Whittier Alliance executive director retires

A former board member, Marian Biehn led the organization for 12 years

Icehouse hosted a retirement party in January for Whittier Alliance Executive Director Marian Biehn. Credit: Dylan Thomas

WHITTIER — Twelve years after taking a job leading one of Minneapolis’ oldest neighborhood organizations in one of the city’s largest neighborhoods, Marian Biehn has retired.

Whittier residents, business owners and at least one former City Council member gathered at Icehouse Jan. 14 to send off the former executive director of the Whittier Alliance. Sitting in with the jazz combo on stage was Andy Cohen, who owns the Bad Waitress across the street and chairs the neighborhood organization’s monthly Business Association meetings. And with all the current and former alliance board members circling the hors d’oeuvres table, the gathering resembled one of those meetings almost as much as it did a typical Icehouse happy hour.

Robert Lilligren, a former alderman who represented Whittier on the City Council, made his way to the front of the reception line early in the evening. Lilligren recalled Biehn as a fierce advocate for the neighborhood who was cordial even when they disagreed.

“In the card I gave her at the party I said something like, ‘It’s been great working with you and sometimes against you,’” he said.

A few days later, Biehn, 64, was at home planning a “sisters weekend” in Chicago with four of her siblings. She’d spent the last weeks of 2015 helping with the alliance’s transition to a new executive director, Ricardo McCurley, who previously led the Southeast Como Improvement Association.

Biehn said 3-year-old Icehouse felt like an especially appropriate place for her retirement party, a symbol of just how much the Whittier neighborhood had changed — not just since she was hired in 2004, but in the nearly four decades since she and her husband first invested in the neighborhood. The couple bought two Whittier apartment buildings near the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in the late ’70s.

“Like many investors we hadn’t done our due diligence and we discovered it was a pretty rough spot,” she recalled. There was the weekend afternoon she pulled up to one of the buildings to find a police SWAT team perched on the rooftop, and there were also the potential tenants who called to inquire about openings but hung up as soon as they learned the location.

“It was the high-crime era of drugs and gangs and everybody was on edge and a little bit vulnerable,” she said.

The situation inspired Biehn to volunteer with the Whittier Alliance, a nonprofit that had been around since 1977. She chaired a (since-disbanded) committee made up of rental property owners and, beginning in the 1990s, was elected to several terms on the alliance’s board of directors. The apartments were sold a decade ago, but Biehn still owns a duplex in the neighborhood.

She saw up close the changes the Neighborhood Revitalization Program brought about beginning in the 1990s. The alliance contributed a significant portion of its NRP Phase I funds to a new gym and community center in Whittier Park, key factors in Minneapolis Public Schools’ decision to open a magnet school on the site in 1997.

The alliance also put NRP funds toward Nicollet Avenue’s 1990s transformation into the dining destination known as Eat Street. Both projects have had a major impact on Whittier’s street life and livability, Biehn said.

“Number one, there are people jogging and biking on the streets,” she said. “You didn’t see that (in the 1970s and ’80s). People weren’t out on the street like they are now.”

“And, number two, there are families with strollers,” she continued. “You didn’t see the strollers (thirty years ago).”

Nicollet Avenue’s evolution continued during Biehn’s tenure as executive director.

She credited the organization’s advocacy for improving the design and visual appeal of Hennepin County Medical Center’s Whittier Clinic, located at a neighborhood gateway. Icehouse opened in 2012 as part of the larger Ice House Plaza, a major redevelopment project that added restaurants, a climbing gym and a public plaza to one of Eat Street’s busiest blocks.

But her tenure had its challenges, too, including the alliance’s repeated clashes with property owner Basim Sabri. Sabri’s holdings in the neighborhood include Karmel Square, a mall with Somali-America-run businesses that draws shoppers from the Twin Cities and far beyond.

In March, he was one of five Whittier residents and business owners who brought a lawsuit in federal court claiming the alliance discriminated against minorities, particularly Somali-Americans. The lawsuit was tossed out in August when U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery ruled the group didn’t have standing in the case.

Biehn called the alliance’s troubled relationship with Sabri “unfortunate” since “it has kind of overshadowed the good relationships we have with so many Somali businesses.”

McCurley, the new executive director, now occupies Biehn’s former desk in the alliance’s small East 25th Street office. The 34-year-old father of three takes over as Minneapolis neighborhood organizations are shifting out of the NRP era and into a new relationship with City Hall.

McCurley said his three-and-a-half-year stint with Southeast Como was largely consumed by the state and federal response to a neighborhood superfund site. He said the organization started a lecture series to help residents understand the lingering impact of a former General Mills chemical research facility.

After that experience, McCurley plans to make the Whittier Alliance’s environmental sustainability projects a priority. Like Southeast Como, Whittier has a large population of relatively young rental housing tenants, and he also plans to use social media to improve neighborhood outreach.

Erica Christ, who chairs the alliance’s board of directors, said it’s a change for the organization to have someone like McCurly, with years of nonprofit experience on his resume, in the lead. Biehn comes from a different era, when volunteers rose up through the alliance’s ranks.

“I said this to Marian on her last day: ‘We’re sort of the last great improvisers here,’” Christ said.