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Why Minneapolis wants to create six ‘cultural districts’ across the city

Tuesday September 10, 2019

The “cultural districts” concept was first approved by the Minneapolis’ City Council in its adoption of Minneapolis 2040 last December.

Minneapolis City Council members are launching a new effort to help develop the cities’ most diverse neighborhoods grow economically while keeping those areas affordable to current business owners — even if the council is not yet sure how it’s going to accomplish all that.

The city’s department for Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED) is currently working on the details of the initiative, which is aimed at creating what the city has dubbed “cultural districts,” a concept first approved by the Minneapolis’ City Council in its adoption of Minneapolis 2040 last December. Staff within the department are planning to release a specific plan for a council vote before the end of the year.

In theory, the plan for the cultural districts is straightforward: The city wants to spend money to make streets cleaner, buildings look newer and help local entrepreneurs thrive in areas of Minneapolis where the majority of residents are people of color and where there’s a high concentration of low-income households.

Less clear is how the new attention from the city will actually spur economic growth while keeping neighborhoods affordable. Low-income people across the city — including artists in northeast, renters in north Minneapolis or Somali entrepreneurs in Cedar Riverside — have expressed a growing fear over development detracting from local businesses and attracting newcomers who can afford higher property costs and would displace current residents.

“We’re not looking to have an area feel unwelcoming now to its own residents just because there’s going to be more interest in people coming to that area,” said Council Member Alondra Cano, who is helping organize the long-range planning. “How we roll out that value will matter.”

Origins in the 2040 plan

In a study of gentrification across Minneapolis released last year, a team of University of Minnesota researchers use Census data showing residents’ annual incomes, housing costs, race and educational backgrounds to determine how neighborhoods’ demographics have shifted over time.

The researchers found that about 40 percent of city neighborhoods showed signs of gentrification between 2000 and 2015, with some areas — specifically East Phillips, Corcoran, St. Anthony West

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and Sheridan — becoming substantially more white and affluent within that time frame. Other areas, including Cedar Riverside and Ventura Village, are in line to follow that trend.

While writing Minneapolis 2040, the city’s long-range planning director, Heather Worthington, said city planners heard concerns that reflected those changes. Small business owners in a variety of industries, from tattooing to child care to consulting, feared they won’t be able to afford their leases for too much longer because of outside investors targeting their neighborhoods for new development and driving up prices. “[They] just had this concern … that redevelopment and gentrification in these areas could lead to displacement of their businesses,” she said.

Minneapolis’ CPED is currently working on the details of the initiative, which is aimed at creating what the city has dubbed “cultural districts.”[/image_caption][/caption]To help address some of those fears, city planners dedicated an entire chapter of Minneapolis 2040 to the cultural district concept. Then, in his 2020 budget address, Mayor Jacob Frey identified the six areas where he wants to create the zones: northeast’s Central Avenue, north Minneapolis’ West Broadway, Cedar-Riverside, Franklin Avenue, Lake Street and 38th Street.

Beyond establishing the geographic boundaries, project leaders are now planning to categorize each district using a three-tiered system — “communicate,” “curate” and “catalyze” — based on their particular circumstances, said Cano. Areas such as Central Avenue, which have stable economies but could use help from marketing groups to rebrand their image, might fall under the “communicate” label. On the other end of the spectrum, the “catalyze” designation is meant for places with the strongest need for attention — such as West Broadway in north Minneapolis — while “curate” is somewhere in the middle.

With those tiers in mind, Cano said City Council members want to test new programs that will incentivize both residential and commercial development to give new purpose to vacant buildings and create affordable housing.

She said that type of government-sponsored development could ensure growth that aligns with the neighborhoods’ look and feel, rather than allowing private developers to come in “with their own money and their own vision to maybe establish something that may or may not be connected to the community.”

A tale of two models

Even without the “cultural district” designation, work to spur new economic development in neighborhoods with high concentrations of immigrant and native residents has already begun.

Near the intersection of South Fourth Street and Cedar Avenue — which is likely to be part of the Cedar Riverside cultural district — Mayor Jacob Frey and Ward 6 Council Member Abdi Warsame have proposed replacing a 93-stall parking lot with a hub of new housing, businesses, health-care services and other facilities, what they are calling Minneapolis’ “African Village.” Frey and Warsame say the development would fulfill a need for improved amenities in the neighborhood, give people an alternative to other African malls in Minneapolis and put a spotlight on the area’s rich cultural heritage.

But not all residents are on board. Though Warsame first began talking about the village in 2017, it wasn’t until June of this year that he and Frey publicly announced the plan for the area, in a speech at an East African Business Forum. Since then, several Cedar-Riverside business leaders and an advocacy group, Somali Mothers of MN, have rallied in opposition to the development, arguing the city has not included them in the planning.

