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Committee urges delay in planning development of Upper Harbor Terminal

Dayna Frank, CEO of First Avenue Productions
MinnPost photo by Jessica Lee
Dayna Frank, CEO of First Avenue Productions, presenting ownership options to the citizen-led Upper Harbor Terminal planning committee on Wednesday.

At a heated meeting Wednesday night that highlighted community opposition to the city of Minneapolis’ approach to redeveloping the Upper Harbor Terminal, a citizen-led planning committee urged the city to delay its 2020 schedule for when it will gather public feedback on the project.

The Upper Harbor Terminal Collaborative Planning Committee, which the Minneapolis City Council created last spring to quell concerns from critics of the 48-acre redevelopment project, asked city staff Wednesday to pause efforts to spread awareness of the planning work. 

With the delay, members of the group want to have more time to discuss design aspects of the project — including a first-of-its-kind amphitheater — and how they will affect the city’s north side.

Wednesday’s decision by the committee comes as the city prepares to lobby the Legislature this year for $20 million in bonding money to design and build the performance venue, which is expected to cost between $26 and $49 million.

Committee members made the requests to address complaints over the structure of the group’s work thus far. Critics feel they have not had the chance to effectively steer what should happen with the vacant, T-shaped property between the Mississippi River and Interstate 94, and that the planning process as it stands does not give members space to make any significant design changes.

“It looks clear that the city has their design concept,” member Alexis Pennie said in an interview last week, referring to the project’s preliminary plan for construction, which the council approved in March 2019. “And it looks like they want to take elements from that concept plan and rearrange them on the 48-acre site and to get buy-in from committee members.”

A blatant violation of Minnesota’s open meeting law

The planning committee is composed of 17 members, and City Council Member Phillipe Cunningham, who represents north Minneapolis’ Ward 4 ⁠— which is where the terminal is located — said he and the mayor’s Economic Development and Inclusion Policy Director Shauen Pearce attend the meeting to provide support.

On Wednesday night, several dozen members of the public observed the meeting, including journalists from the Star Tribune, Minnesota Public Radio and MinnPost. Midway through the gathering, committee members requested reporters not take photographs or record the discussion — a request that violates Minnesota’s Open Meeting Law. The reporters repeatedly explained it was their right to do their job, but the group did not change its mind. MPR photographer Evan Frost eventually left the meeting because, he tweeted, “continuing to photograph would only escalate conflict.”

One committee member said with journalists present they will not discuss issues they would’ve otherwise. Because of that, journalists should know they are disrupting the planning process.

In addition to media criticism, the committee on Wednesday considered possible ownership scenarios for the most controversial element of the project: the outdoor performance venue that could hold from 7,000 to 10,000 concert goers.

Concerns about concert venue

During council meetings to discuss the project’s concept plan last year, residents criticized the city’s decision to include an outdoor music venue without more input from north Minneapolis residents. 

Many of those opponents of the project worry that current residents of the Webber-Camden, McKinley, Hawthorne and surrounding neighborhoods won’t be able to afford rents or mortgages with the new development, fueling housing displacement. There are also concerns that the new site’s tax revenue won’t benefit the north side, perpetuating income disparities. At the meetings, some critics carried signs that read: “Vote no. The plan promotes alcohol, beer, noise, traffic, part-time jobs, public pissing.”

Under the project’s exclusive rights agreement, which was finalized in 2017, the city of Minneapolis must legally control the facility so it can try to secure bonding money from the state to build it, while First Avenue Productions would run the venue — a setup much like the one the city has with the Guthrie Theater and other venues.

In a presentation to the committee Wednesday, First Ave CEO Dayna Frank said her company supports developing a new entity that could join the ownership team, whether it be a nonprofit Community Development Corporation, a community-investment trust or other type of group on the north side. “The community entity would be basically holding us accountable,” Frank said, referring to elements ranging from racial equity to ticket sales. 

She said the most financially feasible model for ownership includes both First Avenue and the community entity, eventually forming a 51-49 relationship. 

