Swept Away

The likely demolition of over 700 public housing units in north Minneapolis will scatter people who live there and open up 73 acres of prime real estate at downtown's edge. Is it a matter of civic renewal or a land grab?

The MPHA counters that if they can't find housing for everyone, they simply won't tear down the units. Says MPHA attorney Jack Cann: "If the housing market is such that all 259 families [in Sumner Field] can't be relocated using certificates in two-and-a-half years, then they're not going to move. The main thing that is pushing this is not our desire to get the units down. It is the residents' desire to move."

But that possibility seems more and more unlikely as the city goes ahead with its planning process. The Hollman decree promises to open up a 73-acre parcel of land that, despite its soil problems, boasts close proximity to downtown. It's got City Council members talking about "real opportunities" and "grand visions." Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton was even quoted in a local newspaper as calling the $100 million settlement a "grant" from HUD during a public address.

The redevelopment schemes center on three general ideas: opening the area to more light industry; turning the area completely or partly into parkland, which may involve uncovering Bassett Creek; and building houses, some of which could be exclusive and upscale. Lambert of the Planning Department says she's heard some elected officials talk about building high-buck housing there, though she declines to name them.

"I'm excited about the proposal to uncover Bassett Creek," says 6th Ward Council Member Jim Niland. "What the Hennepin Community Works is talking about: massive greenspace to spur housing and economic development." (Hennepin Community Works wants to turn nearby Plymouth Avenue into a parkway, with trees and more "greenspace"--the hot topic in development circles these days.) "One problem we have had is a real intermixture of industrial and housing," Niland continues. "This would create a buffer between those two uses. It would help create a mixture of housing, low-income to upper-scale homes. I think if you look at Lake of the Isles, how the lake has those fingers--if you had an area that had fingers then you would maximize the number of developable housing spaces."

"I think we need to be more bold and visionary," he adds. "One house on a block at a time doesn't work. I think this is a chance to dramatically change the geography of the north side. Instead of being a place where we've dumped undesirable uses, polluting industries, it could be part of the grand round."

Opening up Bassett Creek poses its own problems, like cleaning up the Superfund sites at the Irving Avenue Dump and Warden Oil. It would mean taking out some light industry and some of the public housing in Hollman phase two. And there are always funding questions, since the HUD money is only supposed to go for relocation and housing replacement. According to Lambert, though, "There are different funding sources. MnDot is looking for places to put wetlands. There might be some opportunities through the Livable Communities Act. There might be state money to reconfigure."

Council Member Dziedzic has a homey view for the area: He'd like to see baseball diamonds and a golf course. "Other parts of town have walkways and parks," he says. "We have the opportunity to do that on the north side." Jackie Cherryhomes, who represents the north side's 5th Ward, couldn't be reached for comment.

NRRC's Ramadan originally thought building low-income housing on the site was out of the question--the lawsuit was about dispersion, after all--but has since changed his mind: "We're hoping to build homes for people who live in the community," he says. "One of the things that NRRC has discovered much to our embarrassment is we don't know all the ramifications of this settlement. We made some assumptions early on regarding what we would like that included reopening the lake there, moderate-income housing and light industry around it. We are taking a secondary position and asking the residents what they want."

Louis King--whose company, Twin Cities Opportunities Industrialization Center, owns the only piece of private property in the Hollman settlement area--worries that the neighborhood will get the shaft. "Take the Plymouth Avenue corridor," he says. "They want to turn it into a boulevard. If they do that they are going to displace a lot of housing again. We think there should be job creation. We need more businesses here. The people who live here and work here had to live here and work here when times were bad. So we don't think we should have to move when things get good."

And that's the concern: that all the talk about recreating the north side and improving the tax base is really about getting rid of the people who already live there to make way for a more "desirable" population. The same argument came up in the 1970s, when the City Council was considering an early proposal to tear down some of the family rowhouses to open up Bassett Creek. Lou DeMars was a council member at the time: "That was met with opposition from people who felt it would be gentrification. We had a consulting engineering firm study opening Bassett Creek and building a lake. The fear was that if we built a lake, the rich people would end up living by it and the poor wouldn't have access. There was opposition and it just died. They are using portions of the study for the current proposal."

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