT is a wayside for those transiting the byway or visitors from the river. At worst it’s an incentive for any residential development on the remaining land to become gentrified, similar to The Landings adjacent to the river in downtown Minneapolis.

The residents of north Minneapolis favor developing the site for industrial use to create much-needed local jobs. This matches its previous use with the present infrastructure to support or improve that opportunity. The city and the developers have proposed a substantive entertainment complex and have eschewed or pushed forward any consideration of the industrial possibilities, though there is commercial interest presently.

North Minneapolis was developed as a “bedroom” community. Its residential nature has no extensive business centers. While entertainment and sports complexes thrive in Minneapolis, they do so because hotels, restaurants and related facilities support the needs of attendees. The isolation of the UHT site and the intermittent nature of such venues do not bode well for employment at the site. It also represents significant risk of capital investments for any enterprise that would depend on the draw of the complex at UHT. Because of the current income of residents in north Minneapolis, mixed residential/business options are problematic even with accelerated development. Worst-case scenario, for current residents, is acceleration of the current gentrification in north Minneapolis.

The community has defined a significant need for “affordable” housing, attesting to the current economic profile and the lack of benefit of the entertainment complex to the residents, in addition to the potential of gentrification of any housing development at the UHT site. The City’s CPED (Community Planning and Economic Development) has proposals for such housing but at the 60% to 80% of AMI, area median income, which excludes significant numbers of current north side residents whether developed separately or in conjunction with the development at the UHT site.

Tom P. Abeles
Tom P. Abeles
The intractable nature of the isolation of the UHT site from the north Minneapolis community makes it exceedingly expensive to develop the infrastructure for other than its historic use because industrial use places limited demands for alternative transportation infrastructure. It further makes setting aside a portion of the site for “affordable” housing problematic when better opportunities exist within the greater north side community. Such development also encourages the development of businesses providing an end to what can be termed a “retail” desert.

The obsessive focus of the city and its development partners on an entertainment complex for UHT is far less than an optimum choice as its center. It has taken the eye off the larger needs of the entire north Minneapolis community. More important, the city has been intentionally blind to the rising gentrification in the area exacerbated by the current plans with no visible effort to mitigate this concern of the residents.

The original intent of the city was to work with the community in “ground up” development of UHT. The consultants, hired to create this path, have failed. Continuation on the current path is like the lemmings marching over the cliff.

It is time to look at the north side from a systems perspective and correct the fatal flaw in the current plans for the Upper Harbor Terminal.

Tom P. Abeles is a former professor of environmental sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. He has been consulting internationally on issues of sustainability, renewable energy and environmental planning, including economic development in both rural and urban areas, for over five decades.


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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 03/17/2020 - 09:11 am.

    Well it is clear that “gentrification” is on your mind. As a 35+ year resident of NOMI we need some “gentrification”. Folks that have a few extra $ in their pocket will bring new and different business and look, to the North Side, and probably help to reduce, crime and social dysfunction. We probably agree a music venue vs a economic engine, housing plan, may be the better alternative for the location. As far as transportation, the terminal is right off Washington Ave, and Dowling, has I94 freeway on and off ramps, not dissimilar in nature to one used off 2nd/Washington a few miles south by what 10-15,000 folks that work in the city everyday.
    Folks need look no farther than the census and state data to determine that gentrification is very much a plus and not a minus for NOMI. Unless of course concentrating low income folks, sex offenders, and minorities is the objective?

    • Submitted by tom abeles on 03/17/2020 - 10:57 am.

      Yes, gentrification is an issue that needs much discussion. I agree that, done right, it can be the asset you so well describe. One needs to remember that the area grew as a “bedroom” community. The transit corridors you note, point to a continuation of the same situation*. It’s the reverse argument around the 2040 plan where residents along major transit routes raise the issue of NIMBY.

      The issue of the development of north Minneapolis has yet to be fully addressed and your thoughts present a critical opportunity to start that exploration. My concern is that small (in comparison to the greater north side) isolated parcel, the Upper Harbor Terminal and whether or not affordable housing or housing in general is the best use for that site or whether the City should consider your ideas and others as to how to optimize housing for the larger north side and encourage selective industrial/commercial development at UHT.

      *Transportation planners know, even today, that there the increase in alternatives such as Uber and Lyft, the emergence of self driving vehicles and the shift from fossil fuel to electricity. This includes both personal and transit vehicles. The ramifications for current and future residents plays heavily on the issue you have raised and needs to be addressed in the discussion.

  2. Submitted by David Markle on 03/17/2020 - 11:58 am.

    For quite a while, the “vision’ of Minneapolis planners and politicians has been a city of boutiques and high-priced condominiums. They don’t want industry.

    One thing to watch: who is or are the developers? Our beloved city has favorites. In fact, it’s sometimes shown favoritism to the degree of apparent corruption.

    A smaller example, now moving forward, is the redevelopment of Lot ‘A” on the West Bank, where, as predicted, the only respondent to the city’s dim-sighted and effectively exclusive RFP is Sherman Associates. The development may not be high-priced condos, but like Upper Harbor, it’s on a plot that has serious access problems. it does include a boutique concept: an “African Mall'” that will attract outside investors to compete with existing immigrant businesses. Many nearby residents oppose the project because it increases housing density beyond reason, while not providing them with needed green space and expanded recreational facilities.

    And based on the example of Sherman’s adjacent Riverside Plaza, the new property will be allowed to deteriorate while cash gets steadily withdrawn for use elsewhere. After many years, when another round of tax shelter financing must take place, Sherman may do just enough periodic maintenance to keep the place operating, if he can get enough government subsidy.

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