Surprise! Heritage Park Is Not Hell on Earth

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

Housing poor people in stable middle- or working-class areas is a popular urban policy trend across the country, the idea being that concentrated poverty only begets decrepit living conditions, crime, and more poverty. At heart, economic integration isn't a radical notion. Or, at least, it shouldn't be. Back before gated communities and suburban commuters, people of varying means rubbed shoulders more regularly. And so, says Aaron Swain, vice president of McCormack Baron Ragan, Heritage Park attempts to create an organic situation inorganically. "We purposely commingle the different income levels in each building," he says. "So it's not like they are over there and we are over here. We've made it more like the rest of the country, like any other neighborhood."

A main objective of the site's exhaustively vetted master plan is to make "income distinctions... invisible." The expression of that mission is manifest in what Swain proudly calls the site's uncluttered appearance. The rules forbid hanging rugs from balconies, tacking up political signs, or replacing the standard-issue white mini-blinds with curtains. "People may perceive that it's more market-rate if it's more uniform in the look," he says. "We want people to pull up to the site and see a clean, uniform aesthetic. We want it to look very smooth and even. It must look like a planned community."

And there's the rub. Rules of conduct are necessary and not at all unusual. The project does offer parklike commons areas. And if tenants want to hang pictures of fetuses or Dennis Kucinich on their dining room walls, that's fine with Swain. But mingling is not exactly encouraged, and Heritage Park by design contains little opportunity for the kinds of spontaneous interactions that take place in nonplanned neighborhoods all the time.

Michael Knapp

Though McCormack Baron has developed similarly mixed rental projects in cities like Atlanta and St. Louis, Heritage Park is the company's largest project to date. (They handle only the rental portion; the for-sale housing will be built by a cluster of other developers, known as Heritage Housing LLC.) It's going up in four phases. Only the first, comprising 232 apartments and townhomes, is finished and occupied thus far. The second, with 113 units, is set to be completed by fall. It was off toward Phase I that Lara, Malafa, and I headed in our stealthy golf cart.

Lara described the three styles of architecture employed at Heritage Park, intended to reflect elements of Minneapolis's oldest housing stock: "Classic" with its flat fronts and pillared doorways, "Craftsman" with its heavy rooflines, and "European Romantic" with its sweeping, pointed roofs. At play is also a mixture of colors--including relatively daring deep green and cranberry--and textures. Unfortunately, the site's designers could not resist the urge to affix multiple kinds of siding to some buildings in order to push the illusion of variety. (The brick, at least, is real brick.) The construction, which is small in scale--the maximum number of apartments in any building is nine--doesn't exactly resemble an old-style neighborhood, but neither does it look like a dull, beige, suburban tract.

Just beyond the finished buildings of Phase I lie the nearly finished structures of Phase II. I asked Lara whether crews had discovered problems during construction--poor building plans or designs or materials. I asked because of a recent Spokesman article that documented leaking sewage and blown-off siding. Lara didn't have much to say on the point, except that the project is built with "all pretty much basic building materials."

According to Swain, "We have not had any construction problems at all. If so, they were addressed right away." Darlene Walser, Heritage Park's project coordinator, added that the reported siding damage was caused by a windstorm and was repaired immediately.

Still not fully convinced, I decided to survey residents in person about construction quality (I had to approach some as they sat at stop signs in their cars because, as usual, there was hardly anybody outside). The response was uniformly positive. One woman, Mary Winston, who goes by "Miss Mary," was openly jubilant. Shaking her head approvingly about the quality of her home, she described happiness that reached beyond matters of trim and plumbing. "This place makes me feel enhanced," she said. "I love the rooms. I love the management staff. Next door, there is an Asian family. And next to that is a Somali family. And next to that is a white family. It's multicultural and that's key for me." Checking the coals heating up in her little front-yard barbecue, she added, "I sit in my living room looking at my view of downtown and I get tears in my eyes. I think, thank you, Lord! You've placed me in New York City!"

 

"People complain that there isn't any wildlife out here," said Lara, gazing straight at a duck bathing in one of the development's new waterholes. "But there is." We were riding along the new Van White Memorial Boulevard, a grassy strip bordered on either side by one-way streets, which will stretch from one end of the project to the other and eventually meet Plymouth Avenue at the north and the Loring Park/Dunwoody area at the south.

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