Park Board in bidding war with north Minneapolis developers to buy Northern Metals site A group of Black developers propose affordable housing and a public riverwalk. The Park Board aims to build a riverfront trail on its own.
Northern Metal Recycling, which runs the beleaguered junkyard situated on the western bank of the Mississippi River, is poised to move out of north Minneapolis. Landlord Atlas Land Co. has started taking offers for the 2800 Pacific St. site, triggering a bitter competition between rival visions to replace the former metal shredder with something that would benefit the historically Black community above St. Anthony Falls.
Since 2019, Ian Alexander of Riverfront Development Partners has eyed the Northern Metals site as a opportunity to remediate the industrial north Minneapolis riverfront into a place where residents could live and play. He convened an alliance of Black developers, general contractors and architects including TRI-Construction, Design by Melo and MN Renewable Now. Their aim: up to 1,400 units of housing — including affordable housing — as well as a blend of commercial and light industrial space and a signature boardwalk.
Alexander approached Minneapolis Park and Recreation staff to partner on his "Northside Riverwalk" concept.
The Park Board has long-term plans to acquire land along the river for its Above the Falls Regional Park. Staff members were eager for the opportunity to take a 100-foot-wide strip for a riverfront trail mirroring the trail system that would eventually extend from Boom Island to the Graco riverside plant and Sheridan Memorial Park along the east bank of the river.
Alexander said he proposed that the Park Board put $4 million toward a joint offer for the site.
"We told the Park Board that if you wanted that 100 feet, we're going to give it to you and we're going to remediate it for you," he said. "We approached them and we said this is the perfect public-private partnership."
For weeks Alexander and Michael Schroeder, the Park Board's assistant superintendent for planning, negotiated how to proceed.
"He and I talked nights and weekends about how to make this happen," Schroeder said. But in the end, they couldn't agree to terms.
According to the Above the Falls master plan, created in 2000, the Park Board's strategy for transforming the riverfront into a regional park has undergone major changes over the past 20 years. Whereas the board once embraced an aggressive scheme of using massive public buyouts and eminent domain to trigger simultaneous public infrastructure and private redevelopment projects, funding constraints have since forced staff to reconsider that approach. Updated in 2019, the plan now calls for the Park Board to focus on acquiring all the land it can abutting public waters for parks while allowing private development to occur independently.
Park Board makes own proposal
"The level of complexity that would involve MPRB funds and property and the other governmental properties you seek to acquire is simply beyond the MPRB's legal authority," wrote parks lawyer Brian Rice in a letter to Alexander declining a joint purchasing proposal with the Northside Riverwalk consortium. "The MPRB has no authority to develop housing."
Soon after, park staff submitted a letter of intent to buy the Northern Metals site on their own. The move shocked Alexander.
"If you know this group of Black developers put this project together and brought you into it, are you going to buy it out from under us?" he asked. "I've gotten everything done, and the park board literally stabbed us in the back, stabbed a bunch of Black developers in the back during Black History Month on a project that we brought to them. … That is literally insane."
Schroeder acknowledged that Alexander had been the first to inform him about the opportunity to purchase, and that the Park Board doesn't yet have a plan for the portion of 2800 Pacific that it does not need for a trail.
"There were likely multiple buyers for the property, including other nearby industrial users who would continue to use 2800 Pacific Street as a scrap yard," said Park Superintendent Al Bangoura in a statement. "I viewed this situation as an historic opportunity to effectuate the long-held plans of the MPRB and the Above the Falls Regional Park Master Plan."
Tensions are brewing
Park staff's nonbinding letter of intent to purchase the Northern Metals site is subject to full Park Board approval and an environmental assessment. Nothing about the potential acquisition has yet been presented to the board. However, as news of its rival offer travels through the north Minneapolis development community, commissioners have been apprised of brewing tensions.
"I would like to see parks be inclusive partners as we make strides to heal our city," said Park Commissioner Becka Thompson, who represents north Minneapolis. She said she has supported the Black developers' vision since before she was sworn in earlier this year. "I think it's a great idea to build intergenerational wealth of a community that's largely been excluded. … I look forward to when the board can discuss this publicly and I hope that happens soon."
As both parties await a decision from Atlas Land Co., members of the Northside Riverwalk development alliance say they cannot help but feel betrayed by the experience of attempting to work with the Park Board.
"It's a crying shame. We're never going to see racial equity if you keep holding back Black people who are trying to create wealth for themselves in their community," said Kristel Porter of MN Renewable Now.
Depending on which offer is accepted, Calvin Littlejohn of TRI-Construction said there may still be a chance for public-private development of both housing and a riverwalk at the Northern Metals site, but that relationships with the Park Board are currently strained.
"This represented an opportunity for, as change happens, for us to also be a part of that change, to capitalize on that change, to be involved in it and shape it," Littlejohn said. "It speaks to trust, it speaks to intent, it speaks to how [the Park Board] views this community, how they view the Black and brown contractors and the Black and brown developers."
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