A power struggle in the Wedge

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June 16, 2014
By: Dylan Thomas & Sarah McKenzie
Dylan Thomas & Sarah McKenzie
Community leaders debate the role of neighborhood groups in development-review process

Editor’s note: This is the first story in an occasional Journals’ series, “State of the Neighborhoods.” We will be examining dynamics in neighborhoods in our coverage area adjusting to new growth and the role of community leaders in shaping the future of the city. 

A caricature of The Wedge has emerged in recent months in the press and on social media of a neighborhood divided between its newcomers and established residents over two controversial development projects.

Drawn into the debate is City Council Member Lisa Bender, who won her Ward 10 seat last fall by a wide margin, but has since been assailed by a faction of neighborhood residents for her stance on the projects. Some of those residents sit on the Lowry Hill East Neighborhood Association (LHENA) board, in the same seats once filled by Bender and her husband, Ryan, a former president of the neighborhood organization.

The 2013 election swept a new generation into City Hall, and seven new council members are forging their own relationships with the groups that represent the city’s 81 neighborhoods. Bender’s transition has at times appeared roughest on her home turf.

Her critics gather at places like the Facebook page of Minneapolis Residents for Responsible Development Coalition, or MRRDC, where posters decry plans to develop apartments at 2320 Colfax and the southwest corner of Franklin & Lyndale. A parody site with an even longer acronym, MRRSVLD, casts them as anti-development, anti-renter NIMBYs.

Sara Romanishan, a LHENA board member since November, acknowledged her role as one of three anonymous MRRDC administrators in May, but said it’s separate from her board work. Romanishan’s Aldrich Avenue home, where she’s lived for 39 years, is a stone’s throw from the proposed Franklin & Lyndale project, envisioned as a six-story mixed-use development.

“MRRDC was put out there because we were frustrated,” Romanishan said. “… It was started because we felt like we were not being heard.” 

Conflicting views on neighborhood board’s role 

Residents did catch the ear of developer Don Geberding, who tabled plans for Franklin & Lyndale in February after concerns about blocked views and congestion were raised at a LHENA committee meeting. The crowd was overwhelmingly homeowners and long-term residents, according to multiple accounts.

The role of neighborhoods in new project review is strictly informal and advisory, but in May a panel of developers told City Council members they spend too much time and money courting neighborhood leaders. At the same meeting, Bender noted a long-standing concern about neighborhood organizations: that they don’t always represent the entire neighborhood.

When the LHENA Board of Directors convened later that month in the Jefferson Community School library, longtime member Sue Bode said she was “disturbed” by Bender’s comments.

“I hope that she intends to still seek our input,” Bode said, adding that some neighbors wanted LHENA to issue an official statement.

The discussion was quickly directed away from a politically toned response, one complicated by neighborhood ties. Bode campaigned for former City Council Member Meg Tuthill in the last election. Tuthill opposed demolition of the existing building at 2320 Colfax and appeared at a candlelight vigil to save it this spring. Bender voted to allow demolition.

As the meeting came to a close an hour later, four-term Board Member Linda McHale suddenly announced her resignation, effective immediately.

McHale choked up as she described a board that had “gone off course,” spending too much its collective energy debating development projects and not enough on community engagement. She said she didn’t want her business, the Corner Store vintage shop, associated with LHENA’s “bad press” and the “really negative finger-pointing and name-calling” in the community.

“I actually share some of those concerns, personally,” agreed Will Bornstein, who that night completed a term as board president. In a neighborhood with a high proportion of renters, Bornstein was one of the few non-homeowners to serve on LHENA’s board in recent years.

Bornstein, an attorney, plans to leave the board when he moves to a new apartment in Whittier this summer. Before the meeting adjourned, he offered some advice: “image-wise” it would be good for the group to recruit more renters, he said.

Views on development differ 

Michael Roden, 27, who lives with his fiancée in the Track 29 apartments in the southeast corner of The Wedge, took that step this spring. A recent arrival in the neighborhood, Roden joined a LHENA committee chaired by Romanishan, who he described as welcoming.

