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.

Michael Knapp

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.

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.

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.

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.

Connecting the development to the rest of the city is one of the master plan's biggest and best ideas. Back in the 1930s and '50s, when the various public housing projects were being built on the site (the city kept piling poor people on top of each other), the Heritage Park area was parsed by a normal street grid. But in the 1960s, a "superblock" was created along the project's western border. After that came I-94 with its 12-foot-high concrete wall to the east, a widened Olson Memorial to the south, and cul-de-sacs and light industry to the north. The projects were systematically hemmed in, and the message to poor people was clear: Don't go anywhere, especially not downtown.

Hollman changed all of that, mandating that the hundreds of families living in the projects be dispersed to other parts of the city and even the suburbs. Replacement units were slow to come. Even so, starting in 1997, the entire area was bulldozed, making way for Heritage Park.

The complex sits directly on the Bassett's Creek flood plain, which means that the soil is unsteady and full of clay that sponges up water. Historically, this has caused homes to sink and basements to flood. In order to build anew, the property had to be smoothed over and squeezed of water through a process called "surcharge," which entails the use of buried wicks that allow water to escape as weight is applied from above. The idea is that once the moisture is removed, the new buildings will keep the soil pressed down so it won't reabsorb water.

But water wasn't the only problem. The site was pocked with a variety of contaminants including lead and asbestos--not as many as feared, according to the between 800 and 900 soil borings taken over recent decades, but enough to pose obstacles. "We were dealing with unbelievable material that was brought in way back when," says Lois Eberhart, the city's project manager for Heritage Park's infrastructure and open space. "A lot of fill was residential fill from people's backyards: brick, stone, wood, old building foundations. We'd have to stop and remove it." She says only two sites of significant pollution were discovered: the housing projects' former heating plant, which held seven buried 20,000-gallon oil tanks, one of which had leaked extensively, and an old tannery. Both, says Eberhart, were cleaned up.

Once soil preparation was completed, planners set to work on imposing a new street grid. They created a network of more or less typical city blocks, some with alleyways and private drives. Roadways were cut directly through the superblock. A new residential street, called Lyndale Place, was built between the development and busy Lyndale Avenue, which runs along I-94. The enormous barrier wall was demolished (unfortunately, the beloved and short-lived John Biggers mural, Celebration of Life: The First Fruit, went with it) and replaced with a landscaped berm, which opened the neighborhood's east side while still providing a modest buffer from highway noise. The city would like to modify Olson Memorial too, giving it a wider median and adding a traffic-slowing curve as it passes Heritage Park, somewhat mimicking Summit Avenue in St. Paul. Additional state and federal moneys would be required to make that happen.

According to the master plan, the project's new streets are designed to provide a neighborhood feel while affording shopping-mall-level security. "[S]treet patterns will slow neighborhood traffic and discourage cut-through traffic," reads the plan. "Streets will be fronted by residential front doors and outdoor space will be defined as either public or private to discourage loitering. Neighborhood parks...will be wrapped by perimeter streets to allow unobstructed views into and through the space. Pedestrian traffic will thus be channeled along public streets, which, in concert with front porches and a connected street network, will encourage residents to know their neighbors." This theory of design is often referred to as "eyes on the street," which is another way of saying that there are very few places for a person to hide.

We drove in our golf cart along the development's north park, which features a round grassy area surrounded by a sidewalk and scattered with an occasional bench. It looked barren and I asked whether there would someday be more plants, or even trees. "It is what it's going to be," answered Malafa. And then, taking a closer look, he added, "There was a problem with the grass seeding."

The north park is home to a couple of tiny ponds, traversed by bridges festooned with clunky metal turtles designed by a local artist. "Turtles mean something in every culture," explained Lara. She also gestured toward a stone waterfall that she said is pretty after a heavy rain. A larger, more substantial pond is being built south of Olson Memorial and will offer ice skating in winter. There was supposed to be fishing, too, but the city elected not to dig the hole deep enough to keep fish from freezing during the cold months.

The ponds will act, essentially, as a natural water-treatment facility. Utilizing a series of "grit chambers," "trench forebays," and "filtration basins," the waterholes filter and clean street runoff before it reaches the Mississippi. It's a fairly new strategy that's being implemented all over the city and includes the planting of low-maintenance flowers and grasses such as prairie dropseed, stiff goldenrod, and purple prairie clover--all of which are, when mature, quite lovely--to capture sediment and other pollutants. Lara and Malafa are clearly excited by the functionality of the green spaces. Lara even helped plant some of the flowers. "Look," she pointed toward a sloping bank, "it's kind of coming up."

