What the Neighbors Want: The Neighborhood Revitalization Program's First Decade

By Judith A. Martin and Paula Pentel, Journal of the American Planning Association

Vol. 68, No. 4, Autumn 2002

Page 3

NRP Plan Results-What the Neighbors Wanted

Despite the diverse nature of the NRP process- neighborhoods entering it at different times, diverse neighborhood demographics and housing characteristics, differing levels of inherent capacity for neighborhood organizing-remarkable similarities emerged from the plans that were produced. The nine general types of revitalization initiatives that repeatedly emerged might be viewed as an overall template for what neighbors most want their neighborhoods to be or become. To further consider the underpinnings of these generalized programmatic areas, we have examined the NRP plans in detail.

Table 2 shows the NRP allocations by neighborhood type. Though Revitalization neighborhoods had the highest total allocation, the average Revitalization neighborhood allocation was just above the citywide average. Allocations here ranged from $485,000 (McKinley) to $9.2 million (Longfellow, a coalition of four neighborhoods in the city's stable southeast quadrant). Not surprisingly, Protection neighborhoods had the lowest average neighborhood allocation, varying from $240,780 (Nicollet Island/East Bank) to $3.2 million (Prospect Park). The average allocation for Redirection neighborhoods was $5.6 million, the highest in the city. These neighborhoods' allocations ranged from a low of $1.2 million (St. Anthony East) to $18 million (Phillips).

Table 3 shows what share of their NRP allocation residents chose to devote to each of the nine categories of revitalization initiatives (NRP, 2000). It also shows the range of funding for each initiative category and the number of neighborhoods electing not to dedicate resources to each type of initiative. The percentages and dollar amounts they represent clearly differ significantly. Housing initiatives received the largest share of NRP funds across all neighborhood types, though not all neighborhoods expended funds on this type of initiative. Overall, seven neighborhoods spent no funds on housing. Among the five Protection neighborhoods doing this, two strongly emphasized major economic development projects (West Calhoun, 92%; Nicollet Island/East Bank, 68%). Cedar-Isles-Dean, situated between two lakes, put 34% of its funds into park development. Crime and security garnered the greatest allocation for another lakes neighborhood, Kenwood (42%), which also emphasized parks and recreation projects (35%). Cedar Riverside, a Revitalization neighborhood with a historic commercial district bordering the University of Minnesota, put 100% of its allocation into economic development. Finally, the Sumner-Glenwood neighborhood, which lost over 3,000 residents between 1999 and 2000 due to major public housing demolition (City of Minneapolis, 2001), dedicated 96% of its funds to human services and to building a new school.

In expressing their concerns for issues other than housing and in devoting 52% of available funds to such initiatives, the neighborhood boards proved to be surprisingly flexible and imaginative. In these nonhousing initiatives, local values and local knowledge came forward in ways that would not likely have appeared in conventional municipal planning. Moreover, the neighborhood organization and consensus process created time for many boards to learn more fully of their neighborhood's circumstances and possibilities than off-the-shelf alternatives would have. The following sections further detail the planning policies and spending choices revealed in the NRP plans.


Citywide, housing efforts absorbed 48% of the NRP funds during the first decade. Given the initial direction of the program, this result would be expected. The forms that these initiatives took, however, surprised observers. First, an evaluation of the first phase of the NRP commissioned by the City highlighted strong differences in housing activities across the three distinct neighborhood types (Berger et al., 2000a, p.67). Protection neighborhoods overall felt little need for nonmarket interventions in housing. Five of the 26 Protection neighborhoods allotted no money toward housing, reflecting the existing healthy housing values in these areas. Among the 28 Revitalization neighborhoods, 23 dedicated from just less than 50% to 100% of resources to housing, while only 7 Protection neighborhoods allocated comparable percentages. Among the 12 Redirection neighborhoods, only three directed less than 50% of their resources to housing efforts. (NRP, 2000).

Secondly, the bulk of the housing funds went toward rehabilitation and renovation, not new construction. Housing rehabilitation, renovation, and preservation initiatives appeared in 59 of the 66 approved plans citywide, though the amounts of funding dedicated to these initiatives varied by neighborhood type. Below market rehabilitation financing emerged as a need in both Redirection and Revitalization neighborhoods. An analysis of Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) data indicated that the approval rate for home improvement loans made by conventional lenders had dropped to 35% in one Revitalization neighborhood and to 46% in a large Redirection neighborhood.(Greer, 1996). Table 4 illustrates the "stark differences" (Berger et al., 2000a, p. 68) in funding of housing initiatives and units assisted across neighborhood types. Although Redirection neighborhoods had fewer housing units assisted than did Protection and Revitalization neighborhoods, the average amounts of both home improvement loans and grants within Redirection neighborhoods were more than twice those averages in the other types of neighborhoods.