“I do consider myself pro-development, but every development should be considered on an individual basis,” he said.

Roden, who studied architecture and works for a commercial interior design firm, sympathizes with those who say the existing structure at 2320 Colfax is historic, but tips in favor of redevelopment. He was surprised to read accounts of the LHENA meeting where it sounded like Lyndale & Franklin developer Gerberding was “getting shouted out of the room”; to him, adding density to a busy transit corridor “seems like a slam dunk.”

He asked, “If not there, then where?”

LHENA has a history of extensive back-and-forth discussions with developers like Stuart Ackerberg, whose Ackerberg Group completed the Mozaic mixed-use project in The Wedge in 2012 and is planning second phase of office and retail construction. As new condominium and apartment buildings transformed The Wedge near the Midtown Greenway, developers made repeated visits to LHENA, listening to feedback and adjusting plans.

Romanishan defended neighborhood organizations’ role in reviewing projects, and said they should have even more power.

“Technically, we have no teeth — and we should, because we are the people who live here,” she said.

Without naming names, Romanishan said some City Council members “are not necessarily familiar with what a neighborhood is,” describing neighborhood associations as “very important to our way of life.”

“It’s how we have a voice,” she said.

Who should lead on community engagement?   

Despite facing a hostile reception at Wedge neighborhood meetings, Bender said she is optimistic that in time her relationship with neighborhood leaders will improve.

Bender said neighborhood groups have “many wonderful roles to play” in shaping the city.

The organizations “serve as an anchor” for people to get involved in their neighborhood, improve quality of life and provide recreation opportunities for residents, among other things, she said.

However, at a recent City Council committee meeting she questioned whether neighborhood board meetings are the appropriate forums to lead conversations on major development and transportation projects.

At times, neighborhood groups act as “gate keepers” instead of “conveners of authentic conversations,” she said. As a result, neighborhood leaders can make decisions that conflict with citywide goals and policies.

“Who should lead the conversations on big policy issues? I would argue that’s the city’s responsibility,” Bender said.

She noted the average age of a Minneapolis resident is 33, but many neighborhood boards and city commissions are dominated by older residents who aren’t necessarily representative of the people in their communities.

“We’re missing a whole generation of people not participating in [community engagement],” Bender said in a recent interview.

She said she believes it’s the city’s responsibility to find new ways to engage a variety of people in decision making. “We need to modernize how we do public engagement,” she said.

In a recent letter to the editor, she wrote: “It is critical that as the City of Minneapolis invests millions of dollars a year in public engagement that we challenge ourselves to reflect diverse voices and interests in our decision-making. Young people, new families, people of color, new Americans, renters — these voices need to count if we are going to build a city that is successful in the future.”

Bornstein, the former LHENA president, said the board’s primary focus should be on outreach and community engagement.

“It’s basically the primary reason we’re funded now, and it should be at the core of our mission,” he said.

That’s a shift from the Neighborhood Revitalization Program, the 20-year project that funneled $300-million through neighborhood organizations. Most of that money was supposed to go toward improving housing stock, while the rest was dedicated to neighborhood priorities.

Neighborhoods are still spending down NRP funds, but the city’s new model for neighborhoods emphasizes engagement and a much smaller pool of funds goes toward neighborhood priorities.

Bornstein said neighborhoods are most effective these days when they pick a few, achievable community projects and focus their efforts on them.

But it was an interest in urban development that drew Bornstein to LHENA, and he said neighborhoods should and would continue to have a role in reviewing new projects. He mentioned the new Lime apartments near Lyn-Lake; at LHENA’s urging, the developer replaced street-level rental office with a retail component, making for a more active street environment.

“The neighborhood groups have a perspective that should be at least heard on development issues,” he said. “They can influence development issues, but how influential they are on development kind of ebbs and flows over time and depends on the approach that they take.

“Obviously, if you have a better working relationship with all the other stakeholders, you’re influence is greater,” he added. “If you have a bad relationship, or a damaged relationship, with all the other stakeholders, your influence is less.”