Yesterday afternoon a Minneapolis City Council committee unanimously approved a concept plan for the Upper Harbor Terminal along the Mississippi River in north Minneapolis, which includes a Community Performing Arts Center operated by First Avenue. The open-air CPAC would hold around 10,000 guests and include 6,000 stacked seats (a capacity comparable to Rock the Garden). It would be the first amphitheater within Minneapolis city limits, hosting around 50 ticketed performances each year while remaining available for community programing. The approval allows the project to move forward to a vote before the full City Council on March 1.
In a statement, First Avenue owner Dayna Frank said, “This is the next step for this space, and lays the groundwork for a community-based path forward, with an emphasis on racial and environmental justice. We approach this project with an open dialogue with the North Minneapolis community, as this amended proposal kicks off the next phase of planning and development. We would like to thank the committee, especially Councilmembers Ellison and Cunningham, along with Mayor Frey, for their guidance and hard work throughout this process.”
On Monday, the Star Tribune published an op-ed jointly authored by Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey and City Council Member Philippe Cunningham, whose Fourth Ward includes the site, in support of the venue and surrounding developments. As it stands now, the plan includes 19.5 acres of public park space along the river, affordable housing units, development parcels, and “a yet-to-be-fully-envisioned community/integrated utility hub,” wrote Frey and Cunningham. “At Tuesday’s meeting of the City Council’s Economic Development and Regulatory Services Committee, council members will have an opportunity to move the draft concept plan forward,” they continue. “That’s the right step.”
The Upper Harbor Terminal served as a major port for commercial shipping until 2015 when Congress required the lock be shut down to prevent invasive fish species from traveling upriver. It now sits as a 50-acre stretch of industrial land that (along with Interstate 94) separates North Minneapolis from the river.
In 2016, United Properties, in collaboration with Northside-based THOR Companies and First Avenue Productions, approached the Minnesota Legislature for $15 million — an amount later matched by the City of Minneapolis — to fund pre-design work for the redevelopment of the site. Since then, the initial concept plan has been selected, and is awaiting approval from City Council members. Champions of the project (including, of course, First Ave, which has been urging Minneapolis residents to contact City Council representatives in support of the project) view the performance space and amphitheater as a turning point in the city’s systematic neglect of the riverfront and surrounding communities.
Meetings to approve the project concept have been delayed twice. In late January, concerns over the financial stability of one of the developers prompted the City Council Committee to table the discussion, which injected some unease into the process moving forward. On Feb. 5, the vote was delayed again so officials could consider input from community members who voiced concerns at a Town Hall gathering. Critics of the project argue that though United and THOR Companies have made attempts to engage those communities that will be most affected by the development, the plan is moving too fast and many Northside residents have not been given a chance to share in the process.
A community group, Eco Harbor, was formed to advocate that the plan include a more “unified vision” for the redevelopment of the area. Some of the group’s main concerns involve housing. Though the plan as it is drafted designates space for affordable housing, residents are concerned that ultimately developers will not construct enough units or that unit prices will not match surrounding listings. Additionally, the new development may encourage landlords to price out current renters in the area. Comments from the Town Hall meeting are available on Eco Harbor’s website.
“This postponement gives us a chance to look more closely at what is being proposed now and what it could be,” Chuck Robinson, a Folwell community organizer, said. “What could this development be for our community? It could make investments for our community, for our environment, and a future for our kids to use the river to form a sense of community. It’s finally a chance to pause and think about how this plan could benefit our community and not primarily benefit others from other communities.”
Additionally, a nonprofit, Friends of the Mississippi River, has raised concerns over the size and private ownership of the amphitheater itself, as well as the original placement of green space adjacent to the venue (instead of along the river) and the development a privately-owned hotel. In response to several of these concerns, a new draft of the plan places green space in front of the amphitheater and commits to restoring natural habitat along the shoreline. The hotel has been replaced with an area designated for “Northside Cultural Center + Housing.”
In yesterday’s meeting, City Council members voiced their intention to strategize against gentrification and emphasized community partnership as well as potential for the land to be held in a public trust. Mayor Frey (who was sitting in on the meeting) told the crowd, “Community first has got to mean community first. That means putting people of color, especially those from North Minneapolis, as primary beneficiary. While we are only a concept plan at this stage, I think we’re going in the right direction.”
Lydia Moran is a music and arts writer in Minneapolis.