Overall, Revitalization neighborhoods directed the largest amount of available NRP resources to housing, primarily to owner occupants. Properties with absentee landlords were often identified as havens for drug and other criminal activities, and some neighborhoods used the NRP process to justify an attack on rental property. A recurring theme was the reconversion of subdivided rental housing back into single-family homes that could be sold to private owners. Even the poorest and densest parts of the city, the Redirection neighborhoods, tilted toward increased home ownership. For example, Stevens Square/Loring Heights, a near-downtown area with over 90% multifamily housing, called for "a stable community encouraged by increasing ownership in the community" (NRP, 1993, p. 9) by assisting in the conversion of rental apartments into coops or condominiums.

Many neighborhoods submitted plans for the demolition of substandard rental housing. Redirection neighborhoods, where the largest inventory of boarded and abandoned properties existed, demanded the most. Here a model of partnership began to emerge, as it would with park and school planning: The City of Minneapolis used NRP funds to accomplish what both the City and the neighborhoods wanted. In fact, a 1995 City Council action stipulated that, upon agreement with the neighborhood plans, half the cost of the City-authorized demolition of blighted properties would be assessed against the neighborhood NRP funds.

Economic Development

It did not surprise knowledgeable observers that concerns about jobs and investment came to the fore in many NRP plans. Economic development was the second highest funded category of initiatives, with the total amount accounting for about $28 million in investments (16%). Here again, choices varied widely across the city: Three neighborhoods with significant commercial districts focused heavily on economic development projects (West Calhoun, Cedar-Riverside, and Nicollet Island/East Bank). Reflecting the fundamentally residential nature of many neighborhoods, 10 spent no resources on economic development.

Minneapolis did not experience the debilitating deindustrialization that some cities did in the 1970s and 1980s. Still, visible decline of the neighborhood-level commercial fabric built during the streetcar era (Borchert et al., 1983) led many neighborhoods to focus or economic development. Many NRP plans made mention of the problems besetting the commercial corridors that form the boundaries of most Minneapolis neighborhoods. Interest in revitalizing these corridors led 33 neighborhoods to allocate $4.9 million to commercial corridor improvements (NRP, 1998).

In one example, three neighborhood organizations in south Minneapolis (Stevens Square, Whittier, and Loring Park) pooled their resources to revitalize a worn down streetcar-era commercial corridor. A 1.2-mile renovated streetscape segment of Nicollet Avenue, from the edge of downtown south to Lake Street (christened "Eat Street"), now features over 170 small businesses, including many ethnic restaurants, along its length. These neighborhoods dedicated $500,000 of their NRP funding to initiate planning and construction, which leveraged an additional $4 million in other public and private monies (NRP, 1998).

Poorer neighborhoods, as well as some with historically middle-class compositions, had strong concerns about local businesses and jobs. Most highlighted their desire to strengthen local businesses, although the means were not always clear. A focus on job development in poorer areas emerged as well, in some cases paired with training efforts. Additionally, the spatial mismatch of jobs and workers led some poorer neighborhoods to address access to jobs in their plans.

Overall, the largest expenditures in this category were loans and grants to redevelop or finance commercial or industrial development and improvements within the neighborhoods. Individual neighborhoods used this funding to save locally important structures such as neighborhood movie theaters. In the Harrison neighborhood, residents put funds towards cart corrals, responding to the blighting abandonment of grocery carts by indigents bringing metal to scrap dealers.

Parks and Recreation

Perhaps the most visible result of the NRP is the renewed citywide attention to parks and green space that these plans have promoted. Minneapolis has a justifiably famous park system, which has been quite well maintained and expanded over decades by the existence of an independently elected park board with taxing authority. Still, even a well-financed park board cannot do all that city residents might want or like.

This agency, more than any of the city's other independent bodies, saw in the NRP a way to tap into new funding sources and thus extend its own empire. Park board staff appeared at many neighborhood NRP meetings, offering park-like options for neighbors to consider financing, including park creation or expansions, sometimes in conjunction with new school construction, and nearly always requiring some housing demolition. Forty-eight neighborhood organizations, primarily of the Revitalization and Protection types, spent funds on parks and recreation projects; 9 neighborhoods (including Hale-Page-Diamond Lake, Columbia Park, East Calhoun, and Loring Park) spent one third or more of their resources this way. Building improvements consumed the most resources, with the development of playgrounds, fields, and equipment following closely. Other popular green-space items in the plans included building bicycle and walking paths (in old rail corridors) and building central boulevards in order to narrow broad streets.

