North Minneapolis revitalization plans slowed by the economy and Hennepin County

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Tuesday’s official groundbreaking ceremony for the Van White Memorial Boulevard extension was just the first step in a north side revitalization effort that has been in the planning stages since the end of the last millennium and is expected to continue for more than two more decades. The nearly mile-long stretch of roadway includes a 600-foot bridge over rail lines and Cedar Lake Trail, and a smaller bridge over Bassett Creek.  When completed at the end of 2013, the project should help connect some of the geographically isolated areas of north Minneapolis with the rest of the city. 

But, because of the economic downturn and uncertainty about whether a high-speed passenger rail line from Chicago will be built, the next steps in the planned north side redevelopment may be on hold for several years.

An ambitious master plan from Bassett Creek’s Redevelopment Oversight Committee (ROC), made up of representatives from two affected neighborhoods of Bryn Mawr and Harrison as well as commercial developers and experts from the City of Minneapolis and Hennepin County, was agreed upon six years ago.

The Bassett Creek Valley master plan’s original wish list included creating vibrant mixed-use areas supporting affordable housing, large and small businesses providing 8,000 jobs and job training, pedestrian friendly streets and parks, easy access to public transit, affordable housing, innovative urban design and reclaimed parkland.

Glenwood Avenue was to be a commercial corridor, a draw for consumers and urban housing leading to downtown Minneapolis and to the Uptown neighborhood. The Van White Memorial Boulevard and the Bassett Creek corridor would act as the framework around any development far into the future. The Ryan Company, retained as the main developer, was starting to make plans to put shovel to dirt. Then in 2008, everything changed.

As the economy became depressed, the market for new business, especially for the new offices planned for the area, nearly disappeared. In addition, Hennepin County began eyeing part of the area as a place to park passenger rail cars during the daytime if a high-speed passenger train line from Chicago ends up being built.

Much of the delay centers around Linden Yard, a blighted industrial area just off I-394, known locally as the Banana because of its shape. The locale includes the city’s impound lot and a rock crusher, used to recycle concrete into gravel for city construction projects. Both the impound lot and the crusher would need to be relocated, a costly and politically difficult endeavor. These and other public works operations sit on the site where the Ryan Companies, the sole developer, would like to build a high-rise office facility.

Right now, the city plans to eventually sell the area to Ryan, using the money that the Ryan Companies pay for the land to move the public works facility elsewhere. The Ryan Company can build their 10 to 14-story high-rise before there’s a need for a rail layover area. If so, the building will overlook I-394 and will extend downtown several blocks to the west.

“We have development rights on Linden West until 2015,” said Rick Collins, Ryan Companies Vice-President of Development. “All the dates went out the window when the market went into the tank in 2008. But now, Linden Yard East is under discussion for the rail layover, which is public use.”

“Ryan Companies came up with plans for an office high rise and brought it to the neighborhood,” said Steve Faber, City Council Member Don Samuel’s representative on the Redevelopment Committee. “ We had a commitment from the city that Ryan was going to be master developer. The city wanted 12 months notice to get the rock crushing facility out of there and 24 months to get rid of the car [impound] lot.”

“The next thing, they’re talking about the trains,” he said. “During the day, when the trains aren’t running, they will have to park them somewhere. The most logical place is the rock crushing plant, the east side of the Banana. Now, the city has to decide what they want to do,” he said.

“This is a site identified for future use, but there isn’t a need for a rail yard unless there are trains,” said Joe Gladke, Manager of Engineering and Transit Planning for Hennepin County. “A couple of years ago, we were more optimistic. Wisconsin had federal funds for this, but Scott Walker turned that back and the money he gave back is already reallocated. A lot of what happens here depends on the next election cycle. But between the economy and the computer rail layover discussion, it’s still mostly the economy,” he said.”

“There’s a recession in the country,” said Beth Grosen, Principal Project Coordinator for the City of Minneapolis. “There isn’t a market for condos and there’s a lot of vacancy in high rise office space. The plan isn’t going to be implemented as quickly as we’d hoped. In the short run, we’re looking to see what it would be like to have buildings above the rail storage, but it might be five years or longer before we know if rail storage is needed.”

Members of the ROC seem optimistic that the trains will eventually come to Linden Yards. But, residents in both the more affluent Bryn Mawr and the historically underserved Harrison neighborhoods are getting frustrated with changes to the plan and the delays. (See The Harrison Neighborhood: How a Community Becomes Marginalized from Alliance for Metropolitan Stability.)

Vida Ditter, who represented Bryn Mawr on the original planning committee said that many in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood who tentatively support development of the rail layover, but many in Harrison are opposed. “There are concerns that need to be resolved,” she said. “For one thing, there’s noise and pollution from diesel trains.”

But, Ditter remains optimistic. “They can’t do anything until the county makes the decision to use the layover,” she said. “If the county does choose the east side for a layover facility for trains, we could move forward with the master plan. You have the rail layover facility, but you can build parking of office space over it. The advantage is now that there’s a plan on the books. The development is in phase one, but the economy really did a number on people who wanted to develop.”

Right now, there is no easy access to Linden Yard, but the changes to the Van White Memorial Boulevard should create one, if city planners are successful in getting an off-ramp built as part of the highway’s upgrade. Even so, the economic downturn is causing delays in implementing any of the changes.

“The city has to be satisfied that they are making good faith efforts to put spade to the ground. We are hoping for two years when the market gets better. We have a commitment from the city that as soon as Ryan comes up with a concrete building plan, they’ll clear off the space,” Ditter said.

“Rail is convenient, but it’s not here today,” said Grosen. “We have to be looking way into the future. If you look at national policy, Obama has a priority to do some of these big rail projects in major urban areas, but these are expensive during a time of cutting budgets,” she said. “The rail storage is coming in bits and pieces. A Linden East rail layover won’t be needed for a long time.”