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Why Minneapolis wants to create six ‘cultural districts’ across the city

MinnPost file photo by Jessica Lee
The “cultural districts” concept was first approved by the Minneapolis’ City Council in its adoption of Minneapolis 2040 last December.
Minneapolis City Council members are launching a new effort to help develop the cities’ most diverse neighborhoods grow economically while keeping those areas affordable to current business owners — even if the council is not yet sure how it’s going to accomplish all that.

The city’s department for Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED) is currently working on the details of the initiative, which is aimed at creating what the city has dubbed “cultural districts,” a concept first approved by the Minneapolis’ City Council in its adoption of Minneapolis 2040 last December. Staff within the department are planning to release a specific plan for a council vote before the end of the year. 

In theory, the plan for the cultural districts is straightforward: The city wants to spend money to make streets cleaner, buildings look newer and help local entrepreneurs thrive in areas of Minneapolis where the majority of residents are people of color and where there’s a high concentration of low-income households. 

Less clear is how the new attention from the city will actually spur economic growth while keeping neighborhoods affordable. Low-income people across the city including artists in northeast, renters in north Minneapolis or Somali entrepreneurs in Cedar Riverside have expressed a growing fear over development detracting from local businesses and attracting newcomers who can afford higher property costs and would displace current residents.

“We’re not looking to have an area feel unwelcoming now to its own residents just because there’s going to be more interest in people coming to that area,” said Council Member Alondra Cano, who is helping organize the long-range planning. “How we roll out that value will matter.”

Origins in the 2040 plan

In a study of gentrification across Minneapolis released last year, a team of University of Minnesota researchers use Census data showing residents’ annual incomes, housing costs, race and educational backgrounds to determine how neighborhoods’ demographics have shifted over time. 

The researchers found that about 40 percent of city neighborhoods showed signs of gentrification between 2000 and 2015, with some areas — specifically East Phillips, Corcoran, St. Anthony West and Sheridan — becoming substantially more white and affluent within that time frame. Other areas, including Cedar Riverside and Ventura Village, are in line to follow that trend. 

While writing Minneapolis 2040, the city’s long-range planning director, Heather Worthington, said city planners heard concerns that reflected those changes. Small business owners in a variety of industries, from tattooing to child care to consulting, feared they won’t be able to afford their leases for too much longer because of outside investors targeting their neighborhoods for new development and driving up prices. “[They] just had this concern … that redevelopment and gentrification in these areas could lead to displacement of their businesses,” she said.

Minneapolis’ CPED is currently working on the details of the initiative, which is aimed at creating what the city has dubbed “cultural districts.” To help address some of those fears, city planners dedicated an entire chapter of Minneapolis 2040 to the cultural district concept. Then, in his 2020 budget address, Mayor Jacob Frey identified the six areas where he wants to create the zones: northeast’s Central Avenue, north Minneapolis’ West Broadway, Cedar-Riverside, Franklin Avenue, Lake Street and 38th Street

Beyond establishing the geographic boundaries, project leaders are now planning to categorize each district using a three-tiered system — “communicate,” “curate” and “catalyze” — based on their particular circumstances, said Cano. Areas such as Central Avenue, which have stable economies but could use help from marketing groups to rebrand their image, might fall under the “communicate” label. On the other end of the spectrum, the “catalyze” designation is meant for places with the strongest need for attention — such as West Broadway in north Minneapolis — while “curate” is somewhere in the middle. 

With those tiers in mind, Cano said City Council members want to test new programs that will incentivize both residential and commercial development to give new purpose to vacant buildings and create affordable housing. 

She said that type of government-sponsored development could ensure growth that aligns with the neighborhoods’ look and feel, rather than allowing private developers to come in “with their own money and their own vision to maybe establish something that may or may not be connected to the community.”

A tale of two models

Even without the “cultural district” designation, work to spur new economic development in neighborhoods with high concentrations of immigrant and native residents has already begun. 