Human Services

Recent increases in immigrant populations, as well as changes in human services delivery, provoked many NRP programs to focus on human capital investments. Immigrants include refugees from East Africa, a secondary migration of varied Southeast Asian groups, Russians, and a growing Hispanic community. Aside from the Hispanics, who may work in small-town food processing plants, most immigrants are concentrated in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul (Minnesota Planning, 1999).

Because NRP efforts coincided with recent national welfare reform, concerns about day care, education, and job training loomed large in many neighborhoods. Citywide, $10.8 million was allocated to human services efforts, primarily in Redirection neighborhoods. Funds were directed to employment, job readiness, and mentoring programs; senior activities; early childhood and family education; and for useful and safe activities for children and teenagers, such as tutoring. Several neighborhoods developed projects to employ youth, like Hawthorne's "Green and Clean." Through efforts to identify needs and providers, the NRP process brought many more citizens into closer contact with, and generated greater recognition of, the vast network of social services already existing in the city.

Community Building/Arts and Culture

This is a broad arena that resists easy description, but it was a significant overall expenditure area for NRP funds, with almost $8 million going to such projects. This initiative category might best be understood as expressing wishes for the kind of connections that many residents either remembered or imagined from times past. Programs in this category ranged from neighborhood promotion and identity efforts (new neighborhood signs and kiosks) to the creation of community spaces and events, to organizing and relationship-building efforts. One neighborhood (Windom) spent 98% of its allocation on a new community center. Another, Downtown East, which is experiencing rapid growth in new dwelling units, allocated significant funds to an ambassador program to provide welcome packets for new residents. Responding to the diversity of its residents, the Whittier neighborhood set aside funds for programs to reduce racism and homophobia Supporting and promoting neighborhood block clubs, underwriting neighborhood newspapers, and developing strategies for improving communication between neighborhoods and large institutional facilities were common relationship building activities

Establishing neighborhood identity and preserving neighborhood history emerged as desires of some Minneapolis residents, with the resulting development of tours, events, publications, archives, and historical markers and flags. A neighborhood Gateways project was created; this was a signage program to provide identifying artworks at neighborhood entry points. Overall, Protection neighborhoods devoted a greater proportion of their funding to community-building activities than did the other two groups combined. However, 53 of the 66 NRP neighborhoods dedicated some funds to this area.

Crime and Security

Many of the plans highlighted varied aspects of improved public safety as a major goal. Taken together, the neighborhood plans show that the local NRP boards anticipated the Minneapolis Police Department's later emphasis on community policing. Some plans specifically focused on confronting the drug and gang challenges that were proliferating in the early 1990s: Others focused on neighborhood watches, such as the citizen patrols common to Redirection and Revitalization neighborhoods. Overall, what the neighbors wanted was a more visible police presence in their immediate area. This often took the form of requests for police substations or "cop-shops" as they came to be called. Other funding strategies included buying back officers' time for an increased police presence in the neighborhood or funding police bicycle patrols. More than $900,000 was allocated for police buyback time. Surprisingly, perhaps, Redirection neighborhoods almost ignored this category, but some Revitalization (Lowry Hill East at 27%) and Protection (Kenwood at 42%) neighborhoods emphasized it. The bulk of funding here were monies devoted to improving lighting and increasing police services. The value of local knowledge became apparent when NRP plans were reviewed by City planning staff for conformity to the comprehensive plan. It was noted that the existing City comprehensive plan provided little direction for safety measures at the neighborhood level.

Additional safety activities included improved lighting and security measures for both individuals (home or business owners) and whole neighborhoods. Alley lighting, emergency phones, and motion detectors were common expenditures. Fighting graffiti and developing methods for dis couraging transients were also important crime control measures. One neighborhood identified a rail corridor as "a source of safety and security problems because it serves as a route into the community for people who have caused property damage and personal injuries" (Longfellow Community Council, 1995). Programmatic responses included new fencing, "no trespassing" signs, and thorny bushes to deter individuals from taking this route into the neighborhood.

The NRP, of course, was intended to promote better personal connectivity within neighborhoods and the coming together of neighbors to plan enhanced local crime prevention measures. This was codified in 1993 through the new Community Crime Prevention/SAFE program, which worked closely with any NRP neighborhood requesting it. The NRP process was also most residents' first awareness of the now-familiar concepts of "eyes on the street" and crime prevention through environmental design articulated decades earlier (Jacobs, 1961; Newman, 1973).


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