In defense of neighborhood groups

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June 4, 2014 // UPDATED 10:16 am - June 11, 2014
By: Laura Jean
Laura Jean

Minneapolis City Council member Lisa Bender has adopted the attitude that our elected officials and developers know what’s best for Minneapolis neighborhoods, and that neighborhood organizations stand in the way of development. This is exactly backwards.

Minneapolis City officials have a long history of failing their constituents when it comes to development. In Whittier you have only to look to the Kmart site on Lake Street and Nicollet Ave. to see the disastrous blight created in an attempt to get rid of blight.

Neighborhood organizations vigorously advocate for their neighborhoods.

Neighborhood concerns that went unaddressed by the city in the years leading up to the closing of Nicollet and building of Kmart served as a catalyst for the formation of the Whittier Alliance in 1977. The Whittier Alliance neighborhood organization has been a champion; we are the international neighborhood, we celebrate our diversity, we helped build one of Minneapolis’ top performing public schools, we literally moved houses in the night preserving single family housing that working families can afford to buy, we created Eat Street on Nicollet Ave, the list goes on.

Despite the improvements over the years in livability, Whittier still faces challenges, and was recently identified as one of the city’s racially concentrated areas of poverty.

Our neighborhood organization pushes developers to create better projects that will best serve the interests of our community and hopefully their businesses as well. We advocate for better projects not to make the process difficult for developers but because we care about the place we call home.

Whittier has numerous great examples of development projects that are better because we the residents were involved. A few shining examples are attracting Vertical Endeavors who repurposed a historic old ice house on Nicollet Ave for a climbing gym, the still new Hennepin County Medical Center clinic on Nicollet Ave, graciously named the Whittier Clinic, the restoration of the Salem Church on 28th and Garfield accomplished by selling part of the land, building multi-family housing and using the proceeds to restore the church now shared by several congregations. Not all of these projects were contentious but they were great successes for both the neighborhood and the organizations developing them. And they are better because the neighborhood organization was involved.

Creating a streamlined cookie cutter approach to the developer’s process might make it easier for them, but will undermine the communities. Each neighborhood is unique. Neighborhoods know what their communities need and the types of development they want. Sadly city officials and developers rarely think to ask those questions. Perhaps if city officials and developers understood the problems they face working with neighborhood organizations they would see the opportunity for successful partnerships.

Neighborhood organizations are not perfect; they are residents, business owners, volunteers who find the time to help represent their neighborhoods.

Instead of using their shortcomings to continue to work toward eliminating them the City of Minneapolis should be finding ways to build on the successes of these neighborhood organizations. Neighborhood organizations do the work the city does not have the time or manpower to do. We are the City of Minneapolis’ allies, constituents, and taxpayers and we deserve to have a seat at the table.

My neighborhood organization works tirelessly to improve our outreach and engage our diverse community. It is not easy and it is always changing. But without neighborhood organizations, neighborhoods like mine with high concentrations of poverty lose their voice. Without neighborhood organizations, special interests, developers and city officials will not be held accountable for the developments that will affect our communities for the next 30 to 50 years. The City Council has set forth important goals - closing our shameful disparities, improving connectedness and vitality, and making sure everyone has a voice. If the City of Minneapolis wants to achieve these goals, the council needs to rethink disenfranchising neighborhood organizations.

Laura Jean
Whittier Resident
Vice-Chair of the Whittier Alliance Board of Directors
Master of Public Affairs, Humphrey School
Advocacy and Public Policy Consultant