River Dance

Renewed riverfront: Tim Baylor's vision for the Riverview site incorporates both private townhomes and public parkland

A flock of Canadian geese are making the most of the north Minneapolis sunshine on this crisp fall morning. As they loiter along the patch of weedy grass that spills down from the shuttered Riverview Supper Club to the mighty Mississippi River, they seem blissfully unaware that they're waddling across the controversial soil of the property's "view corridor" and its stunning glimpse of the Minneapolis skyline.

Most everyone else with an interest in this plot of land--located at the northern edge of West River Road--is all too aware that it has become the object of a complicated tangle of plans and opinions. Over the next 30 years, the city hopes to transform the stretch of riverfront north of downtown from an industrial area to one with green space and public access along the river, housing, and light industry. And everyone seems to agree that the site of the Riverview, a hallmark of Minneapolis's black community that closed last December, is the prime location in the planned urban utopia. But they disagree on what would be the best use of the land.

In the spring of 2000 (long before the Riverview Supper Club closed), real estate developer Tim Baylor signed a contract giving his JADT Development Group the option to purchase the land. Baylor has conceived numerous plans for the property. The latest one calls for 30 townhomes and 72 condos--all market rate and built without public funding--to be built on the western portion of the parcel and on an adjacent lot that's currently home to the Midwest Paint Manufacturing Co. Of the entire seven acres, about three near the river would be sold to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board to preserve public access to green space, trails, and river views. The plan includes the extension of West River Road further north to create a border between the parkland and private homes.

In Baylor's eyes, the project is an ideal way of making maximum use of the unique benefits of the Mississippi River. Not only will the public be able to enjoy the beauty of the river, the city will enjoy the increased tax base created by the new housing. "When it's all said and done, everyone will be proud of the park and the new residences," he predicts.

But local residents' groups, businesses, and environmentalists argue that the plan--the first major development proposed since the master plan was adopted--not only contradicts the vision for the upper river, but will effectively forestall the hoped-for future revitalization. The plan, entitled "Above the Falls," recommends the creation of a continuous area of green space along the river. Some of the drawings in the master plan designate the entire Riverview site as open space, incorporating park areas, trails, and perhaps even a small amphitheater that would highlight the pristine views of the river and downtown.

(The plan also calls for the creation of a citizens' advisory committee to facilitate public involvement in the development of the upper river. That committee has not yet been formed, adding to the discontentment of river advocates.)

"The plan was pretty specific about what the land uses should be," says Whitney Clark, executive director of the local nonprofit Friends of the Mississippi River. "It's mind-boggling to me that the very same public agencies that did that would be basically deviating from that plan so dramatically in this first opportunity. It sends a bad message."

It's not that the critics don't understand the need for housing, he continues: "Nobody is objecting to residential, per se. But is the highest and best use for the land by the great Mississippi River residential?"

In response, Baylor notes that the "Above the Falls" master plan calls for a combination of park and residential development along the river. "There is only one Mississippi River, and housing takes better long-term advantage of the river as an amenity than can industry," the plan states. "New parkland and housing provide the greatest opportunity to dramatically change the character of the riverfront in north and northeast Minneapolis."

Citing that and other examples, Baylor contends that his proposal is in accordance with the master plan--and he should know, he stresses, because he was a member of the Minneapolis Planning Commission when the plan was developed. He says he has worked with city agencies to fine-tune his project and ensure that his buildings do not fall in the "view corridor" called for along the river. In addition, he argues that his development will bring people into the area--people who will both populate and stabilize the parks and improve demand for retail along Broadway, a somewhat sketchy strip of north Minneapolis.

"Maybe there'll be a lot more stuff happening on this avenue that will continue to stabilize the community and help it continue to grow," Baylor says. "Don't make me the bad guy. Look at the big picture."

Candy Sartell, a residents' advocate with the Mississippi Corridor Community Alliance, is unmoved by Baylor's claim that his project will make room for three acres of park. "It was slated to be open space. We want to leave it that way," she says. "We don't feel there has been a fair public discourse. This has a huge impact not just on our neighborhoods but on the community as a whole, as well as the region."

Though he agrees that building housing on a portion of the Riverview site does deviate from the master plan's goal of maintaining the property as open space, Minneapolis Planning Supervisor Fred Neet explains that while Baylor's proposal will alter the overall vision, it won't quash it. If the housing is built, "there will be only a relatively small amount of public open space in this critical spot," he says, adding that the spacious, seven-acre, riverfront park was meant to be an amenity that would attract future development.

But the reality is that Baylor is prepared to buy the land, and the city is not. "The city and the Park Board are not in a position to purchase the property" from its current owners, Neet says. "We cannot deny a reasonable use of the property."

Still, the proposal doesn't sit well with nearby businesses. "We can coexist with open space and green, and that was what it's supposed to be for," says Dan Hollenbeck, terminal manager for Lafarge North America, a cement supplier located about 100 feet behind the proposed housing site. His business, which unloads cement bags from trains in the middle of the night and on weekends, would likely incite considerable rancor in the condos across the tracks. Like the other heavy industries in the area, Lafarge is supposed to be phased out over the next decades, and Hollenbeck worries that Baylor's project will only accelerate that move.

With so many opinions about the site to sort through, the Minneapolis City Council has its work cut out. Earlier this month, the Minneapolis Planning Commission approved Baylor's request to rezone the site for his project. From there, the discussion moved to the city council's zoning and planning committee, which opted to postpone the matter until its November 13 meeting.

At least publicly, Council member Joe Biernat, whose Third Ward encompasses the property, has so far equivocated. "The burden is on the council to demonstrate why his project should not be approved," he says. "It is an important site, but ultimately we ought not disregard the proposition that housing is key to revitalizing this particular area. We need density, we need vibrancy, we need people on the riverfront. I'm not convinced that we can't accomplish the needs of housing and also maintain access to the river."

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