While the new ponds are great for the Mississippi, they make glaring one of the project's greatest failures: The city didn't dish out the money to uncover Bassett's Creek, which runs directly under Heritage Park in a manmade conduit. Essentially a north side Minnehaha Creek, this portion of Bassett's was buried during the early 1900s in order to solve flooding problems and make way for housing. (It runs open through Theodore Wirth Park and part of Bryn Mawr.) Green space was never a priority in poor neighborhoods, as it was on Minneapolis's south side. But residents want that to change. Repeatedly, during the myriad focus groups, they stated the desire to "daylight" one of the north side's only water amenities.

When asked why, with the area dug up anyway, the city didn't fulfill this overwhelming wish, Eberhart explained that nowadays, there is too much street runoff for the creek to handle, making the conduit necessary. Okay, but why not build a streambed and keep the conduit for overflow? The quick answer seems to be that it was less trouble to build the ponds. "Routing some creek flow into Heritage Park's water amenities was considered," says Eberhart. "Calculations determined, however, that the area's precipitation--without adding creek flow--is sufficient to maintain water levels." She also mentioned the obvious difficulty in building a creek when Olson Memorial and the Summit Academy sit in the middle of the new development.

When I asked the same question of Darrell Washington, senior project coordinator for the Minneapolis Department of Community Planning and Economic Development, he got directly to the point: "It was not possible to do something like that with limited dollars."

 

Lara, Malafa, and I entered thefront door of a vacant one-bedroom apartment. It was spanking new and spacious at almost 750 square feet. I asked, "Is this a public housing unit or a fair market unit?" It was a trick question, to which Lara responded with a trick answer. Although a tenant was due to move in any day, she said she wasn't sure. And that's the point. The apartments are exactly the same whether a tenant is paying the fair market rent of $770, the slightly subsidized tax credit rate of $640, or 30 percent of a family's income, which can be as low as $50.

The apartment was covered in wall-to-wall thick tan pile carpeting. (FYI: Painting the walls any color besides white is expressly verboten.) The rooms were good-sized, the storage closets ample. The overall feel was of a solid, if sterile, living space. The only tacky touches were the coated-wire closet shelves and the white plastic mullions that dissect some of the windows in order to create the illusion of more expensive multi-pane glass.

We rounded the corner into a hallway that led to a well-lit bathroom with a tub and shower and white tiles that had never seen mildew or loose hair. Mounted on the wall was a security system panel. All the apartments have them. Each is programmed, explained Malafa, to set off a deafening blast at the first sign of danger. Tenants are free to connect the systems to outside security agencies at their own expense (there is no centralized Heritage Park system). When asked whether the alarms are a nod toward security-minded renters nervous about living in Near North, Lara responded that they exist only to help the complex "be in competition. It's an additional amenity."

But, clearly, Heritage Park is concerned about safety. Witness the vandalism that took place in late May on the project grounds, south of Olson Memorial. Two 10-year-old boys hijacked a 100,000-pound excavator and drove around until they'd caused an estimated $500,000 worth of damage. They snapped a power pole in half, cutting power to KMOJ radio for 17 hours.

Says McCormack Baron's Swain, "The number one security feature at any property is lighting. We took great pains to make sure there weren't dark spots and dark corners on the property. Number two is access to the buildings. We have controlled, locked access. Most units have a common access hallway. The hallway is also well lit, with big windows. It's a subtle approach." Not so subtle is the patrol firm that drives through the site during evenings. "We hired them," says Swain. "We may use some police officers as well in the future. We haven't had many problems yet, as far as major crime. We've had some minor break-ins to cars. Minneapolis is a small-town nice deal."

Next to the bathroom was a large utility closet with a full-sized Whirlpool washer and dryer, a personal furnace/air conditioner, and a water heater. Tenants control the climate in their apartments and pay for gas and electricity. It's the washers and dryers that are most beloved, but other amenities include garages, community garden plots, "tot lots," gazebos, a soon-to-be-finished exercise facility, and a party room with a gas fireplace.

The apartment's kitchen was brightly lit, with an open, walk-through design. It had a white Whirlpool dishwasher, fridge, and stove, and also a garbage disposal. According to Walser, in some units, the cabinets located closest to the stove have buckled due to heat. "That should not happen," she says. "They are being replaced." Also, there have been minor wall cracks as the buildings have settled. Those, too, are being repaired.

Past the kitchen, we entered the dining room, which opened onto a deck built of beams that looked to be made from recycled pop bottles. The apartment sat close to the freeway and when we stepped out, the noise was formidable. Cars zoomed by, leaving trails of exhaust. But Lara didn't notice. "This is such a beautiful view of the skyline," she said. And, when I finally looked up, I saw that she was right.

 

You can't be just anybody and liveat Heritage Park. You can't even be just anybody with money. McCormack Baron scrupulously examines each prospective tenant. "The screening is key," says Swain. "It's a great marketing tool."

