Community hopes to revitalize area

by Joe Carlson

More than 120 people gathered in Van Cleve Park recently to discuss the future of their Southeast Minneapolis neighborhood. Community members placed affirmative neon green and cautionary blaze orange stickers on charts of plans to signify their support or rejection of a number of city-financed revitalization ideas.
During the next 10 years, the Como neighborhood will receive about $2 million from a unique city program that give area residents a role in planning their community’s future.
Although it is less than 10 years old, the city-wide Neighborhood Revitalization Program and its $400 million treasure chest is changing the nature of neighborhood planning in Minneapolis.
“More city money is going into Minneapolis neighborhoods than before the NRP, and neighborhood residents get to decide how that money is spent,” said Jennifer Billig, spokeswoman for the program.
Though the program has been a presence in Minneapolis for seven years, the Como community is one of the last of the city’s 81 neighborhoods to take advantage of the program.
The Neighborhood Revitalization Program began as a result of a study conducted in 1988 by a task force appointed by the Minneapolis City Council. The task force was charged with studying the city’s housing problems and proposing solutions.
According to the task force’s report, about 81 percent of the city’s 176,724 housing units needed some level of rehabilitation in 1988, and about 12 percent of those were in officially substandard conditions.
Also, between 15 and 25 percent of industrial properties were deteriorated or becoming obsolete. The task force estimated the total cost of this massive rehabilitation at $3.2 billion.
In response, the task force recommended the formation of a locally planned, consistent-yet-flexible revitalization program.
“In the case of neighborhood revitalization, a 20-year program,” the task force report said, “would allow for a comprehensive approach to each neighborhood.”
In 1990, the program was established but with only about 25 percent of the $84 million per year recommended in the report. The funding shortage raised questions about how much of a dent the program would make in the city’s estimated $1.9 billion in housing rehabilitation needs.
“Even over the course of 20 years, the $400 million comes nowhere near that,” Billig said.
The purpose of the program is not simply to fund repairs of old structures but to help community members form links with other neighborhood groups, as well as other organizations such as school districts and local businesses. These links are meant to help the community make the changes the program cannot afford.
Also, the program encourages the formation of neighborhood organizations. In theory, these organizations will also enable the communities to continue their work after revitalization funds run out in 20 years.
Although it is knee-deep in committees and budgets, the Como neighborhood is still in the first phase of the program. It can take years of surveys and planning before anything is ever done.
“We’re in the First Step, and we’ve been in it for two years,” said Peggy Sand, chairwoman of the Como Steering Committee.
To keep people motivated, neighborhoods enter the First Step phase, where they can start work on the most pressing needs earlier than might normally be possible.
The Como town meeting two weeks ago was called to present project options to the community and to have the residents vote on which ones’ they preferred. The options discussed were determined by eight task forces, each responsible for different areas of planning, such as transportation and community services.
“It’s been rewarding for me,” said Rich Rodich, a student in the University’s School of Architecture and chairman of the program Housing Task Force in the neighborhood.
Rodich’s task force, responsible for housing, came up with seven major goals and 14 more specific objectives. The options ranged from long-range ideas like encouraging people to convert rental property to owner occupant housing to short-term things such as neighborhood clean-up activities.
One criticism of the plans presented at the Como meeting was that they were too vague, using words such as “encourage,” “enhance” and “reduce.”
“They sound good,” said Como resident Tom Deyo, “but they don’t really mean anything, or they mean so much that they don’t mean anything.”
Also, some proposed solutions did not appear to take into account every ramification of the proposed actions, Deyo said.
For example, many goals were focused on increasing home ownership and bringing more children into the area. But these two goals could have side effects like parking problems and neighborhood noise, two problems targeted by other task force goals.
The eight task forces were formed last fall as a result of a survey designed to find the major areas of concern. That poll was the second of six major steps in the revitalization program process. The first step was to form a steering committee that would communicate with the program board and oversee the task forces.
The next step for Como will be to form a plan based on the results of the vote two weeks ago and submit it to the program board for approval. Once the neighborhood has an action plan, that document goes before a program review board.
But rather than dictating what neighborhoods can and cannot do, — which would defeat the purpose of the program — the board ensures that the program numbers add up.
“The NRP doesn’t really approve the plan as much as it reviews it and makes sure it is feasible,” Billig said.
Once it has approval from the board, the neighborhood action plan is sent to the city council for final review and funding. Billig said that once a plan has progressed as far as the council, it has never been rejected.
Education is one of the major goals of the program. Although community participants often are not aware of neighborhood planning processes, they become aware through the program.
For Rodich, the program’s benefits are twofold: It offers an opportunity to help structure his community and to get firsthand experience with a topic he studies in school.
“I wanted to get a more personal feel for grass roots city planning,” Rodich said.
However, officials have been critical of the program because, unlike Rodich, most neighborhood residents are not familiar with the process of local planning. The revitalization program has recognized a need among community members for training and guidance in planning.
In response, the program provides assistance along every step of the way to revitalization, from leveraging funds to contracting services. In addition, each neighborhood is assigned a staff person from the program to personally oversee the planning process.
“Neighborhood residents are not just left to drift when they are writing their plans,” Billig said. “Neighborhoods always have the opportunity to come to us for training.”
In general, the aim of the program is not to simply give neighborhoods money to change the physical environments. The idea is to familiarize residents with the planning process and allow them to continue to play a role in shaping their communities.
However, residents do not have to be concerned with financing because the city has developed a process to provide its neighborhoods a total of $20 million per year for 20 years.
In 1989 the Minneapolis City Council established the Common Project, a fund of public money partially generated through tax increment financing.
In this system, the amount of money Minneapolis gets in property taxes from certain districts is frozen for a predetermined amount of time. Normally taxes would rise in districts with financial growth, but in districts with frozen tax levels, the excess tax money is paid to another city project. In this case, the excess goes to the Common Project to fund the Neighborhood Revitalization Program.
Ultimately, the program gets its money from the Minneapolis Community Development Agency, which runs the Common Project.
“The MCDA is the NRP’s financial agent,” Billig said.
It is through this complex system that the $20 million per year to fund the revitalization of the city’s neighborhoods comes from the city’s own tax base downtown.
“The city of Minneapolis spent the ’80s spending fistfuls of money on downtown Minneapolis, with varying degrees of success and pretty much turning their backs on the neighborhoods,” said Victor Raymond, the program implementation coordinator for the Como area. Now the city has the opportunity to return some funding to the people.
Although the program cannot fund every deserving project, city officials hope to create a domino effect by initiating the first changes.
“There are many non-NRP-funded projects going on in the neighborhoods,” Billig said.
Despite its complexities and criticisms, some local residents have called the program a success. Como resident Frank H. Meyer said the town meeting last week was one of the best experiences he has had in the 32 years he lived in the area.
“For the first time, I saw this community really come together and really (act) as a community, rather than a neighborhood of people living next to each other,” Meyer said.