Probation office not a good fit for Central Avenue

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Hennepin County officials should drop plans for a neighborhood community corrections office on Central Avenue.

As County officials proceed with plans to open such a place, also called a probation office, near 26th and Central avenues NE, your publishers ask if they considered Central’s need for commercial development when those decisions were made.

We can’t think of any community corrections offices on the city’s main successful neighborhood commercial streets. And when we consider the likely reasons for not locating such offices there (variations on the theme of “it sends the message that this is a troubled neighborhood, and that’s bad for business”), we find that the reasons apply even more to Central Avenue.

Proponents say crime is on the increase and making the probation operation more visible will help deter crime. They say a lot of Northeast people need these services, and that probation officers have a lot of clout with the people they supervise, as they can make decisions that change probation terms for the worse and the supervisees don’t want that, so they’re more likely to follow their rules.

We don’t necessarily argue with any of these points. We would add, however, that such a center, even if it does deter crime, sends a message to developers and to law abiding residents that this is a hugely troubled area. Even if actual crime decreases (which we think is unlikely), the perception of crime is likely to increase dramatically. And the perception of a crime problem is enough to scare away developers and local shoppers.

Your publishers have learned enough about statistics to know that correlation doesn’t necessarily indicate causality. Still, it’s worth noting that the successful commercial districts we visit don’t seem to have storefront probation offices. And we don’t ever remember hearing, “Well, we had a probation office here until the crime went away, and now it’s a bakery.”

Those who favor the plan don’t seem to realize that a probation office is likely to hurt Northeast even more than it would hurt a more successful commercial district. The successful district is, well, successful, and the presence of a probation office wouldn’t necessarily alter the formula that makes it so. Central Avenue has many success stories to tell, yet challenges remain. Using a store front for a probation office is like hanging out a sign that says, “This area has a crime problem. Meet the perpetrators here.” We don’t question the honorable intent behind the probation office, but that’s simply not the message that developers and local shoppers need to hear. A probation office will accentuate the challenges, when Central Avenue needs to accentuate and replicate the success stories.

Commercial areas are never stagnant. They’re either “up and coming” or “on the decline.” A probation office sends the incontrovertible message that Central is on the decline.

So, are we guilty of NIMBY syndrome (Not In My Back Yard)? It’s possible. After all, it’s hard to think of a really good place to bring people who have had difficulty obeying the law. It’s not easy to name the right place for the office, but it’s not at all difficult to conclude that a store front on Northeast’s most visible commercial thoroughfare is the wrong place. It needs to be positioned such that it doesn’t send the message that Northeast is a bad place to live, shop and invest. Proponents might say that takes away the advantage of a visible presence against crime. Perhaps so, and we’re willing to live with that. Such a visible presence against crime does a lot of harm in addition to the perceived good, and we’d rather do without it.

It’s also very troubling that the probation office seems to be a “done deal” with virtually no public discussion. This project has the potential to un-do years of carefully-planned development work, and residents should be able to have an official say before the contracts are signed. It’s clear that the neighborhood notification rules need some revision.

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