Mpls. council to vote on Upper Harbor Terminal plan, some say it's too soon

Before a sit in for the UHT.
Liam Delmain, left, Michael Chaney, center, and Nick Knighton hold signs in the hallway of Minneapolis City Hall before a planned sit-in to oppose the Upper Harbor Terminal project on Thursday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The Minneapolis City Council is expected to vote Friday on a plan to develop land north of downtown on the Mississippi River. The Upper Harbor Terminal concept plan has been controversial, and some say the vote shouldn't take place just yet.

The Upper Harbor Terminal is a 48-acre stretch of land between the Lowry Avenue and Camden bridges in north Minneapolis. In the '70s and '80s, it was a shipping terminal for logging barges. As ground transportation became cheaper and more accessible, the terminal fell into disuse.

The city has been working on a plan to remake the site for almost a decade now. The current plan includes parks, trails, a 7,000-to-10,000-seat amphitheater and land for businesses and affordable housing.

They're lofty ideas for the biggest piece of city-owned riverfront property, and not all of them resonate with the public.

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A group of activists with the Eco Harbor Co-Creation Team.
A group of activists with the Eco Harbor Co-Creation team speak with a representative from Minneapolis City Council member Jeremiah Ellison's office.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Some north Minneapolis residents said the amphitheater would impede river access as a privately-owned performance venue. They're also worried that the businesses won't generate many jobs beyond bartending and ticket taking. But mostly, they feel ignored.

Catherine Fleming is a member of a north Minneapolis community group called the Eco Harbor Co-Creation team. They've been doing some door-knocking in the McKinley neighborhood, asking residents if they've heard about the changes at their doorstep.

"Our findings were that even the people that are closest to the actual Upper Harbor physical site, McKinley residents, could look out the back window and see the site, and they had never been approached, never heard about the project, and no one had reached out to them," said Fleming.

City planning officials say the development team hosted dozens of town hall meetings and listening sessions. They also did some door-knocking of their own in the McKinley neighborhood, officials said.

Whitney Clark is the executive director of the Friends of the Mississippi River, a nonprofit that's been tracking this plan. He said he's attended some of those listening sessions.

"They presented a single plan, a static plan, and they took a lot of input. And then they went away and they made a few minor changes to it and basically brought forward the same essential plan," Clark said.

City planners said the current plan is still painting in broad strokes, and that the details in the plan may change as the team moves from a "concept" to the next phase.

The preliminary vote was put off for almost a month — first due to a project developer experiencing financial difficulties, then again when Ward 4 Council member Phillipe Cunningham, who represents McKinley and other north Minneapolis neighborhoods, proposed a new community planning and engagement group.

The mayor and City Council will appoint the group's 15 members from different Minneapolis communities. They will then have 60 days to evaluate the concept plan, flagging items for feasibility and environmental studies. They'll also come up with three alternative designs for the site.

Cunningham said the group is an example of the city learning about what the community needs.

"This is the work that needs to be done — figuring out how we're going to remove that barrier brick by brick. And it's a learning process, it's an iterative process," said Cunningham.

But community and environmental groups still think the process is going too fast.

Roxanne O'Brien is another member of the Eco Harbor Co-Creation team. She's asking the city to delay the vote so that her team can spread the word.

"We're asking for a delay, just so we can work harder, pretty much. Organize more, to get more people to understand what's happening," said O'Brien. "There's a lot of people that do not know what's going on and do not know what's about to hit them."