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Seeking the grain of truth: Will industry still fit in Minneapolis’ redeveloped Hiawatha corridor?

By Don Jacobson | Friday, Aug.

The Hiawatha-Minnehaha corridor is as up to date as light rail and as rooted in history as its 100-year-old grain elevators.
MinnPost photo by Raoul Benavides
The Hiawatha-Minnehaha corridor is as up to date as light rail and as rooted in history as its 100-year-old grain elevators.

Flush with success from their efforts to revitalize the Midtown Greenway area and the Lowry Avenue corridor (PDF) on Minneapolis’ North Side, Hennepin County officials now are in the beginning stages of a similar effort aimed at the city’s Hiawatha-Minnehaha Avenue corridor, which runs parallel to the light rail tracks from Lake Street to Minnehaha Park.

The first step in that process is now under way — a close study of the historic significance of the businesses, homes and other buildings in the three-block-wide strip between Hiawatha and Minnehaha avenues. It’s an area full of challenges to county and city planners, mainly because it includes a highly visible swath of historic grain elevators and a still-functioning railroad spur serving them.

Among the questions facing them is how these towering silos — which, after all, still provide valuable jobs, industrial tax base and freight rail transportation connections — can be made to fit with the successful kind of “livability” moves performed along the Greenway. Steps like bike and walking paths free from dangerous motorized traffic, rebuilt road and sewer infrastructure made to suit residential uses, and extensive environmental clean-up?

Or should they even be made to fit?

Bike tour shows neighborhood contrasts
On a warm evening last month, Eric Hart, a volunteer with the Longfellow Community Council, conducted a bicycle tour of the study area. Skies that earlier threatened to pour rain had turned blue, and Hart, reassured, settled into his program behind the Cargill grain elevator at 36th Street East and Dight Avenue.

“This,” he said, pointing to the towering cylindrical structure, “is the oldest grain elevator in the city. It was built 100 years ago, in 1908, and really personifies what the grain industry meant to the development of Minneapolis.”

Hart provided a view of the elevators not seen by the passers-by on busy Hiawatha Avenue — a back-door view from the other side of the structures where a quiet neighborhood of 80-plus-year-old homes exists in surprising silence, shielded from the noise of the cars by the massive concrete line of silos. The only sound usually is the humming grain dust fan that operates 24 hours a day.

“It’s one of the first grain elevators made of reinforced concrete built in country, and is still going strong,” he says. “These things were built to last.”

And that fact is at the heart of the dilemma facing those who hope to turn the corridor into a bike- and pedestrian-friendly paradise. The Cargill elevator, as well as Archer Daniels Midland’s Atkinson and Nokomis flour-milling operations next door on Dight Avenue, are still operating along the corridor mainly because of the tremendously efficient design of the grain industry’s turn-of-the-century founders.

The grain terminals are served by one of the state’s very first rail lines laid out in the 1860s by the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad. Dight Avenue’s status as a home to grain terminals stretches to the 1880s, when early models made of wood first appeared there — the first terminals built outside the St. Anthony Falls area. They were built there because at the time, 36th Street was at the edge of civilization.

In 1899, elevator design was revolutionized by grain merchant Frank Peavey, who, along with Minneapolis contractor Charles Haglin, built the first experimental cylindrical, concrete silo at Highways 7 and 100 in St. Louis Park — a still-standing structure with a “Nordic Ware” advertisement painted on it. It set off a wave of elevator-building that revolutionized the way wheat was supplied to the world, and Cargill’s Dight Avenue silos were in that first wave.

Their design was so strong, simple and efficient — and the quality of concrete used in them so high — that some of those first-wavers are still being used today. They’re among the few industrial structures anywhere in the country still being used exactly as they were intended 100 years ago.

The overall activity of the Hiawatha milling area has declined significantly since its heyday in the years following World War II — facilities once run by General Mills, Purina and Cenex/Harvest States have closed. But Cargill and ADM’s facilities are still going strong, and because of that, the city has maintained “industrial” zoning for the parcel. That sets up conflicts with the overwhelmingly residential and leafy character of the rest of the corridor.

The bike tour ended at 48th Street and Hiawatha, at the shiny new light-rail-transit station that has jump-started hundreds of new units of apartments and condominiums in the area. Planners, and Hart’s Longfellow Community Council, hope that new housing will be the basis of a “livability” revolution in the neighborhood. But can one “live” next to trains and trucks hauling grain 24 hours a day?

