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Will Thor Construction’s closure affect plans for the Upper Harbor Terminal?

Council member Phillipe Cunningham is confident any replacement for Thor will meet the city and community’s expectations, especially around including people of color.

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

After some 20 years of meetings and conversations about what the city of Minneapolis should do with the Upper Harbor Terminal, the t-shape parcel of land along the Mississippi River just north of the Lowry Avenue, the city marked a major milestone this spring in its efforts to redevelop the site: The City Council unanimously approved a plan for initial construction of new housing, businesses and an outdoor music venue on the 48-acre property.

At the time, City Council members described the vote as a jumping off point for more specific conversations with the project’s master developer, United Properties, over what to do with the site in terms of land-use, aesthetics and design, and promised Northside residents the city would do more in the coming months to include them in the project.

But now, as the city works on engaging those residents in meetings and outreach events, one piece of behind-the-scenes work on the project has changed: Minneapolis-based Thor Construction which United Properties had partnered with to design and construct the project is folding.

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Thor’s involvement

In 2016, when the city made its first steps toward redeveloping the Upper Harbor Terminal, United Properties was the only developer to step forward with a comprehensive plan for the site, once the home to a barge shipping terminal. That proposal included plans to build hundreds of units of housing; thousands of square feet for manufacturing, offices, shopping and restaurants; a public park; and — most notably — a performance venue in the form of a 8,000-10,000 seat outdoor amphitheater.

In early 2017, the Minneapolis City Council and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board approved United Properties as the project’s master developer. Along the way, United had picked up two high-profile partners to help with the project: First Avenue Productions, which would run the performance venue, and Thor Construction.

Established in 1980, Thor had previously been involved in some the the Twin Cities biggest construction projects — U.S. Bank Stadium and the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium, among others — though most of its business came from work it did out of state. Over the years, it had grown to become one the country’s biggest black-owned companies.

For the Upper Harbor Terminal project, Thor was to take the lead on ensuring equitable development and measuring the project’s impact on the area’s economy, social landscape and environment, according to the early proposal for development.

In early 2019, however — less than six months after Thor opened a new headquarters in north Minneapolis — St. Paul-based Sunrise Banks sued the company. As part of the suit, the bank alleged that the company was “generally not paying its debts as they become due, including payroll obligations,” and sought the repayment of more than $3 million in debts and a receivership to take over the company.

Then, in an interview with the Star Tribune last month, founder Richard Copeland announced the end of Thor Construction, citing ongoing financial issues and the lawsuits against the company.

So what does that mean for the Upper Harbor Terminal project?

Right now, the city and developers are working on a report detailing the project’s impact and financial feasibility, and “the ultimate goal is for consistency to keep the same folks at the table as much as possible,” said City Council member Phillipe Cunningham, who represents the North Minneapolis’ Ward 4, where the terminal is located. 

To that end, former Thor CEO Ravi Norman remains in contact with the development team in a consulting capacity, said Cunningham. (Norman could not be reached for an interview, nor could Copeland and other members of the company’s leadership team.) But eventually, United Properties will have to select a new construction partner, something that will happen “when the project moves to the development phase,” company spokeswoman Sheila Thelemann wrote in an email.

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Plenty of concerns, with or without Thor

Long before the change in the development team, the project faced pushback from some community members. In the days leading up to the council’s vote in March, dozens of people filled council chambers to criticize the city’s 34-page conceptual plan — saying it had not adequately sought the public’s feedback, nor taken concrete steps to make sure the new construction does not negatively impact neighbors.

Some housing-rights advocates, for one, are concerned the new development will increase surrounding property values to unaffordable levels, forcing current residents to find new places to live. Neighboring the site are residential areas (Webber-Camden, McKinley, Hawthorne, etc.) with median household incomes below the city’s and metro region’s levels, Census data show.

“Many people are hanging on by a thread for being able to stay there,” said Jake Virden, of northeast Minneapolis, who has been organizing against the Upper Harbor Terminal redevelopment since 2014. “If you look at the project, it’s no substantial change with profits going outside to the community.”

His interest in the project is personal; His father’s family used to live in a home about a block from the riverfront in southeast Minneapolis, but they eventually had to move because housing costs rose too quickly and the house became unaffordable. He believes the city is not focusing enough on building wealth and opportunity among people of color and working-class residents of the Northside.

“At first, United Properties wasn’t talked about as much, and that’s a way to sell the project that it’s black and it’s going to build wealth among black communities,” he said. “I didn’t think Thor was enough” to address that issue, he said, and their absence from the project is “just another” reason why the city should go back to the drawing board, he said.

Michael Chaney, a food activist and founder of Project Sweetie Pie, which trains young people in urban farming, said without the surrounding community organizing around the Upper Harbor Terminal, “We’d be lucky for a park bench with a pavilion.”

He said he’d been contacted by the developers to help design a first-of-its-kind utility hub as well as other environmentally focused spaces under the conceptual plan. But he wants the development team to think bigger. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity in the country to captivate the conversation around global warming,” he said.

Chaney, however, does not have concerns about Thor’s departure from the development team. “What has happened with Thor is unfortunate and a step back for the broader community,” he said. “Thor Construction was another arm of Thor, and Ravi Norman was kind of the captain of that ship, and he could still be involved in the Upper Harbor Terminal if there is synergy.”

Whitney Clark, executive director of Friends of the Mississippi River, which also opposed the conceptual plan for the Upper Harbor Terminal, expressed a similar sentiment: “(Thor folding) doesn’t really change anything,” he said.

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What happens now

In response to concerns from community members who did not feel heard during the formation of the conceptual plan, the City Council established a 15-member advisory group, the Upper Harbor Terminal Community Planning and Engagement Committee. On Friday, the City Council will vote on the group’s appointees, who will serve until 2021.

The committee will help guide what project leaders are calling a “coordinated plan” that will specify ideas in the conceptual plan. Developers are hoping to release that plan later this year.

After that, officials will negotiate contracts for construction that will allow developers to break ground. “In terms of the process itself, we are still very much so on track,” Cunningham said.

Meanwhile, United Properties will look for a new partner to fill Thor’s role on the development team. Once the master developer picks a replacement, Cunningham said, the matter will likely go before the city council for a vote.

He said he is confident United Properties will select a partner that meets the city and community’s expectations, specifically around including people of color. “Whoever is at the table as a developer will have those shared values that are explicitly named, and they will be following,” he said. “We’re so lucky and grateful to have United Properties who is all like, … ‘We want to follow the community’s lead; We want to get this right. We want this to be something that northsiders benefit from and enjoy.’ I feel very confident that they are not going to bring somebody on board who … would run counter to those values. I have no concern about that.”