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Committee urges delay in planning development of Upper Harbor Terminal

Members of the citizen-led 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.

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

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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.