His company checks for past rental or mortgage nonpayment, unlawful detainers, delinquent consumer debt, and income sources. They also perform criminal record checks, though they do allow for some types of past bad behavior. An applicant can't have manufactured drugs during the past six years, sold drugs during the past three years, been convicted of drug possession during the past eighteen months, or committed a "crime against a person" during the past four years or a property crime during the past two. The only applicants categorically turned away are murderers and rapists.

Perhaps the most invasive aspect of this rigorous, nobody-gets-out-alive screening process is the mandatory inspection of an applicant's current home, during which a Heritage Park representative checks for "cleanliness and evidence of acceptable living standards and personal conduct." Due to overall busyness and staffing shortages, inspections have slacked in recent months, but Swain says they'll pick up again soon. "We have denied people in the past because of these checks," he says, "for health-related issues. It adds comfort knowing that it's the same for everyone who lives there. Tenants know that their neighbors went through the same screening."

In other cities, McCormack Baron's screening has been a problem. At Centennial Place, the 738-unit mixed-income project in Atlanta, which was also built on a demolished public housing site, they had a hard time finding poor people who could clear all the hurdles. While rents for the market-rate apartments soared, some of the subsidized units sat vacant. Susan Eubank, the project's area supervisor, told the Atlanta Journal and Constitution that 213 tenants from the demolished project applied to move back. Only 37 qualified. "It's harder for them to get back in," she said, adding that the development was not intended to be a housing project, but rather an upscale community that accepts some low-income residents.

Swain says Heritage Park has been more successful. Every finished unit is currently rented. And of the 105 completed public housing units, 45 are occupied by returning families. "I think that's a good number," he says. "We took great strides to make sure people who wanted to come back could come back. We did a lot to attract them. Some are living in homes in the suburbs now. Some are elderly and don't want to move. But pretty much everybody who wanted to come back did, around 95 percent of them."

If the project has been reasonably solicitous of poor people on the rental end, it has been less so when it comes to the planned 360 for-sale houses and townhomes. About a year ago, after McCormack Baron opted out of (or was relieved of, depending on whom you ask) the for-sale portion of Heritage Park, the city finally settled on its new developer, Heritage Housing LLC. The homes are now slated to be completed by 2009. They haven't yet been built, save three by the charity Habitat for Humanity.

In 2001, Habitat announced that it had raised $3 million and accumulated 200,000 pledged hours of labor to build 55 houses for families in need. The plan was to break ground in May of 2002, yet Habitat couldn't get the green light from the city or McCormack Baron. Finally, in July '02, Father Michael O'Connell of the Basilica of St. Mary posted an angry letter to Mayor R.T. Rybak. "Unfortunately, our delight in the collective work of our congregants is offset by our profound dissatisfaction with the inexplicably slow pace of progress in construction," the priest wrote. "It is now virtually certain that no construction of Habitat homes will commence during the 2002 building season. We are deeply disappointed and frustrated by these delays and by the lack of information from the MCDA and McCormack-Baron as to how our commitment to produce 55 units will be implemented and scheduled." Rybak, in turn, reportedly told the city to get a move on.

The three nearly completed Habitat houses sit along one edge of Heritage Park. They are quite stylish, sporting rich colors and simple, boxy designs. (For-sale homes, like rental buildings, must comport with the development's standards of design and appearance.) Says project manager Washington, "It's important that the Habitat Homes and the market-rate homes are completed in a timely manner, sooner rather than later. To some extent, they will be a function of the market, of the buying power out there. If folks really want to buy, they will go up really fast. If not, then they will come slower."

In the end, it's on Heritage Park's wealthier tenants that Washington and the rest of the city have hung their highest hopes. If things go as planned, an influx of disposable income will stimulate commercial development along some of Near North's depleted main drags. That would mean that residents could walk just a few blocks south, for example, to Glenwood Avenue--an express target for redevelopment--when they needed groceries or a dry cleaner. "We couldn't have commercial development in a public housing development," explains Washington. "Also, we didn't want to compete with what may be going on on the streets around the development. Essentially, what is necessary for any commercial district are roofs with disposable income." The hoped-for commercial boom would theoretically bring jobs, too, one of the project's ancillary goals.

"I hope it's a catalyst for the surrounding area," Washington adds. "The development would fail if it did not create interest in folks surrounding the development to increase investment in their properties. It would fail if it didn't inspire businesses to come in on Plymouth and Broadway. The city does not succeed by maintaining a status quo. It will fail if the level of investment does not increase."

As we turned our cart back toward the main office, I asked my guides, Lara and Malafa, whether they lived at Heritage Park. Lara answered yes. Malafa admitted to living in the suburbs, but added: "I think I might move here sometime down the line. It's really great."

And, of course, white people like Malafa, with his clean-cut, middle-class sheen, are exactly the point.

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