Sold Down The River

Minneapolis's brave new riverfront will have parks, museums, and upscale condos. Who said subsidized housing was just for the poor?

One thing the new "amenity" won't have is the mystery that still lingers among the ruins. The Whitney is perhaps the best example of corporate-style preservation--spiffy, cute, and ultimately ahistorical. The unkempt riverfront's "detritus, broken concrete, old fencing" may be the "real stuff of civilization," as Bob Roscoe of the Heritage Preservation Commission insists; but it's not good business.

Nor will the milling district offer the same kind of access to historic resources you'd find at most national landmarks. "I just don't believe that there's enough interest in saving those buildings for a public purpose," the Historical Society's Doermann says. "There are a lot of them there, and the 'pure history' business would be taking on a lot. So to have Brighton or someone like that put in loft apartments would be a wonderful addition. The public can't understand history if there's nothing left to see."

And "see" is the key word: Roscoe calls it the public's "view easement. The job of historic preservation is that the public can enjoy the view of public structures." Look, don't touch.

Still, conflicts between the owners of $700,000 condominiums and Joe Public in the park seem inevitable. Similar disputes have been on the rise around the chain of lakes: After wealthy land-owners complained about (predominantly black) beach-goers at Lake Calhoun, the City Council stiffened the city noise ordinance. Neighborhood groups around Cedar Lake have hired cops to patrol Hidden Beach, a longtime hippie hangout. In both cases, park police have responded with increased surveillance of the areas.

"We owe it to ourselves to make sure the river doesn't become privatized," says Dan Cornejo, a city planner formerly from St. Paul and now in Robbinsdale who worked on riverfront development in Vancouver. "The amenities are truly everybody's. People who live far from the riverfront shouldn't feel like they're going into the rich people's property."

How can that be prevented? Fairly easily, as it turns out. The city owns significant acreage on the riverfront. All it has to do is mandate, for example, truly mixed-income housing. That would be social engineering, Cornejo argues, "but the MCDA selling land to any developer is already social engineering."

Based on the city's actions so far, chances for that sort of turn are slim. Minneapolis has always been an uptight city, and as it's begun to look more like the rest of urban America, the anxiety in City Hall has grown. The kind of "sensible development" Cornejo and other advocates talk about--messy, piecemeal, definitely not master-planned--generally means a loss of control for City Hall. "It's unpredictable," says Cornejo. "In the city you should feel like you can spit, or clean your shoes off on the curb. There's something there that's not programmed.

"But the current attitude of MCDA and a lot of city people is: Let's clean it up. Make it pretty. Make it special. On the riverfront there's this idea of: Let's do the big fix--so that someone can come down and see 'Our Riverfront,' capital R. But many people, even Midwesterners, would live in a scruffier and less predictable environment. One of the things I always marvel at is when you go to Georgetown in Washington, D.C. I'll point down and I'll say, 'Look at the sidewalk. It's broken. It's chipped. The tree roots are coming out. It's just a patchwork.' But the place is thriving. Yeah, you could spend a whole lot of money glitzing it up, and you'll get glitz. But there's kind of a deadness that goes with that."

In forgotten corners of the city, unpredictability has been allowed to thrive. Along Lake Street, the growing Latino population is carving out a vibrant neighborhood. On Nicollet Avenue south of downtown, Little Asia is booming (though it remains to be seen how small businesses survive the assessments levied for, what else, fancy decorative street lights). An upscale version of the same is on south Hennepin Avenue toward Uptown. But downtown, the Block E mentality prevails--call it anxiety planning. If the riverfront escapes the resulting "deadness" it will be a minor miracle.

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