Near the intersection of South Fourth Street and Cedar Avenue — which is likely to be part of the Cedar Riverside cultural district — Mayor Jacob Frey and Ward 6 Council Member Abdi Warsame have proposed replacing a 93-stall parking lot with a hub of new housing, businesses, health-care services and other facilities, what they are calling Minneapolis’ “African Village.” Frey and Warsame say the development would fulfill a need for improved amenities in the neighborhood, give people an alternative to other African malls in Minneapolis and put a spotlight on the area’s rich cultural heritage.

a hub of new housing, businesses, health-care services and other facilities
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
Near the intersection of South Fourth Street and Cedar Avenue, Mayor Jacob Frey and Ward 6 Council Member Abdi Warsame have proposed replacing a 93-stall parking lot with a hub of new housing, businesses, health-care services and other facilities.
But not all residents are on board. Though Warsame first began talking about the village in 2017, it wasn’t until June of this year that he and Frey publicly announced the plan for the area, in a speech at an East African Business Forum. Since then, several Cedar-Riverside business leaders and an advocacy group, Somali Mothers of MN, have rallied in opposition to the development, arguing the city has not included them in the planning. 

The groups also worry that new traffic could increase crime and cause problems for existing minority-owned businesses, and that the development could be tipping point for a wave of new construction that turns the low-income neighborhood into a place they can no longer afford. Last month, a group of opponents shut down a meeting for the city leaders to discuss the project at the Brian Coyle Community Center. “Our homes are not sale!” one advocacy group posted on Facebook after the protest. “This is how you shutdown gentrification in your hood.”

Cedar Ave Businesses
MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
Cedar-Riverside groups worry new traffic could increase crime and cause problems for existing minority-owned businesses, and that the development could be tipping point for a wave of new construction that turns the low-income neighborhood into a place they can no longer afford.
Far less controversial is the effort to transform Franklin Avenue in the city’s Ventura Village neighborhood. For years, Justin Huenemann, founder of the Native American Community Development Institute (NACDI), had wanted to redevelop the area mostly known for dilapidated buildings, high crime rates and rampant substance abuse into a place where Native entrepreneurs could thrive. 

By 2011, the institute and other Native-led real estate groups had acquired most of the land along the half-mile strip, which they renamed the American Indian Cultural Corridor. It now includes the contemporary American Indian fine arts organization called All My Relations Gallery, as well the Ancient Traders building. 

Today, with the relocation of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe headquarters to East Franklin Avenue, a supportive housing program at Many Rivers East Apartments and the Minneapolis American Indian Center next door, the area represents the sort of transformation supporters of cultural districts want to see elsewhere. 

“The vision is the community’s so it reflects the community values and the community’s priorities, rather than an outside developer or government agency coming in and sort of dictating what’s going to happen here,” said Robert Lilligren, a former City Council member and current head of NACDI. “It’s empowering local communities to have a voice in our own destinies.”

Cano, who served as a policy aid to Lilligren’s office during his work on Franklin Avenue, said she has long wanted to see similar efforts in her ward’s neighborhoods, including East Phillips, Midtown Phillips and Powderhorn Park. And after voters elected her to the council in 2013, she began meeting with entrepreneurs along Lake Street to figure out how the city could help them.

Through that work, she said she recognized the need to strengthen the Latino community’s voice in all types of city decisions, ranging from development to art. She laments that her neighborhood lacks a collective for Latino artists — akin to north Minneapolis’ Juxtaposition Arts — even though it’s the most Latino part of the city.

Ancient Traders building
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
The American Indian Cultural Corridor now includes the contemporary American Indian fine arts organization called All My Relations Gallery, as well the Ancient Traders building.
That type of organization, alongside new community development groups, would build a sense of community that doesn’t exist now, she said. She envisions a future in which those groups enhance Lake Street and fuel “ethical tourism” that will help Latino business owners and residents survive rising market prices. “I don’t want to wake up one day in Minneapolis and then realize that … Latino folks can’t afford to live here,” she said of her rationale for getting involved.

Part of Frey’s 2020 budget

Even though the City Council has not formally designated the districts, Frey does not want to wait to spend money on the new initiative.