“There’s a lot of interesting aspects to this neighborhood, and one of them is that the housing comes right up next to the elevators,” he said. “You wouldn’t think they’d make very good neighbors.”

Elevators an issue in Greenway development, too
Hennepin County’s Community Works Division was set up to pull together efforts by cities, the state and the Metropolitan Council to make the infrastructure improvements in parts of the county that need a nudge to spur private investment. The Midtown Greenway is a perfect example of how the county does it — convert an outdated piece of infrastructure (a railroad track in a concrete trench) into a popular bike trail and then watch the private dollars flow in. At least it works that way in a good economy.

Hiawatha/Minnehaha Corridor

Courtesy of the City of Minneapolis

There is a similarity between the Hiawatha-Minnehaha Corridor effort and the Greenway — both had grain elevator issues. According to an article by William Stark published last year in Hennepin History Magazine, one of the major issues the county faced in establishing the Greenway was the Cepro Grain Elevator, operated by the Rahr Malting Co. It was still being served by the 29th Street railroad tracks, and it was formidable. It cost the county $2 million to acquire it and tear it down, partly because it was so well-constructed.

That episode showed the tremendous costs and perils of trying to obtain functioning grain elevators and tearing them down.

Stark’s article calls Minneapolis’ urban grain silos “the vanishing giants,” painting a picture of the gradual loss of a big part of Minneapolis’ industrial heritage. Included in that list are the Bunge elevator in Southeast Minneapolis, which is being converted to mixed-income housing, and the giant elevators near the University of Minnesota, which have also been targeted for redevelopment.

Patrick Connoy, manager of the Community Works division, says the goal of the effort in the Hiawatha-Minnehaha Corridor will necessarily be a bit different from — and bear some similarities to — the Greenway project.

“There’s still a lot of employment in this corridor,” he says. “The question we’re really going to have to address is how do you balance the jobs that are there now with the ones we’re trying to create there for the future?”

Several years of negotiations with the millers, the railroads and the community lie ahead to try to determine that. Connoy will use the historical assessment the County Board commissioned as a “baseline” to proceed with the lengthy process that such Community Works efforts go through — holding public hearings and gathering input, assessing environmental clean-up needs, identifying the kinds of infrastructure that deserve investment, writing a definitive corridor plan … It’s a start.

“We want to know what’s really unique about this corridor, and without that knowledge of its history, we won’t be able to really figure out what makes it tick as a community,” he said. “Who settled here? Why did they come? We don’t want to be acquiring properties without regard to their history.”

One interesting aspect of the neighborhood’s history that has caught Connoy’s attention also shows how hard it may be to come up with a revitalization plan that both keeps the old industries and focuses on “livability”:

The area was one of the first racially integrated neighborhoods in Minneapolis. Black workers were brought to the Twin Cities during World War I to plug a labor shortage, and many settled along the city’s Snelling Avenue, which runs parallel to Minnehaha Avenue. They worked mostly for the railroad as porters and in other capacities, and they quickly established a black cultural enclave fairly far removed from the existing black communities on Fourth Avenue South and the near North Side.

The St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest black church in the city, is nestled almost right up against the Cargill grain elevators — a planner’s nightmare of conflicting uses.

Residents not sure elevators deserve historic status
In the Longfellow neighborhood, residents don’t really regard the massive concrete silos as “historic,” instead preferring to bestow such designations on grand homes, said Melanie Majors, director of the Longfellow Community Council.

“What people are interested in when it comes to something like the Community Works plan is what kinds of housing products will happen in the corridor,” she said. “The elevators are industrial, and their size is so gigantic, most people here tend to see them in the context of how they block the views. In that respect, I think people here see them as ‘a lesson learned.’ “

The lessons of the city’s industrial past are usually just that — in the past. There weren’t any sawmills left on the Mississippi riverfront when it was targeted for redevelopment in the 1980s. And there wasn’t any beer still being kegged in Northeast Minneapolis when the Grain Belt Brewery was rehabbed into offices.

So, can a historic grain-milling area be transformed into a livable, healthy, environmentally stable 21st century success story even while it’s still carrying out its 19th century mission?

Everybody involved will be trying to find the grain of truth in that question.

Don Jacobson is a longtime Twin Cities journalist who formerly was editor of the Minnesota Real Estate Journal.