Development update: Takin it to the streets

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July 20, 2009
By: Tara Bannow
Tara Bannow
Clean and Safe Ambassadors mark the first phase  of Downtown improvement


Every morning at 7 a.m., Kaynan Abdirahman puts on his signature neon polo, grabs his walkie-talkie and strolls the Downtown streets. He watches for suspicious activity, gives directions, greets all who pass and picks up trash.

Abdirahman is more than just a good Samaritan — he’s a safe ambassador with the Downtown Improvement District (DID), a nonprofit, business-led organization striving to make Downtown cleaner, safer and greener.

The DID’s Clean and Safe Ambassadors took to the streets July 1, marking the first phase of the action plan. The main functions of the ambassadors are to be helpful and aid people in navigating the area, said Sarah Harris, chief operating officer of the DID.

“They’re really the friendly faces of Downtown,” she said.

In their first day of service, the ambassadors removed more than 235 graffiti tags on First Avenue; in the first week, they picked up 13,000 pounds of trash. In addition, the ambassadors provided more than 1,800 people with assistance, recommendations or directions.

Clean ambassadors remove graffiti and handbills, pressure-wash sidewalks, remove weeds and clean up trash. Safe ambassadors work to quell aggressive panhandling and have direct contact with the police force if necessary.

Later this year, the DID will also perform maintenance in different locations, such as irrigation systems on Nicollet Mall. In the fall, they’ll be getting bids for snow removal on Nicollet Mall and developing methods for clearing snow throughout the district, Harris said. Next year, the DID will begin to incorporate landscaping and other services to make Downtown greener.

This year’s budget, $2.95 million, comes from mandatory service fees paid by each commercial property owner in the district. The amount each property pays is calculated based on its lineal frontage and gross building area. It also depends on whether the property is located within the “core, standard plus or standard area” designated by the DID. The core area requires the highest frequency of service because of its high intensity of land use and pedestrian traffic.

By law, nonprofit, government and residential properties are exempt from paying the DID service fee, but some pay voluntarily.

Tom Hoch, president and CEO of the Hennepin Theatre Trust, a nonprofit organization that owns the State, Orpheum and Pantages theatrers, says his organization contributes voluntarily. A prominent stakeholder in the Downtown district, Hoch also serves as secretary and treasurer on the DID’s board of directors. He reasoned that Downtown’s appearance and safety are an important part of his patron’s experience.

Although the project is in its infancy, Hoch said he’s confident people will see positive changes.

“Our focus is on making the area safer and cleaner, making it friendly and a more pleasant environment for people who live, work and play Downtown,” he said.

The road to making the DID a reality was a long one. The Minneapolis Downtown Council spent a number of years working with public entities to develop a plan to fund the program through taxes paid by commercial property owners.

David Sternberg, chairman of the DID’s board of directors and former chairman of the Downtown Council, said the DID would never have become a reality without the strong support of the City Council and Mayor R.T. Rybak.

Sternberg, regional head of Brookfield Properties, a company that owns and manages four buildings in the central business district downtown, said it’s difficult for businesses to take on any additional expenses in the current economic climate. Regardless, it’s an important investment for the business community to make, he said.

After the Ambassadors had been on the streets just 10 days, Sternberg said he was already seeing changes.

“It’s wonderful,” he said. “They’re friendly and they’re working. I think the reaction has been very positive. It’s very welcoming and it’s only getting better.”

 The DID is run by a board of directors including property owners, major employers and industry professionals. Each member has a vested interest in improving conditions Downtown and can draw on experience in relevant areas, Harris said.

“We’re taking that direct knowledge and expertise of managing property and applying it to the public right-of-way,” she said.

Naturally, not all business owners are happy about the transition. Jean Danko, co-owner of Jean Stephen Galleries on Nicollet Mall, said she knows people are for and against it. While she said she wishes the state could pay for the services, she likes the idea of having helpful people Downtown giving directions to newcomers.

“Yes, we hate paying for it,” she said, “but, yes, we want Downtown to improve.”

In time, Hoch said he believes the program will be very successful. He said he understands that property owners are paying very close attention to the services and in time, they’ll see that their investment was a good one.

“There are people who are taking a kind of wait-and-see attitude, because it’s a new project,” Hoch said. “I think all of us want it to work and we’re all doing what we can to make it work and I think it will work. But there’s a lot of scrutiny of the project right now, which is a good thing. That’s not a problem.”

Reach Tara Bannow at tbannow@mnpubs.com.