Watchdog Training

Daniel Ruen

On August 25 the Minneapolis City Council approved the first phase of financing for a $198 million north-side redevelopment project known as Hollman. On paper the unanimous vote--which came with a price tag of $13 million--suggests the council is enthusiastic about rehabilitating what was once the city's largest public-housing complex. But those who attended the full council meeting, or caught it on cable access, would know that not everyone on the council was sure that the plans to build 900 units of mixed-income housing were either financially feasible or prudent. They would have seen the averted eyes, sideways glances, and stiff body language that accompanied many of the yes votes.

In fact, in the days leading up to the decision, council members Barret Lane, Sandy Colvin Roy, and Paul Ostrow were planning to vote no. "[The mayor and the city finance director] are telling us that there's a $10 million gap in infrastructure funding, and we just can't know where that money is going to come from right now," Lane, who represents the city's 13th Ward, told City Pages 24 hours before his flip-flop. "If we don't question the financing now, we're not going to be able to stop this thing once it's in motion. We'll end up just standing as the guarantors of this huge project, no matter what the cost."

The redevelopment at issue is the result of the Hollman Decree, a 1995 court settlement named after Lucy Mae Hollman, a black woman who lived in the north-side projects. Plaintiffs in the 1992 housing discrimination lawsuit that resulted in the settlement charged that for decades the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the City of Minneapolis concentrated minorities into the giant, dilapidated housing project just off Olson Memorial Highway. The Hollman Decree was intended to deconcentrate poverty by demolishing the 770 units of public housing and using $117 million in settlement money, paid by HUD, to build affordable replacements all over the metro area.

In a series of contentious meetings during the last two weeks of August, though, a number of council members--including Lisa McDonald and Lisa Goodman--began asking questions about how Hollman would be financed. The project is already $18 million in the hole. Back in February that number was $9.2 million, and in the intervening months it has risen as high as $22 million. Of immediate concern is a projected shortfall of $10 million in the project's $56.4 million public-works budget, a gap the city had hoped to shore up with a federal housing grant from HUD. But in the final days of August, project organizers in Minneapolis received a standard form letter from HUD saying that their application for funding had been turned down.

When news of this roadblock reached Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton and Minneapolis City Council president Jackie Cherryhomes, they began scrambling. Sayles Belton has long been a staunch supporter of the Hollman project. And Cherryhomes, in whose ward the redevelopment is being done, is widely recognized as its head cheerleader. The two of them made it clear to everyone on the council that they wanted a unanimous approval of Hollman's first, $13 million phase of funding. (Seven-and-a-half million is already in the city's coffers. The other $5.8 million will have to be borrowed.) Dissension over the budget was the last thing Sayles Belton and Cherryhomes needed, since critics have already been charging that the project is little more than a gentrified subdivision.

"The mayor and I did a lot of talking to people before the vote," recalls Cherryhomes. "We've never done a project with such a big social impact like this before. We're building a town in the middle of the city."

Cherryhomes also offered a seeming concession. She agreed to an amendment in the August 25 meeting that will break the first phase of funding (which could have topped out at nearly $30 million) into two separate components--one for $13 million, which was approved, and another that will come before the council again by April 15, 2001. That portion of the funding will eventually be needed to plan, design, and build a $15.8 million boulevard to connect the development with downtown Minneapolis. This budgetary bone, coupled with Cherryhomes's and Sayles Belton's lobbying efforts, produced the consensus they were hoping for.

But Lane, who had voted against preliminary funding strategies in March, insists he plans to become more vigilant in the future. He will continue to ask the tough questions before each and every vote concerning the Hollman project. And, more important, he and First Ward council member Paul Ostrow are going to revisit all the documents they have received during the past year concerning Hollman--in part, both council members admit, because there just has not been time to carefully read the fine print.

"Jackie [Cherryhomes] is telling us that all these things have to be included because of the [Hollman] Decree, but we want to know what we really have to do and what's optional," Lane explains. "I mean if the decree says we have to buy a car, do we have to buy a Mercedes here or could we buy a Chevy?"

This newfound commitment on the part of even a few council members may give some comfort to the critics. The NAACP, former residents of the Hollman site, north-side activists, and housing advocates have long claimed that the deluge of documents and closed-door meetings associated with the redevelopment has allowed Cherryhomes and others to manipulate the system. However, community activists also say that if council members are really serious about watching over the Hollman as it unfolds, they should start by paying close attention to what is and is not said at the monthly Implementation Committee meetings. The committee, chaired by Cherryhomes, oversees the ABCs of the development. What comes out of this group is supposed to be forwarded to individual council committees and then on to the full council for approval.

"I go to those implementation committee meetings and half the time I'm thinking to myself: 'I don't even have any idea what they're talking about,'" says north-side resident Natalie Johnson Lee. "You get certain types of information at those meetings, but all of the deals are made behind closed doors. We just seem to get updates in the committee, and I thought we were supposed to be in on discussions. Council members just seem to vote this stuff through, because if they admit that they haven't really read about it all they'll look stupid. So they just vote yes. If this keeps up, the people who should have benefited from this process will get nothing at all."

Council member Lisa McDonald, who represents the Tenth Ward, agrees. "This started out as having 50 percent affordable housing, and Jackie Cherryhomes dropped it to 25 percent. It does make you feel like some gentrification is going on. I don't have a problem with that, necessarily. But when we're forcing people and agencies to move out of the area, that's a problem."

City work crews will begin tearing up streets, sidewalks, and underground utility pipes on the north side of Olson Memorial Highway in October to make way for new infrastructure. Construction on the first 270 units of rental and for-sale housing will begin next spring. Additional housing will be built during the next three phases. The project is to be completed by 2007.

To avoid budget battles in the future, Cherryhomes says, she's going to meet with Chuck Lutz, the city's special projects coordinator, to devise communication strategies to keep council members in the loop. "In retrospect, we probably could have done a better job of keeping people informed over the last eight or nine months," Cherryhomes admits.

Whatever happens, it needs to happen fast. The City of Minneapolis began paying the Hollman project's developer, St. Louis-based McCormack Baron, $30,000 a month on June first of this year. That figure won't drop to $15,000 per month until the first phase of infrastructure and housing-development funds are secured.

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