In his 2020 budget address, the mayor proposed the first wave of investments across the six zones, including the African Village, which he and other supporters say have the potential to serve as economic catalysts for neighborhoods led by people of color and indigenous residents, on par with New York’s Chinatown or Chicago’s Hyde Park

“They’re doing exactly what we’re talking about here — not displacing people,” Lilligren said. “They’re economically empowering the people who are there.”

American Indian Cultural Corridor
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
By 2011, the Native American Community Development Institute and other native-led real estate groups had acquired most of the land along the half-mile strip, which they renamed the American Indian Cultural Corridor.
As part of his plan, Frey wants to set aside $750,000 for more frequent trash cleanups, better street lights and refreshing building facades for the targeted areas. If neighborhoods look better and feel safer, he argues, new visitors will come and spend money in the areas, ensuring local business leaders reap the benefits. The mayor’s plan also calls for spending $200,000 for murals or art events; $100,000 for new business co-ops; and $350,000 for Meet Minneapolis, the city’s convention and visitors association, to create marketing campaigns for the areas. 

In addition, Frey’s office and Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, who represents parts of north Minneapolis, have proposed developing a new, multimillion dollar fund from which entrepreneurs can request no-interest construction loans for new projects and renovations — money they don’t have to pay back until their properties are sold. The mayor’s 2020 budget carves out $2.5 million total for the program — $2 million of which would be set aside for business owners of color within the cultural districts.

“It’s really trying to open up opportunities that people can participate in — [opportunities] that currently don’t exist, or if they do exist, they need to be augmented,” Cano said.

For all the mayor’s plans, the City Council is likely to amend his 2020 spending plan in coming months, deciding how, exactly, the city’s tax dollars will be spent in the districts. The council has final say on the city budget, and must approve its 2020 spending plan before the end of the year.

The city is hoping to raise awareness around the cultural district initiative and solicit early proposals from entrepreneurs and community groups early next year. Cano said she expects to see “energy on the ground” as part of the districts — such as the creation of new arts organizations or the renovation of existing buildings — in late fall or early winter of 2020. 

“We can align everybody’s energy and attention in a way where we can have transformative results here … help low-income folks, diverse folks stay in the neighborhood and keep that character alive that we love so much,” she said. “What will Lake Street look like 10 years from now? That’s up to the people who step up to engage on the cultural districts conversation.”

Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by David Markle on 09/09/2019 - 11:59 am.

    Here’s a letter I sent to Mayor Frey on August 6, with no reply:

    The plan for an African Mall that you and Council Member Abdi Warsame wish to impose on Cedar Riverside will only create problems or worsen them in my neighborhood.
    It has been dropped on us without warning, without reasonable process, like a bomb. Officials have made it clear that the basic plan for a building at least ten stories high that would contain the mall and housing is not negotiable.

    So far as I know, the only persons in favor of it are you, Warsame, and presumably the likely developer George Sherman who would stand to profit from the project. Sherman controls the approximately 1300-unit Riverside Plaza housing complex adjacent to the site. For many years he has spent most of the income from Riverside Plaza’s largely governmentally subsidized rent revenues elsewhere in his quite vast real estate empire, utilizing the housing complex as a cash cow. Sherman and Brighton Development obtained the property from the federal government in a highly irregular and extremely questionable transaction from HUD who had repossessed it from the original developer.

    The fact that this African Mall plan offers publicly owned land and will require public subsidies to achieve its purpose, along with the short time period between the surprise announcement and the City’s publication of request for proposals, the “engineering” of the process to exclude all but one developer appears to be a little crooked, a little corrupt. As such, it will be yet another chapter in a long history of such non-competitive City development processes in our neighborhood, but one remarkable for its utterly extreme lack of neighborhood-based planning and input. With neither calls for such a project from residents nor from current business and property owners, one can only assume that very narrow interests are the motivators.

