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Supporters of Minneapolis’ plan for the Upper Harbor Terminal say it will bring real change to the northside. Some who live there remain unconvinced.

The proposal aims to transform a former barge terminal on the Mississippi River into a sprawling compound with housing, commercial space, manufacturing space, a community center, green spaces and an outdoor amphitheater.

An artist rendering of affordable housing at the Upper Harbor site.
An artist rendering of affordable housing at the Upper Harbor site.
City of Minneapolis

After five years and more than a few setbacks, the coordinated draft plan for Minneapolis’ Upper Harbor Terminal project is complete. Next month, the City Council will consider the draft plan, and if it approves it, construction of the 48-acre parcel of city-owned land could begin in 2022.

The proposal — which was granted state support via $12.5 million of bonding money — aims to transform a former barge terminal on the Mississippi River into a sprawling compound with affordable and market-rate housing, commercial space, manufacturing space, a community center, green spaces and a towering outdoor amphitheater. As part of the project, the city is working with developer United Properties and First Avenue, which will run the music venue. 

Minneapolis officials, as well as the co-chair of the citizen committee that guided input on the $300 million project, said it will not only make over valuable riverfront property but provide critical investment in the city’s northside. 

“We have made some tremendous strides in continuing to center development around community and benefiting those we are serving, which are existing northside residents, especially American descendants of slavery,” Minneapolis Director of Economic Development Erik Hansen said during the December press conference to publicize the draft plan.  

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Markella Smith, co-chair of the citizen-led Upper Harbor Terminal Collaborative Planning Committee, echoed those sentiments during the December announcement. “I honestly feel like this is an opportunity that we can create some actual change.”

But while the draft plan has had much more community support than an initial concept plan introduced by the developer in early 2019, some members of the city’s citizen planning committee remain skeptical that the project will ever be able to deliver the kind of changes the city has promoted. 

Too many unknowns for some

Minneapolis City Council established the Upper Harbor Terminal Collaborative Planning Committee in spring 2019, with citizen members from north and northeast Minneapolis. The group was formed in response to a February 2019 UHT concept plan, which many in the surrounding communities felt insufficiently benefited local residents.

After the CPC got their hands on it, the plan changed, said Hansen. Major adjustments requested by the group made it into the draft plan, including connecting three different green spaces into a continuous park, moving the music venue, and moving market-rate housing off the river and adjacent to the freeway. 

Also in the draft plan is the creation of a land lease fund. Minneapolis, which will maintain ownership of the land of the Upper Harbor site, will charge a fee to companies to lease the land, and designate that money to “wealth creation and anti-displacement initiatives within the Upper Harbor site and Northside neighborhoods,” the plan notes.

The plan also calls for multiple community benefits, most notably a ticket fee program. For every ticket sold by First Avenue, which will run the 7,000- to 10,000-seat music venue, $3 will go into a fund for subsidizing local startups and other community benefits.

An artist rendering of the view looking east down Dowling Avenue to the river.
City of Minneapolis
An artist rendering of the view looking east down Dowling Avenue to the river.
The organization that will administer the fund, however, has yet to be determined, though the city has indicated it could be an existing organization, like a nonprofit, or one that is created specifically to handle and distribute the money collected.  

Such unknowns are one of the reasons Mary Jamin Maguire, a CPC member who lives in northeast who works at the Adler Center for Family & Community, remains skeptical of the plan. She said she has heard a lot of vague goals with no guarantees from the city and its partners. “It’s too loosey-goosey,” she said. 

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Melissa Newman, an insurance underwriter living in the McKinley neighborhood, shares those concerns, saying she has “reservations on the follow-through” from the city and its partners.

One outspoken critic of the plan, Jordan neighborhood resident Alexis Pennie, who chaired the committee until the other members moved to relegate him following his public criticism of the project, goes even further. Pennie believes the draft plan wastes an opportunity to leverage city-owned land to reverse the well-documented disparities plaguing people of color and low-income neighbors of the site. 

Among other things, Pennie points to the draft plan estimates for the ticket fund, which projects $500,000 to $1 million will be generated annually — an amount that will do little to redress entrenched issues on the northside. “It’s an epic failure,” Pennie said. 

Affordable housing

The project is also currently slated to include 520 housing units, roughly two-thirds of which will be set aside as affordable housing. 

Britt Howell, a CPC member who is also vice president of the Prospect Park Association, said she is proud of the work she and other CPC members have done on the plan and sees the affordable housing allotment as a victory. At the same time, she said she is concerned with what the actual result will look like. 

During a November meeting, Howell says, CPC members asked the city’s development partner, United Properties, if there would be assurances to provide a minimum number of affordable housing units at certain rates. United Properties’ Brandon Champeau told the group that the company is finalizing a partnership with the real estate company George Group North to deliver affordable housing, though he could not give guarantees on numbers. “Brandon often speaks loosely,” said Howell. 

Another key community benefit is an estimated 1,200 construction and 300 living-wage jobs the project hopes to create. Paul Bauknight, a former CPC member who left the group, said talks of fitting the sort of manufacturing outfits the city wants to attract doesn’t take into account how difficult it may be to find workers to fill those jobs. “And it’s industry on the river,” he said, which could potentially add to the area’s pollution from I-94 and other industries along the water. 

‘It can be absolutely catalytic’

City officials agree that the Upper Harbor development on its own will not solve many longstanding disparities experienced by northside residents. 

“But it is something that starts to address that generational gap,” said Hansen, who said he said he believes the project will bring some lasting change in terms of investment, community benefits and employment opportunity — including manufacturing jobs. 

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Council Member Philippe Cunningham, who represents Ward 4, where the Upper Harbor Terminal site is located, believes the community benefits of the draft plan can be the first step in achieving a vision of prosperity for those living in north and northeast communities. 

And while he acknowledges that the project won’t solve Minneapolis’ housing and employment shortfalls, it will put more money in more people’s pockets, which in turn will generate more viable businesses. Once something like a coffee shop — one owned by someone who lives nearby — springs up near the site, for example, other new ventures will follow, he says. Maybe a new hardware store across the street that will hire local residents, who will in turn eventually start more businesses. 

“It can be absolutely catalytic in moving us in that direction,” he said.