U of M poised for long-term North Minneapolis partnership

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Amid lingering doubts, ‘U’ officials and supporters advance a new ‘urban agenda’

Ora Hoakes, who has lived in North Minneapolis for over 30 years, is a passionate advocate of a University of Minnesota plan to renew the blighted corner of Penn and Plymouth Avenues on Minneapolis’ North Side, which is just a couple blocks from her home. A community activist, Hoakes believes the multi-million-dollar project, dubbed the University-Northside Partnership (UNP), will respond to urgent needs in this area of the city while also helping to stabilize it.

“Every resource that the university has at its disposal, we can utilize to strengthen our community,” said Hoakes.

The university is a major force behind the initiative, but many other community stakeholders are also part of the collaboration to address Northside residents’ concerns related to business, employment, health, poverty and other issues.

Many Northside residents are optimistic about the partnership, but some lingering suspicions remain about the university’s motivation for becoming more fully engaged with the North Side. Some critics have even questioned its research tactics, suggesting that the U of M will use African Americans as “guinea pigs” comparable to the famed Tuskegee syphilis experiment to test new drugs — a claim that university leaders and others have denied.

Minneapolis City Council Member Don Samuels (Ward 5) fully supports the project, which he has said will create an “explosion of investment at that corner.” He praised the university for demonstrating an unwavering commitment to the North Side.

The project is symbolic of a new era. “It’s unprecedented,” Samuels said. “There’s an excitement in the community after a period of wariness.” Samuels has high hopes the development will turn around the crime-ridden corridor. “I expect an overnight transformation in the physical and psychological feel,” he said.

A community-wide collaboration

UNP involves redevelopment of the area that’s planned to unfold within two phases. It will begin with renovation of a shopping mall on Penn Avenue North, between Oliver and Newton Avenues North, which it’s purchasing from the Northside Residents Redevelopment Council (NRRC) for $1.125 million.

Sale of the property will be finalized this month after the university’s board of regents gives its approval, according to some university officials. NRRC has managed the property since 1995.

The U of M will help relocate the shopping mall’s tenants, which include Snow Foods, a convenience store. Some services will be temporarily located in the shopping mall while a new building is constructed nearby. Others will remain in the mall on a permanent basis.

Hennepin County, which will take the lead in the second phase, will tear down the neighboring Pilot City building where NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center is located. The new building will house the County’s Human Services Department, along with a joint U of M and NorthPoint health clinic that will be geared toward children and families, and a branch of the YMCA among other amenities.

Details of the project, such as budget and timeline, are yet to be determined, but some other aspects of the extensive project are starting to come together.

A “Community Benefits Agreement” — a contract that spells out certain expectations between the U of M and community stakeholders — will soon be ready for a final round of public input, a process NRRC is leading. Also underway is a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) that will provide some framework for the university’s model of community engagement.

In December, additional public forums will be hosted within neighborhoods to pinpoint community needs above and beyond those that have already been identified.

Robert Jones, senior vice president of system academic administration at the U of M, described the project as a part of the university’s “urban agenda,” which is a “new strategic way of engagement.” That means forming “more thoughtful and deliberate partnerships,” which he said isn’t possible without maintaining a physical presence.

The UNP will be the first urban research and outreach facility of its kind across the country, bringing the U of M one step closer to its goal of becoming a top-notch research university. “We believe public engagement is a critical component,” Jones said. “It cuts across all 34 taskforces we created for the project. We’re in a unique position to work with urban issues.”

Redesigning how services are delivered

Also in the works is a Family Center to be led by internationally renowned Dante Cicchetti, a U of M faculty member in the Institute of Child Development and the Department of Psychiatry, which are located in the College of Education and Medical School, respectively.

Cicchetti is recognized for groundbreaking work in the field of developmental psychopathology, which takes an interdisciplinary approach to the study of child development. He formerly taught at Harvard and set in motion the dynamic Mt. Hope Family Center in New York, where thousands of families that have come through its doors have eluded child protection referrals and foster care placement.

“I didn’t want simply to identify causes for abnormal development but to apply that knowledge to create effective interventions that could bring about real change for children and families and address the issues people struggle to cope with daily,” said Cicchetti in a statement posted online.

The idea is to do the same thing in North Minneapolis with the help of NorthPoint after-school programs, summer camps, parent-child therapy, parenting classes, foster family treatment, and therapy for emotionally unstable children and dysfunctional families, just some of the services it will offer according to university information.

NorthPoint CEO Stella Whitney-West said the development coincides with a new way of delivering services to customers. In the past, practitioners dictated a certain remedy to a client as opposed to making the relationship a partnership.

In other words, it means “being part of the solution as opposed to someone who has all the answers. They need to be family- and client-centered, with services built around their needs and culture… Let the families articulate what they need.”

A social and economic justice group called the Proactive Urban Initiative submitted a document to NRRC and other local and state authorities entitled “Grievance Against the Northside Neighborhood Redevelopment Council,” describing its opposition to the project. It states that NRRC sidestepped certain processes for the bidding of the shopping mall, among other complaints.

Cheryl Avery, a lifelong resident of the Northside and a participant in the Proactive Urban Initiative, protested the development during a demonstration on the property last month. She said the shopping mall is one of the last pieces of a bygone North Side.

“Keep the history. Don’t take the entire shopping center,” said Avery. “We’re the poorest of the neighborhoods. It’s a move to make us move.”

Spike Moss, another Northside resident and a well-known community activist, is also against UNP. But his concerns center on the research aspect: “There’s no point in researching us,” he said, asserting that African Americans have already been researched enough. “What good are they up to?”

Instead, said Moss, “Research what makes people do this to our community,” citing past instances of drug experimentation on African Americans. “Research my illness, but leave my mind alone.” (University officials and other leaders say the research won’t have anything to do with drugs.)

Sherrie Pugh Sullivan, executive director of NRRC, acknowledged that some criticism is inevitable. She’s more optimistic about the motives behind the partnership.

“Research can be a tool for change,” she said. “Data is important for getting policy changed. Progress is slow. The U of M partnership is an avenue. We can use the credentials of the university to reshape policy.”


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