    And the consequences will be serious for the neighborhood. First, we already have a severe problem here relating to the needs of many children. The Riverside Plaza complex was never conceived nor designed for families with children. In several infrastructure repair projects of past years, Sherman failed to take the opportunity to reduce overcrowding by combining units to make more multi-bedroom apartments. The recreational needs of the complex’s many high-rise children are only partially satisfied by the adjacent Coyle Center that needs expansion in order to reasonably meet demand.

    The African Mall plan will make the already unusually high housing density here even higher, creating yet more pressure on social service and recreation providers. It will create insurmountable traffic issues on 4th Street where school buses already have problems. Somali mothers immediately expressed opposition when they heard of the plan; they voiced concerns about a mall as a troublesome hangout for teenagers, and they spoke of the pressing needs for more recreational facilities and more green space.

    In addition, neighborhood businesses—including Cedar Cultural Center, Mixed Blood Theater, Midwest Mountaineering, Red Sea Bar, Lucky Dragon Restaurant and others—will suffer because of lost or reduced parking for their critical customer needs. Existing immigrant-owned businesses are concerned about competition from new entrepreneurs from outside the neighborhood who will try to establish themselves in a new—probably subsidized–mall.

    As a resident of Cedar Riverside for most of the time since 1962, I have not seen such united opposition to anything in our neighborhood since the U.S. Postal Service took away our post office. And the concerns of residents and businesses, the needs of the many children concentrated in a very small urban area, have been completely disregarded.

    Mayor Frey, to be a good public servant means attending to the needs of the citizens, not necessarily to whatever you want.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 09/09/2019 - 01:52 pm.

      You’d win at NIMBY bingo with that letter.

      • Submitted by lisa miller on 09/09/2019 - 06:04 pm.

        Well he could change a few things and win at ‘ I’m more progressive than you Bingo.’ For starters, nice to support artists, but what about more rec opportunities for youth, more outreach to at risk youth, more opportunities for small developers, etc. etc. Sure some development in some areas will reduce crime, but not CM Fletcher it is not a major crime deterrent. It’s really hard for some to see daily gunfire, meanwhile at city hall there are the usual plans to put band aids on an open bleeding wound and focus on developers.

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 09/10/2019 - 10:58 am.

          Well, no. His letter is opposing a commercial/residential development. The NIMBY bingo is a result of his use of nearly every debunked NIMBY argument to oppose it. There is nothing remotely progressive about any of it.

          City Hall is also capable of doing multiple things at once.

    • Submitted by Jeffrey Klein on 09/09/2019 - 02:11 pm.

      The idea that to help small business to survive we have to preserve or increase parking has been debunked over and over every time it’s been studied; but you don’t even need a study, all you need to do is observe that in the healthiest, most thriving neighborhoods in the world parking is not treated as a priority, or barely exists at all.

      Adding homes means adding customers.

      • Submitted by David Markle on 09/09/2019 - 06:17 pm.

        There’s been no marketing study, no traffic study, no preparatory involvement with the neighborhood. There was a puiblic meeting here on August 30th that was advertised to Somalis around the state prior to any announcement to the neighborhood, and it was set up to show only what some people might like in the proposed mall, not to determine whether people wanted it. The folks here–mostly Somalis–made there opposition clear by, in effect, shouting down the Council Member and preventing the Mayor from speaking. After more than an hour of tumult–there were 5 or 6i policemen outside–the Mayor and Council Member wisely cancelled the meeting.

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 09/10/2019 - 11:05 am.

          For some, there is never enough process. But not every project is big enough to justify the process some want. Otherwise we would never build anything – which may be their goal in the first place.

          And we know that things like your parking argument – as Jeff points out – is just nonsense.

          I am also never impressed when an angry crowd shouts people down, but for some that counts as process. The CM and mayor are the elected representatives of this area. The voters picked them and they will have to face the voters again. Maybe they know what the electorate – not just those shouting down discussion – really wants.

  2. Submitted by Jeffrey Klein on 09/09/2019 - 12:12 pm.

    The CURA study that’s cited in this piece is at odds with the majority of other work on this topic, for example, this one from another UMN team that’s considerably more rigorous and concludes that ‘displacement affects far fewer residents than poverty concentration’.