In addition to the potential joint-venture, Frank said the company is interested in providing free or discounted tickets to shows for north side residents, collecting fees on tickets to fund anti-displacement measures, hiring Step-Up interns and contracting with north side businesses for things such as posters and food.

Upper Harbor Terminal Collaborative Planning Committee
The Upper Harbor Terminal planning committee voted last year to change the original proposed location of the performance venue on the site to maintain more park space and bikeways.
Frank fielded a series of questions over the financial feasibility of those plans and the community-ownership model. Committee member Grace Rude said they should be cautious about putting too much emphasis on the community entity being the end-all-be-all solution to concerns with the performance venue. Other members called attention to the level of racial diversity among people who are leading the development and lack of specificity on what the amphitheater will look (and sound) like for neighboring residents.

To the committee’s concerns, Frank responded: “I wouldn’t be standing up here with my reputation and First Avenue’s reputation on the line if I didn’t feel comfortable that we could  follow through.”

In addition to the performance venue, the city’s concept plan includes preliminary renderings and maps for 300 to 500 units of housing, a utility hub, 40,000 to 85,000 square feet for businesses along Dowling Avenue, parks space, office space and possibly a hotel. 

Britt Howell, a committee member and community organizer, said in an interview last week she would like to see black-owned businesses and nonprofit organizations that already exist on the north side help develop the music venue, along with a proposed utility hub on the site. “I would love to see them work together as a community,” she said of developers and community groups.

More collaboration wanted

Alexis Pennie, a committee member and transportation planner, said that push for more collaboration among committee members and outside groups is at the heart of many people’s concerns with the project. “We’re continuing to do business as usual, and we’re letting developers that have already [influenced] the central riverfront to allow that same type of strategies and policies on this site, which are only going to perpetuate inequalities,” he said in an interview last week.

He served as the committee’s chair until November, when he said the group demoted him for speaking out against its direction.

Council Member Phillipe Cunningham
Council Member Phillipe Cunningham
In an ideal world, Pennie said the city of Minneapolis would go back to the drawing board and launch a new request for proposals from interested developers who could diversify ideas at the table. Then, the committee would have a better foundation of designs for having its discussions in 2020. But that window of opportunity has closed, and Cunningham has said the city is not likely to change major components of the conceptual plan.

An urban designer of the north Minneapolis’ Heritage Park, Paul Bauknight said with the project the size of the Upper Harbor Terminal, leaders have the opportunity to think differently about how they involve real estate developers. To effectively build wealth among north side business owners and homeowners, he said he supports leaders considering community-driven models to property ownership, similar to that of the Market Creek Plaza in San Diego

Bauknight, a north side resident and founder of Minnesota’s largest black-owned design firm, the Urban Design Lab, served on the planning committee until stepping down in November, after he said he realized his lack of decision-making power with the position. Another person Tessa Anttila, resigned from the committee at the same time, too.

In an interview last week, Bauknight said he’s focused on creating real economic opportunities for the north side and eliminating racial disparities, which is only possible with a collaborative strategy for redevelopment. But he felt that the committee did not provide space for that style of planning; instead, he also felt the group served as an advisory body for already-established ideas.

“It was becoming clearer and clearer to me that the ability to really make a difference at the economic and the social and other levels not to just create physical attributes was not going to happen inside of that committee,” he said. “It was becoming very top-down in terms of its approach.”

To accomplish its goals, he said the committee needs more time for discussions and preparation than it’s had so far. “We continue to look at these big projects and say they’re going to make these big social and economic differences but … when we come back, we keep saying, ‘Well, things didn’t change,’” he said. “There’s a lot of push, push, push, go fast here, and you can’t get to where we need to be, in my opinion, if you keep going fast.”

In an interview in December, Cunningham said the committee would seek public feedback on its ideas in May or June and then present its recommendations for final council approval. It’s unclear how Wednesday’s push to delay the engagement sessions will affect that timeline.

Already, state lawmakers have agreed to pay $15 million in bonding dollars to redevelop portions of the public right-of-way, build park space and install utility systems before 2022, and the city of Minneapolis has agreed to match that amount to help pay for the project. 

Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/23/2020 - 01:36 pm.

    I find it pretty alarming that the committee would talk about different things without journalists there.

    What are the consequences of violating open meetings laws?

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/24/2020 - 11:15 am.

      Yes, and the claim that journalists are obstructing or interfering with a public meeting just by being there is literally Orwellian “double speak”. Are the Democrats who control MPLS deliberately returning the city to the corrupt days of the 30’s and 40’s? This is mind boggling.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/24/2020 - 11:56 am.

        The city’s staff is now educating the committee on the law. But Councilmember Cunningham was at the meeting and instead of stepping in, he blamed the media for “railroading” the committee. I guess pointing out that the law is being broken constitutes “railroading”. Pathetic.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/24/2020 - 01:05 pm.

      Consequences of a violation? Not much. The “person” who violates the law has to pay a $300 civil penalty, and may be disqualified from holding office after repeated intentional violations. The fine is paid by the person who violated the law, not the board or agency.

      The actions taken at the meeting are still valid, even after a violation.

      • Submitted by Brian Scholin on 01/24/2020 - 05:01 pm.

        But that is $300 per individual who violates the law – and I would think that would be each person who holds a City office (including committee members) who is present. Or at least that’s the way my small city interprets the rules. If you witness the violation, it is your responsibility as an official to act to fix it.

        And, yes, the OML is inconvenient for officials, and changes the conversation, and that’s mostly a good thing. Officials often want to discuss things they should not, in ways they should not. Rarely does the inconvenience outweigh the value of openness. For those cases, there are exceptions to the law.

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/24/2020 - 05:44 pm.

          The only city employee on the committee is a city staffer named Hilary Holmes. The rest are members of the public appointed without pay. Would the all be subject to fines. Counselmember Cunningham was there, but does not appear to officially belong to the committee. Based on his comments, he was very supportive of breaking the law. Can he be fined?

          • Submitted by Michelle Shaw on 01/25/2020 - 10:04 am.

            Actually, Shauen Pearce is also in attendance on a regular basis, not as a member of the committee but apparently sitting in for the mayor. So there was plenty of opportnity for a reminder of this law at the meeting. Plus, Mayor Frey said the committee was reminded of the law after they did this same thing when Fox 9 came in December. That reminder never happened.

  2. Submitted by Barbara Skoglund on 01/24/2020 - 06:19 pm.

    No surprise Dayna Frank is involved. Also no surprise mpr backed down. They are so afraid of her the fired their best dj. I HATE the first avenue public private partnership in St Paul. Frank rakes in the money while controlling taxpayer funded ADA inaccessible Palace theater. St Paul dismissed my ADA complaint against the Palace. This multi million dollar taxpayer funded boondoggle will be the same.

  3. Submitted by Catherine Fleming on 01/25/2020 - 09:41 am.

    As a north-side resident, a property owner, a business owner, a black woman and a community activist who is an outspoken advocate against this flaming debacle of a “community-driven” project, I believe that the only viable, next-step for north Minneapolis residents in legal….maybe an injunction. We need to show the City that we’re serious about our concerns and we’re not going to take their bullying anymore. Affordable housing, living-wage jobs, small business opportunities and minimum 99-year community land ownership of this 48-acre parcel works better than a “music venue” when it involves residents who may not know where their next meal is coming from. Outrageous to ask for a 20M bond for privately owned music venue.

  4. Submitted by John Adams on 01/25/2020 - 01:22 pm.

    I agree with Catherine Fleming–modest-price housing, local jobs, and enhanced business vitality seem to me to be higher priorities for the Northside at this time.

    With 48 acres and $50 million, our city’s public housing authority could take the lead in locating perhaps 500 single-unit manufactured houses on this parcel. It’s not obvious to me (or to many others) that neither our city nor our metro area need to devote more public money to the creation of yet another theater or stadium at the present time.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/26/2020 - 09:54 pm.

      It is obvious that putting in single unit manufactured homes is a horrendously bad idea. The good news is that the plan – which people clearly haven’t read – does include construction of affordable housing.

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