The groups also worry that new traffic could increase crime and cause problems for existing minority-owned businesses, and that the development could be tipping point for a wave of new construction that turns the low-income neighborhood into a place they can no longer afford. Last month, a group of opponents shut down a meeting for the city leaders to discuss the project at the Brian Coyle Community Center. “Our homes are not sale!” one advocacy group posted on Facebook after the protest. “This is how you shutdown gentrification in your hood.”

Far less controversial is the effort to transform Franklin Avenue in the city’s Ventura Village neighborhood. For years, Justin Huenemann, founder of the Native American Community Development Institute (NACDI), had wanted to redevelop the area mostly known for dilapidated buildings, high crime rates and rampant substance abuse into a place where Native entrepreneurs could thrive.
By 2011, the institute and other Native-led real estate groups had acquired most of the land along the half-mile strip, which they renamed the American Indian Cultural Corridor. It now includes the contemporary American Indian fine arts organization called All My Relations Gallery, as well the Ancient Traders building.

Today, with the relocation of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe headquarters to East Franklin Avenue, a supportive housing program at Many Rivers East Apartments and the Minneapolis American Indian Center next door, the area represents the sort of transformation supporters of cultural districts want to see elsewhere.

“The vision is the community’s so it reflects the community values and the community’s priorities, rather than an outside developer or government agency coming in and sort of dictating what’s going to happen here,” said Robert Lilligren, a former City Council member and current head of NACDI. “It’s empowering local communities to have a voice in our own destinies.”

Cano, who served as a policy aid to Lilligren’s office during his work on Franklin Avenue, said she has long wanted to see similar efforts in her ward’s neighborhoods, including East Phillips, Midtown Phillips and Powderhorn Park. And after voters elected her to the council in 2013, she began meeting with entrepreneurs along Lake Street to figure out how the city could help them.

Through that work, she said she recognized the need to strengthen the Latino community’s voice in all types of city decisions, ranging from development to art. She laments that her neighborhood lacks a collective for Latino artists — akin to north Minneapolis’ Juxtaposition Arts — even though it’s the most Latino part of the city.

That type of organization, alongside new community development groups, would build a sense of community that doesn’t exist now, she said. She envisions a future in which those groups enhance Lake Street and fuel “ethical tourism” that will help Latino business owners and residents survive rising market prices. “I don’t want to wake up one day in Minneapolis and then realize that … Latino folks can’t afford to live here,” she said of her rationale for getting involved.
Part of Frey’s 2020 budget
Even though the City Council has not formally designated the districts, Frey does not want to wait to spend money on the new initiative.

In his 2020 budget address, the mayor proposed the first wave of investments across the six zones, including the African Village, which he and other supporters say have the potential to serve as economic catalysts for neighborhoods led by people of color and indigenous residents, on par with New York’s Chinatown or Chicago’s Hyde Park.

“They’re doing exactly what we’re talking about here — not displacing people,” Lilligren said. “They’re economically empowering the people who are there.”

As part of his plan, Frey wants to set aside $750,000 for more frequent trash cleanups, better street lights and refreshing building facades for the targeted areas. If neighborhoods look better and feel safer, he argues, new visitors will come and spend money in the areas, ensuring local business leaders reap the benefits. The mayor’s plan also calls for spending $200,000 for murals or art events; $100,000 for new business co-ops; and $350,000 for Meet Minneapolis, the city’s convention and visitors association, to create marketing campaigns for the areas.
In addition, Frey’s office and Council Member Jeremiah Ellison, who represents parts of north Minneapolis, have proposed developing a new, multimillion dollar fund from which entrepreneurs can request no-interest construction loans for new projects and renovations — money they don’t have to pay back until their properties are sold. The mayor’s 2020 budget carves out $2.5 million total for the program — $2 million of which would be set aside for business owners of color within the cultural districts.

“It’s really trying to open up opportunities that people can participate in — [opportunities] that currently don’t exist, or if they do exist, they need to be augmented,” Cano said.

For all the mayor’s plans, the City Council is likely to amend his 2020 spending plan in coming months, deciding how, exactly, the city’s tax dollars will be spent in the districts. The council has final say on the city budget, and must approve its 2020 spending plan before the end of the year.

The city is hoping to raise awareness around the cultural district initiative and solicit early proposals from entrepreneurs and community groups early next year. Cano said she expects to see “energy on the ground” as part of the districts — such as the creation of new arts organizations or the renovation of existing buildings — in late fall or early winter of 2020.

“We can align everybody’s energy and attention in a way where we can have transformative results here … help low-income folks, diverse folks stay in the neighborhood and keep that character alive that we love so much,” she said. “What will Lake Street look like 10 years from now? That’s up to the people who step up to engage on the cultural districts conversation.”

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