  3. Submitted by Andy Briebart on 09/09/2019 - 12:45 pm.

    “even if the council is not yet sure how it’s going to accomplish all that”

    They have never let this get in their way in the past.

  4. Submitted by Joe Smith on 09/09/2019 - 02:13 pm.

    Improve schools with vouchers for low income areas, put the trades back in schools grade 10-12 (across the State), create job skill centers for Mpls residents so they can get a skill/good job. Putting in “cultural centers” without improving the area is like most Government programs, useless!

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 09/09/2019 - 08:45 pm.

      In a land far away and a time in the distant past I was what was known in the day as a “shop teacher”. And I could not agree more on the disaster that has befallen technical education in our secondary schools.

      And, no, to my left leaning friends who will say that I was just kicking out 17 year old corporate drones, I was giving my kids a look at a potential career they may want to explore through continuing technical education for 1-2-4 years. And those few kids who had no interest in any kind of more school, they quite often made it through their high school years by spending time in the “shop”.

      And, no, to my right leaning friends who dare say vouchers and technical education in the same breath. A primary reason for the disappearance of secondary technical education is simply cost. It costs a whole lot more to teach some one to weld than to teach them history or any other “academic” subject. The private schools who are looking for voucher support have no interest in building well equipped labs, filling them with expensive equipment, finding a skilled person who is an educator and a technical expert and finally providing the supplies to keep it going.

      The Kennedy / Quayle technical education bill of the late 70’s really enabled a great period of emphasis on technical education. Drive around town and you will notice that the local technical colleges share a fairly common characteristic: they were almost all built between 1975 and 1985 due to this emphasis.

      So: to my left friends, it is OK to teach a kid to weld and to my right friends,open up those musty wallets and face the fact that good education costs a lot of money, more than we are allocating right now.

      • Submitted by Joe Smith on 09/10/2019 - 09:29 am.

        Money is not the issue, bad curriculum, moving students through the system for money, lack of discipline and not holding kids accountable for their effort is killing public schools. If money were the issue MPSD, who gets 20k per student (highest in the state) would be our best. The students in Minneapolis public schools are our least educated but have the most money.
        Let the excuses for our failing public schools start. We are spending all of our time justifying public schools terrible results (American kids are 30th worldwide in education) rather than helping kids… Shameful.

        • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 09/10/2019 - 10:30 pm.

          Back to the topic you introduced: the need for a renewed emphasis on technical education in secondary schools. It has withered on the vine because of a lack of emphasis and a lack of funding.

          Back in the late 70’s my little school metal shop had a budget of $17,000. Twenty years later it was $500.

          How do you think the program fared?

          Now you want to use vouchers to drain even more money from our public schools. And the dirty little secret of these voucher supported schools is they want the public schools to take all the problem kids and most expensive programs and then beat their chests on what a great job they do compared to the public schools.

          • Submitted by Brian Nelson on 09/11/2019 - 11:39 am.

            “And the dirty little secret of these voucher supported schools is they want the public schools to take all the problem kids and most expensive programs and then beat their chests on what a great job they do compared to the public schools.”

            Correct. What Mr. Smith seems to conveniently leave out of his $20K figure is the percentage of that money that goes towards funding special education.

            Mr. Smith, based on your expertise in this matter, how will vouchers provide for students with SpEd needs and guarantee that their IDEA rights will be enforced?

            • Submitted by Joe Smith on 09/11/2019 - 07:59 pm.

              At 20k per student money is not an issue for Mpls schools. Wasted money is a huge problem for the schools however. This public school system you seem to love is 30th in the world in educating children. Half of the 10th graders in MPSD are not at grade level in reading or math. Change is needed not more money!

              • Submitted by Brian Nelson on 09/13/2019 - 02:44 pm.

                All you are doing is repeating your talking points. Again, please address my question concerning SpEd. I would like to hear your insights on this matter.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 09/09/2019 - 03:01 pm.

    Isn’t this city-sponsored de facto segregation? I thought we were supposed to be against that.

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