Surprise! Heritage Park Is Not Hell on Earth

A tour of Minneapolis's newest and most rigorously engineered neighborhood

Never, in recent memory, has a city project drawn such unrelenting scrutiny. The new, partially completed Heritage Park housing tract--those shiny peaks in all hues of the muted rainbow that have been popping up near Olson Memorial Highway and I-94--will eventually cover 145 acres of prime real estate on the northwest edge of downtown. It's the most expansive from-the-ground-up development the city has ever undertaken. And if, in 10 years, the politically charged project falls vacant or falls apart, it will be one of the city's most spectacular failures.

The mixed-income development--an outgrowth of a 1992 deconcentration of poverty lawsuit called Hollman v. Cisneros--rests on the former site of several conjoined public housing projects. The result of umpteen public meetings, a drafted and redrafted master plan, and input from myriad designers, developers, and public officials, the site aspires to recreate a sizeable sector of the city--to reimagine what the Near North neighborhood looks like, along with who lives there.

Whenever the city gets to reimagining, controversy follows. Some criticisms are deserved. The project as a whole is behind schedule: It was supposed to be finished by 2007. Now it looks like it'll be 2009. It's also over budget: Original estimates put the cost at $198 million. It's now expected to top out between $225 and $275 million, much of that in public dollars.

Michael Knapp

Some criticisms are undeserved. A year ago, for example, journalists--including one for this paper--jumped on reports of smelly, black standing water near one of the new ponds on the property. Residents were quoted complaining of headaches and nausea. All glared furtively at the standing water as the cause. The city, hoping to stave off a touchy situation, tested the water, which turned out to be harmless. (Due to drainage problems, it had soaked in a pile of wood chips, the city claimed. Not drinkable, but not tumor-inducing either.) The Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder went so far as to enlist a water quality expert to walk through the property and examine its overall water tests. No major hazards, said the expert. The tests looked credible. Undeterred, the paper wrote, "Even if Heritage Park is clean at this point (which is yet to be demonstrated), given the history of the area and the number of contaminated sites surrounding it, who can say that the development will remain free of pollution or contaminants?"

So it was, one summer morning, that, in the spirit of discovery--how does the city build a neighborhood from scratch?--I headed over to Heritage Park for a tour. The main rental office, a low-slung stucco building meticulously furnished with Mission-style tables and leather chairs, is located just off Olson Memorial. Accented by vases of fresh roses and a snack tray arranged in a manner that would put any obsessive-compulsive at ease, the office is the project's public face. The reception area's elegant finishing touches are likely intended to assuage the feelings of market-rate tenants skittish about living alongside public housing recipients. This is not the projects. Have a cookie?

I was greeted by a public relations man, Terry Randolph, and DeAnna Lara, the area manager for McCormack Baron Ragan--the management arm of the project's rental housing developer, St. Louis-based McCormack Baron Salazar. The pair started off by noting the multicultural nature of the Heritage Park staff (Randolph is white; Lara is black) and introducing me to Chakavee Moua, a Hmong translator who also works the front desk. Because there are at least nine ethnicities represented at the complex--Somalis and other Africans, Laotians, Hmong, Vietnamese, Hispanics, African Americans, Native Americans, and white people--Lara explained that she keeps other translators on call on a volunteer basis. We chatted about residents and green space, and then Randolph excused himself, a little too cheerfully, for a dental appointment.

 

Maintenance Supervisor Brian Malafa, a friendly, youngish white guy, pulled up outside in a golf cart as gleaming as those found at any fancy private course or Florida retirement community. Lara, slender and snappily dressed, invited me to join her on the back, and hang on tight. We puttered off quietly down the sidewalk.

The first thing one notices is that there aren't many people around. I supposed that was because it was Friday morning and everyone was at work. (According to McCormack Baron, almost everyone living in the complex has a job. If they don't, or aren't looking, they volunteer. That's part of the deal, at least for tenants in subsidized apartments.) Later, however, when I read through the Heritage Park "Community House Rules," I realized that tenants are largely invisible by design. They can't work on their cars or ride bikes or skate on the sidewalks, and, in fact, "outside activities"--including sitting, standing, and congregating--"are not permitted in front of the apartment."

The absence of warm bodies combined with the rows of distant unfinished buildings, the plastic fencing, the piles of dirt, and the hundreds of spindly, just-planted trees lent the place a 28 Days Later feel. (As we toured, we did encounter a few people in cars who warmly greeted Lara as we passed, and a girl riding her bike, illegally, back and forth along a path that runs over a small pond.) The project is less than half-finished. When completed, it will stretch roughly from Humboldt Avenue on the west to I-94 on the east, and from 12th Avenue on the north to Glenwood Avenue on the south. It will include two new parks, a series of ponds, a new greenway named after Van White, the city's first black City Council member, and 900 units of housing--360 for-sale houses and townhomes, and 540 rental units with various bedroom configurations. The mix, one of the more contentious issues surrounding the project, will be 44 percent market rate and 56 percent subsidized at various levels. Those numbers include 300 units of public housing, 100 of which are earmarked for an elderly high-rise south of Olson Memorial.

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