Crossing the River: West Bank – the future

Editor’s note: This is the fourth 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

Somehow, the building at 425 Cedar Ave. was built two and a half feet over the property line of the city-owned lot that formerly held Dania Hall, the Danish community center that burned down in 2000.

In the first week of March, despite community group protests that said reducing the size of the Dania lot would make new development more difficult, the City Council Community Development Committee approved the sale of the partial land to the developer, Bina Investment Group, for about $75,000.

To some longtime residents, as well as to newcomers, Dania Hall still represents the neighborhood’s diverse, tolerant and tenacious character. For them, these two and a half feet of land mean the community is that much farther from its goal of restoring the landmark of Dania Hall to Cedar Avenue.

To them, the future of the community is intimately bound to the past, and sometimes even built in the same place.

Cedar-Riverside small area plan

The city of Minneapolis is in the process of completing a “small area plan” for the West Bank as part of its larger Minneapolis plan. The small area plan is a 20-year vision of guidelines for economic development, housing, transportation and culture in the neighborhood.

The plan is being revised by city staff to take community comments into account. If all continues according to schedule, the Minneapolis City Council will vote on the plan April 18, said Beth Elliot, principal city planner for Minneapolis.

The plan’s steering committee incorporated representatives from local institutions, as well as most community groups, Elliott said.

Tim Mungavan, the executive director of the West Bank Community Development Corporation, criticized the plan in the corporation’s February newsletter for not providing funding to maintain an adequate public parking supply for local businesses, relying instead on voluntary private development.

Elliott said the small area plan is purposely disconnected from specific funding sources so it can be creatively funded by whatever sources are available. City departments will implement policies in the plan, she said.

For example, traffic on Riverside Avenue will be reduced to two-car lanes, with bike lanes on both sides. It will likely be funded by a federal grant from Transit for Livable Communities, she said. This particular redevelopment will likely be done within the year, although conditions might have changed with the central corridor’s rerouting, Elliott said.

Other policies the plan suggests include the streamlining of parking lot prices in the area, as well as creating safer pedestrian crossings on Cedar and Riverside avenues.

The biggest change coming to the area is the West Bank light-rail station, which will be located between 19th and Cedar avenues, and which the Metropolitan Council estimates will carry about 4,250 riders daily. It’s scheduled to be completed in 2014.

Mungavan said the community successfully negotiated with the University and lobbied authorities to make the station more accessible to residents.

“We succeeded in getting the Met Council to move out from the middle of the University to Cedar (Avenue),” he said.

University connections

The small area plan also addresses neighborhood concerns that institutions architecturally cut off the neighborhood from the campus. The plan recommends institutions orient buildings toward the neighborhood, providing entrances and windows to the street and putting parking behind buildings or underground.

But while the plan’s policies would be enforceable for private development, the University isn’t bound by the same rules, Elliott said.

“The University is a land-grant institution, which means they aren’t necessarily beholden to city requirements,” Elliott said. “With the University, it would be more of a negotiation.”

However, she said the University has enthusiastically participated in the plan – according to which it will remain within its current boundaries.

The University is also in the process of updating its own master plan, which likely will be sent to the Board of Regents for approval this fall. The University master plan will document future expansions, dictate architectural orientations and chart relationships with surrounding communities, said Jan Morlock, University director of community relations.

But neither community groups nor University representatives see much likelihood of further University expansion on the West Bank.

That does not, however, rule out the redevelopment of current land or buildings, Morlock said. One of the main guidelines for the master plan is that the University “focus on growing a campus rather than building buildings.”

The guidelines also recommend that the University ensure broad community participation and ownership of University projects. Morlock said that’s one purpose of the University District Partnership Alliance, which received $750,000 in funding from the Legislature.

Community responses

The community response to the small area plan was fairly positive, Elliott said.

But Maren Ward, artistic director of Bedlam Theatre, said while some of her experiences with the plan were positive, she participated in one “vision session” where she felt the private consultant the city brought was unsupportive.

When Ward proposed that the West Bank limit chain businesses, she said the consultant admitted that many people in the neighborhood were against chains, but responded with a hypothetical situation about family members visiting sick children at Fairview and wanting to eat familiar food.

“Panera is a chain people can trust. Now would you be willing to support Panera Bread on Cedar-Riverside?” the consultant asked, according to Ward.

“I almost started crying and stormed away,” Ward said.

Because of budget shortages and other issues, the city doesn’t always automatically have residents’ best interests in mind, Mungavan said.

“Government forces, in my view, aren’t always wrong,” he said. “On the other hand, there’s often a willingness and ability to run people over.”

Mungavan said he’s unhappy with what he sees as the city’s retreat from proactively funding economic development. One example is the city’s sale of a public parking ramp in Seven Corners, which has resulted in higher costs for surrounding businesses, he said.

“It’s part of neoliberalism as it affects the city of Minneapolis,” he said.

Mungavan said residents’ desire to organize as a community still exists, but time has atrophied the old activist relationships and connections in the neighborhood.

“There needs to be a shift in the larger political arena – a shift in attitudes,” he said. “The idea that community counts has got to become more accepted. It’s been losing ground for a long time.”