Como business project raises concerns

by Max Rust

A development plan in the works for a nearby industrial area has raised concerns among residents living in the Como neighborhood, a community full of University students, faculty and staff members.
The project involves transforming a group of old warehouses into Stinson Technology Campus, a center for high-tech businesses. Developers say the project could bring up to 8,000 jobs to the area. Minneapolis officials see the project as an opportunity to improve the area, and city council subcommittees recently voted to help fund the project.
But while local residents welcome the restoration of blighted buildings, concerns have been voiced about increased traffic and decreased green space. Some neighbors said the process of approving the project has been too fast and the neighborhood has been given little chance to offer input.
Residents are not the only ones concerned. Several artists and small businesses in the warehouses will soon be told to find alternative places to work. And for many, this isn’t the first time.

Increasing traffic, decreasing green
Perhaps the biggest concern of residents is how to deal with increased traffic from workers commuting to the new offices. Some think the neighborhood will be prone to office-bound traffic meandering through the neighborhood from Highway 280.
Two City Council subcommittees voted last month to offer $16.6 million in tax increment financing for the project. To receive the money, project developer Hillcrest Development conducted an environmental-impact study in cooperation with the city. While the study stated traffic on major roads near the project site will increase, many neighbors said options to diffuse traffic were not adequately addressed.
Among other ways to deal with traffic, the study mentioned adding turning lanes at the intersection of Stinson and Hennepin avenues and encouraging the use of transportation alternatives such as busing and biking.
Minneapolis City Councilman Paul Ostrow, whose ward includes the project site, said the council is conversing with Metro Transit about extending bus lines to the area. He also said part of the plan includes encouraging commuters to use the Metropass bus program.
“That’s all fluff talk; that’s all wishful thinking,” said Charlotte Wild, a Como resident who lives near Hennepin Avenue. “The reality is there are still going to be cars. Who’s going to give up their cars?”
Wild is especially wary of a plan to extend her street, 14th Avenue, under a railroad bridge to the proposed development area.
In addition to traffic concerns, residents point to information in the environmental study indicating an overall loss of pervious, or “green” space in the project area. In a letter to the Minneapolis Planning department, the Southeast Como Improvement Association, or SECIA, stated that such a decrease would compromise the ability of the land to retain and treat pollutants in the storm water. The letter also stated that an increase in impervious surfaces, such as concrete, aids in the creation of urban heat islands, which can raise temperatures in warmer months.
Hillcrest president Scott Tankenoff said the study’s figures on green space are inaccurate, and he will present a clarified version of the data at an upcoming neighborhood meeting.
Wild and others are further concerned that city and Minneapolis Community Development Agency officials have placed the project on a fast track by inadequately informing the neighborhood about the project. The official time period for public comment ended Monday. Leading up to the deadline, Wild and other residents asked neighbors what they thought of the project and to write letters if they had concerns.
Ostrow said he received several comments from concerned residents about the parking and environmental issues. Together with the SECIA, he set up a March 20 meeting to get more input from the community.
“I think the sense some people may have had was that this environmental process and getting these formal comments into the (environmental report) might be their only opportunity to discuss issues like traffic, and that is not the case,” Ostrow said.
Bill Dane, the director of SECIA and an attorney at the University’s Student Legal Services, said the neighborhood has not been shut out of the process, but that they were hurried to act on some issues because the project information was not distributed in a timely fashion. He also said the project plan does not adequately address all the options for dealing with traffic.

The Minneapolis artist migration
If the project goes through as expected, the neighborhood will not be affected until next fall, when the first phase of the project is expected to be completed. But some current area occupants could be affected in as little as 90 days.
The buildings slated for renovation include work spaces for about 30 artists and more than 10 small businesses, according to the Northeast Minneapolis Arts Association.
Joel Sheagren, a photographer whose studio is one of the first buildings slated for renovation, said he expects to receive his 90-day notification to leave soon. Sheagren said the project has affected his business because his concentration is now on an impending move rather than his work.
He said the process of moving Minneapolis artists has been going on for some time. Years ago, artists moved out of Uptown as business development, and consequently rental rates, increased in that neighborhood. The same effect later happened to the downtown warehouse district. Now northeast-area artists are being forced out.
A team of relocation specialists are helping people like Sheagren find a new space. He will receive funding for the relocation process, but the photographer — whose studio boasts ample sunlight needed for his work and roaming space for his dogs — said it will be hard for anyone to try and find an affordable studio with similar features.
A new artist group has formed from the Stinson relocation circumstances that will act as a liaison between the artists and the city on matters of studio relocations, said Tom Rine, an artist who worked to remove his building from the Hillcrest project.
Ostrow is enthusiastic about the group’s potential to move artists into the role of studio owners, instead of renters, where they are vulnerable to eviction.
“We need to find ways to get these properties in the hands of the artists,” he said.

Max Rust covers community and agriculture and welcomes comments at [email protected]