Is Upper Harbor Terminal Minneapolis's best rebuilding idea?

by Colleen O'Connor Toberman

Fox 9 News' investigative reporter Tom Lyden highlighted the debate around the future of the city-owned Upper Harbor Terminal site on the North Minneapolis riverfront in late 2019. Many concerns and questions remain.

For over a year, the city of Minneapolis has been pursuing state bond funds to construct a First Avenue-operated concert venue on public land on the North Minneapolis riverfront at Upper Harbor Terminal.

Our concerns about state bonds for this large-scale project are nothing new. (Some of our prior articles about state bonding for it can be found here and here.)

We've long questioned whether this should really be the city's top request for state funds. The COVID-19 crisis, its fiscal impact on the development team, and the need to direct increasingly-limited funds towards stabilizing communities only deepened our concerns. 

Then the Minneapolis Police murdered George Floyd, setting off a string of events that has devastated our community (our statement). In several Minneapolis and St. Paul neighborhoods, dozens of buildings have been destroyed. Infrastructure has been lost for small and large businesses, public institutions like libraries and post offices, and even housing.

Worse yet, much of the destruction was targeted at neighborhood corridors that foster a vibrant mix of minority- and immigrant-owned small businesses. Many businesses that meet essential needs, like grocery stores and pharmacies, are also closed for the foreseeable future.

Opportunities for community rebuilding

Urgent public investment is needed to rebuild, especially given the need to disrupt market forces that will otherwise drive gentrification through redevelopment. Our state Legislature has convened for a special session, presenting an important opportunity to start making these investments. (FMR's special session priorities.)

Like many others, we recognize that racism and structural disinvestment in communities of color have brought us to this point. Recent events are just a more visible display of centuries-long structural injustice. We welcome the current sense of urgency to redress them but mourn the neglected opportunities for change that would have prevented George Floyd's murder and so many others.

In light of our current state, we ask again: is First Avenue's privately-operated concert venue at Upper Harbor Terminal really Minneapolis's best bonding idea? We believe funds should be instead directed to other projects that truly deliver racial and economic equity and respond to urgent needs.

We agree wholeheartedly that North Minneapolis deserves robust, creative community investment and development. We'd love to see that happen both at and beyond Upper Harbor Terminal, and quickly.

We're watching for development ideas birthed in the community, led by and primarily benefiting Black and brown neighbors. And as we've said for a long time, the current Upper Harbor Terminal development plan simply isn't that.

City and developer silent

The Upper Harbor Terminal development plan was created by United Properties and First Avenue long before any community process began. Past community engagement efforts were controversial and have been put on hold for the past three months. (Planning committee members resigned in protest and Northsiders wrote letters opposing the project.)

Some ideas for partial community ownership of the project have been discussed, but there is no concrete agreement or approval. And the city hasn't told community members when these discussions will resume. 

The city and development team's silence does not bode well for a transparent and inclusive process. 

There are better community-led ideas and more urgent needs throughout Minneapolis. We'd love to see the city's elected leaders and the development team change their tune on support for First Avenue's project, and advocate instead for state funds to rebuild the essential services and vibrant spaces that have been lost in recent weeks.

Take action

Please share your concerns about First Avenue's bonding request with your state leaders. Let them know that is not the time for state funds to support a private concert venue on a mile-long stretch of public riverfront without a clear path to partial community ownership.

Lawmakers tell us that the more personal a message is, the more influence it has. So we've provided this mostly blank form for a quick, personalized message.

Become a River Guardian to hear from us about more opportunities to act when city and state leaders are making important Upper Harbor Terminal and river-related decisions.

For more about Upper Harbor Terminal, follow our UHT Twitter account, check out our blog, or contact Colleen O'Connor Toberman, River Corridor Program Director, at ctoberman@fmr.org or 651-222-2193 x29.