Upper Harbor Terminal - Where do we go from here?

Upper Harbor Terminal along the river in North Minneapolis

The Minneapolis City Council approved a rough plan for this city-owned barge terminal and mile-long stretch of riverfront in North Minneapolis in early March. However, a series of amendments promise opportunities for substantial community engagement before plans are finalized. (Photo by Tom Reiter for FMR.)

Despite many concerns raised by community residents and FMR's River Guardians, the Minneapolis City Council has approved the concept plan for the Upper Harbor Terminal (UHT) site in North Minneapolis. We appreciate the council's willingness to work together towards a better project as the next phase of planning progresses.

FMR continues to have significant concerns about this redevelopment plan. The Upper Harbor Terminal is a unique site with potential to serve as an incredible community asset. Rather than live up to this potential, the current concept plan prioritizes private development over truly accessible, high-quality riverfront parks and trails.

We also believe that the planning process to date has not allowed for sufficient community participation and we will continue to push for this.

Why this site is special

For more than 20 years, FMR has been deeply engaged in planning for the future of the riverfront in North and Northeast Minneapolis. We’ve spent many of those years anticipating the redevelopment of one special site: the City of Minneapolis’ Upper Harbor Terminal, located along the west riverbank in North Minneapolis.

The former terminal or port is unique for many reasons: its size (48 acres), its riverfront (nearly a mile), and the fact that it’s city-owned (which offers more opportunity to control its redevelopment). This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring truly outstanding riverfront access and amenities to a community that has experienced and continues to experience systemic disinvestment, including by the public sector. 

The barge terminal closed for business in 2014, accelerating development planning. In August 2018, a city-selected development team (United Properties, Thor Construction and First Avenue) brought forth one single concept plan for public review.

This concept plan includes a $50 million, 7,000-10,000 capacity concert venue to be owned and operated by First Avenue; a “hospitality element” such as a hotel or event center; “The Hub,” which might be focused on community enterprise or agriculture; potential housing, retail and/or office buildings; and 19.5 acres of parkland. 

Where the plan falls short

FMR has several concerns about the concept plan.

As we’ve outlined before, the plan prioritizes private development along the river at the cost of community access and parkland.

The design does not welcome all comers to the river; the centerpiece is the massive concert venue which is situated within the current boundary of the regional park, adjacent public parkland may feel privatized or exclusive to visitors and the structure is very close to the river's edge. The plan calls for the parkway to be to the west of or behind the concert venue and hotel, placing private uses between the river and parkway users. And in places, the public right-of-way between the river and private development might be as narrow as 50 feet. 

Most everywhere else in the Minneapolis park system, the parkway runs right along the river, ensuring access for everyone. At the terminal site, the lawn of the performing arts center will be publicly-owned but designed to be closed off for large private ticketed events. This is a departure from Minneapolis’ typical world-class waterfront park design.

And the concept plan seeks public funding to construct a concert venue that will yield private wealth for a select few owners, not the larger community. North Minneapolis residents are worried about gentrification and involuntary displacement, a lack of affordable housing on the site, and service-sector jobs that don’t offer reliable hours or high wages.

FMR also has concerns about how the planning process has happened to date.

While community engagement was conducted, what we’ve consistently heard from Northside residents is that community engagement was “too little, too late.” Most community engagement took place after a development team had been selected and a single concept plan created, at which point the community was invited to give feedback only on that one plan. Some residents and business owners immediately adjacent to the site have told us that they were not contacted at all during the engagement process. 

Public agencies are increasingly expected to conduct thorough, creative and lengthy community engagement processes. It’s widely acknowledged that some traditional forms of community engagement, such as holding community meetings or visiting neighborhood associations, exclude wide swaths of residents who aren’t connected to those formal structures, don’t trust the process or don’t have time and access to participate.

It’s challenging and resource-intensive to do outreach that more effectively reaches every corner of the community and genuinely incorporates community feedback into planning, but it’s also critical for a rare and special site like Upper Harbor Terminal.

Community walk to the Upper Harbor Terminal
In 2017, FMR hosted a series of walks to the Upper Harbor Terminal site to listen to community members' feedback about their visions for the site and the bike/pedestrian connections to it.

The March vote and key amendments

FMR has raised all of these concerns to city leaders in concert with our community partners. To our disappointment, the Minneapolis City Council unanimously approved the concept plan on March 1. However, we appreciate that Council Member Phillipe Cunningham made five amendments.

These amendments, which were the result of pressure from a broad coalition of neighbors and organizations including FMR, strengthened the concept plan's language around environmental and Green Zone standards, racial equity and opportunities for community participation in the next phases of planning. The amendments also explore community ownership models and commit the project to anti-gentrification and anti-displacement efforts.

While the amendments alone don’t get us to the vision we have for this special site and opportunity, they do get us closer. We’re pleased that the city council adopted them.

What's next

We’re now in the next stage of work, which is creating a more detailed coordinated plan. This process is anticipated to take about a year. During this time, the city will form a Community Planning and Engagement Committee to give residents a more formalized way to participate in the planning process and engage with the city and developers. Additional community engagement is also anticipated.

We hope that the city and development team will actively involve residents on a substantial, decision-making level and respond to their concerns with changes to the plan as needed — even significant ones, and even if this means slowing down the development process. This is the city’s opportunity to live out the commitments stated in their concept plan amendments.

FMR will continue to work alongside our community partners. FMR will continue to bring our deep analytical capabilities, historical knowledge and river conservation expertise to the table in service of the best possible future for the site. We will also continue to share action opportunities with our River Guardians as planning moves forward.

Together, we can bring forward new development concepts that are more innovative and community-centered than the current plan, deliver first-class access to the river and parks and build community wealth. FMR is also continuing its longstanding work to design and advocate for better bike and pedestrian connections between Northside neighborhoods and the riverfront.

Stay in touch!

As planning progresses, we'll share updates via our email newsletter, Mississippi Messages, and will also be in touch with local River Guardians when there are opportunities to take action.

We appreciate your ongoing support and look forward to being in touch. If you have any questions, contact River Corridor Program Director Colleen O'Connor Toberman, ctoberman@fmr.org.