Crossing the River: West Bank Institutions

Editor’s note: This is the third in a four-part series examining the past, present and future of Minneapolis’ Cedar-Riverside neighborhood and how the neighborhood, the University and other institutions interact.

by Jon Collins

The Cedar Riverside People’s Center on 20th Avenue squats in the shadow of the new addition to the Carlson School of Management, Hanson Hall, while a couple blocks down, Augsburg’s new 180,000-square-foot Gateway Center sits on 22nd Avenue. A few blocks from there, Fairview Hospital is planning to add a new children’s hospital next to Riverside Park.

During much of the West Bank’s existence, these institutions – and longtime residents – have exerted a powerful influence on the people living there.

Since the ’60s, the People’s Center has often been at the heart of tensions over land. First, it was a church. Next, a free health clinic for those who couldn’t afford other health care. Then, seized by the University through eminent domain, it became a place of struggle between residents and the University.

After the University gave the People’s Center a lease in the ’70s, it became a center to organize opposition to the Cedar Square West high-rise project.

The history of the People’s Center embodies many of the tangled interests and motivations on the West Bank that have balanced institutional self-interest with benefiting residents.

Institutional Conflict

The relationship between neighborhood residents and the institutions has always been mixed, said Randy Stoecker, an associate professor of rural sociology at the University of Wisconsin who wrote a book about the West Bank.

“There’s always been at least individuals at the University who have been very supportive of the neighborhood,” he said. “But the University’s momentum is just to grow, and it will grow in whatever direction provides the least resistance.”

Stoecker said conflict over land will continue to be the fundamental issue on the West Bank so long as institutions can benefit by attracting more students or patients, which requires expansion.

“It will just be continual struggle for the neighborhood,” he said. “Not just with the University, but the hospital and Augsburg as well.”

Garry Hesser, a sociology professor at Augsburg, said much of the conflict can be traced back to the city’s 1950s urban renewal plan.

“The plan assumed that the land north of Riverside would be the University’s,” Hesser said. “The land around Murphy Park and east of 24th would be Augsburg’s.”

In 1958 and 1959, the city made 209 acres of private land available to the institutions. By 1965, the University’s West Bank campus consisted of five buildings on 16 acres, according to city documents.

An urban renewal plan by the Minneapolis Housing and Redevelopment Authority paved the way for the University to expand on the West Bank to a planned 68 acres. Between 1971 and 1976, the University condemned 39 buildings on the West Bank.

Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, urban renewal plans seemed to represent business interests and gentrification, Hesser said.

“Scholars, community activists, community leaders pointed out that this wasn’t fair,” he said. “(They said), ‘If we’re going to renew this neighborhood, all people need to be brought to the table.’ “

This led to legislation that mandated community input for new developments, Hesser said.

But even with this input, residents often felt that architectural elements of new University buildings isolated residents, and oriented students away from the neighborhood, Tim Mungavan, executive director of the West Bank Community Development Corporation, said.

“The University policy for years was you turned your back if it was a low-income neighborhood,” Mungavan said. “That whole idea is changing now, and thankfully. I think the institutions are catching up on the new urbanism and the whole idea that human beings walking in the streets is a good thing.”

Community members said recent University and Augsburg expansions have been improvements over past efforts.

The University is starting to realize that the neighborhood’s future is entwined with its own, said Merrie Benasutti, coordinator of community partnerships for the Cedar Humphrey Action for Neighborhood Engagement.

“(It) used to be you drove down Riverside and the institutions were set back,” she said. “Augsburg, the University, and now Fairview are expanding up to Riverside.”

The Gateway Center is a welcome replacement over the parking lot that was previously there, but Hanson Hall made some of the same old mistakes, Mungavan said.

“When they did the Carlson building, they made it self-contained,” he said. “It didn’t encourage people to come to the neighborhood.”

Institutional Responsibility

The University is developing procedures to involve surrounding communities in University plans, said Jan Morlock, director of community relations for the University’s office of government and community relations.

“The planning that we’re doing is for the University’s own land, but what we do with that land has implications for what’s around,” she said. “You have to think about it in context. Whatever investments are done on the West Bank will have some interest to the community.”

Stoecker said the fact that the University has legal ownership of the land doesn’t absolve it of responsibility for the institution’s effect on residents – for example, from health impacts because of increased traffic.

“Even if an institution owns part of the space, is it theirs to do with it what they want?” he said. “It’s not just about ownership; it’s also about who your neighbors are.”

The purpose of University outreach to communities is to complement the neighborhood’s already existing assets, Benasutti said.

“On the other side, we’re not social workers,” she said. “We’re not trying to cure anything; it’s not charity, but engaging as equals.”

A Mutually Beneficial Partnership

The University has a number of programs that assist the West Bank community, Morlock said. One is the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, which commissions student researchers to conduct studies for neighborhood organizations. Another relatively new student-initiated project called CHANCE seeks to build relationships between residents and students, as well as to support local businesses, Benasutti said.

The University also recently initiated a project with surrounding neighborhood groups, called the University District Partnership Alliance, which provides a forum for neighborhood concerns about University issues, Morlock said.

In January, Fairview announced a Community Benefit Agreement with the West Bank Community Coalition in exchange for community support of the new children’s hospital. These agreements formalize the relationship of “balanced self-interest” that neighborhood institutions have always had with residents, Hesser said.

“If an institution is going to benefit from something, (it) will devote a modest amount of money to the public good,” he said.

Building trust between residents and institutions is integral to maintaining good relationships, Benasutti said.

“It obviously benefits the University if the neighborhood is doing well,” she said. “Likewise, it benefits the neighborhood to have the University here and engaged.”