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 4

Schools and Libraries

A significant portion of NRP dollars were directed specifically toward schools-either upgrading existing ones or building new ones. While the City had closed nearly 30% of its schools in the late 1970s, clear evidence appeared that the number of school-age children was increasing throughout the 1990s, largely through immigration. In many neighborhoods, residents worked directly with school board officials to leverage NRP funds toward completely new facilities, an undertaking that also played into the mayor's 1997 emphasis on "community" schools rather than busing. For example, on the north side of the city, where the largest concentration of families with children is, five new K-6/K-8 schools will have been built between 1997 and 2002, with some NRP funding in the financing mix. The Protection neighborhoods stand out in this category, although they had few immigrant children. One (Armatage) dedicated 70% of its funding to this category, and another (Lynnhurst) dedicated 31%, both primarily for library improvements. Over $5 million in NRP funds citywide was dedicated to school and library projects.


The perception that cars are a curse to the city emerged as a dominant theme in many NRP plans, particularly in more economically comfortable neighborhoods. For example, two chain-of-lakes neighborhoods directed over one third of their total NRP resources to transportation ($620,000 for Linden Hills and $280,000 for Cedar-Isles-Dean), primarily for traffic control measures. Citywide, NRP plans called for diminishing traffic on neighborhood streets by slowing it down. Traffic calming, even on arterial streets, burst to life in these plans and was the single largest funding area within this category. Some traffic planners even began to worry that there would be no place left to drive at a regular speed in Minneapolis.

Many plans addressed bicyclists' needs too. However, bicycle concerns are more complex than they might seem. Bicycle paths, by their very nature, cross boundaries. Like the commercial corridors, these typically run along the borders of neighborhoods. Planning for bicycle paths required adjoining neighborhoods to combine their funding efforts. In the end, a separate county program, Hennepin Community Works, met the frenzy for dedicated bicycle paths in many parts of the city, but NRP neighborhoods participated as well. Development of a pedestrian/bicycle path in an underutilized South Minneapolis rail bed was funded in part with NRP expenditures from affected neighborhoods. This project, the Midtown Greenway, will ultimately provide a bicycle connection between the Mississippi River on the east and the city limits on the west. A challenge for the completion of the greenway is to get poorer neighborhoods to align their resources with this project. The Humboldt Corridor in far North Minneapolis is another example of several neighborhoods, the City, the County, the park board, and the school board working together for park, bicycle, wetland, and school improvements.


The NRP's start overlapped a time of increasing national environmental awareness, and elements in many plans move in this direction. Awareness of the city's connection to larger watersheds appears. For example, the Harrison neighborhood was one of several that had children stencil storm sewer grates to identify which natural body of water receives the surface runoff (Harrison Neighborhood Association, 1997). A desire to improve stormwater management concerned many neighborhoods, leading to the development of new regional holding ponds. A bold plan also emerged to improve the water quality of the city's chain of lakes by filtering stormwater through constructed wetlands, as well as revegetating lakeshores with native plantings. As a group, Protection neighborhoods allocated twice as much funding toward environmental projects as Revitalization or Redevelopment neighborhoods with this focus. This is not surprising, given that many of the city's water and park resources are located in Protection areas.

In several Revitalization and Redirection neighborhoods (e.g., Southeast Como), day-lighting underground creeks was proposed, in part to create an amenity feature for redevelopment projects. Other initiatives included community gardening, landscaping, and open space improvements. Community gardening was promoted by one Redirection neighborhood as

...proven to be an effective strategy in involving residents in environmental issues. Residents have the opportunity to see first-hand the effects of pollution and to learn more holistic gardening techniques. Further, community gardens bring together people of diverse populations. (NRP, 1997b, p.33)


Many observations can be drawn from the decade long NRP experience-about the process, about the choices that neighborhoods have made, and about the jockeying of City agencies and boards to garner funds that would not otherwise be available to them. One of the most obvious and important results is that the NRP has underscored neighborhood particularism and inward turning instincts. The existence of microscale neighborhood concerns is not a surprise. Local people know what is happening at the local level and they have a strong interest in improving their surroundings, and this is all to the good. On the other hand, the existence of this program has also allowed inherent prejudices (against renters and density) to emerge publicly. In many ways, the NRP has nourished this inward view of many city residents. The investment in neighborhood signs and gateways by so many neighborhoods underscores the parochialism and autonomy the program engendered.

A second observation is also one that might have been expected. Most NRP plans primarily reflect the concerns of those with the most at stake: homeowners and business owners. Despite laudable efforts to include all local stakeholders, the strong focus of most plans is toward increased owner-occupied housing. In some neighborhoods, the NRP plans might be sardonically described as an outright attack on renters. The goal of demolishing problematic multifamily housing surfaced in many plans, at a time when the vacancy rate in rental housing was diminishing steadily and actually reached an all-time low of 1% in 1999.

A third observation: The "boundary" problem is a consistent, but not insoluble, conundrum in many of the NRP plans. Most Minneapolis neighborhoods have commercial arterial streets as their borders. Consequently, it became clear repeatedly that the neighborhoods had to look outside their borders to deal with particular issues, such as the state of their commercial neighbors. Across the city over time, neighborhoods recognized the need to plan jointly for nearby commercial corridors. Residents knew that the fate of these long streets affected more than one neighborhood and that only cooperation would lead to improvements.

A contrasting boundary problem appeared in the parts of the city left out of the NRP process by definition: the industrial corridors (e.g., Southeast Minneapolis) and the central riverfront. Because these were not conventional, that is residential, neighborhoods they were not included in the initial NRP process. Yet, activities within these areas impinged on nearby neighborhoods, causing some boards to reach beyond the neighborhood boundaries to include the industrial areas in their planning. Now that the central riverfront is a dense residential area, it may even merit its own NRP neighborhood identity.

A fourth observation involves the inevitable conflicts between what neighbors want for themselves and what broader City policies or goals might dictate. On a microscale, this conflict manifests itself in the general Minneapolis attitude that only homeowners, or their invited guests, have the right to park on the public street in front of one's house. At a broader scale, it is clear that many city residents want to limit, or eliminate, some kinds of commercial and industrial uses. Such local goals stand in contradiction to the City of Minneapolis' dependence for a significant portion of its tax base from commercial and industrial uses and its overarching policies to enrich this tax base. Mediating conflicts between residents, who claim to know what is best for their neighborhood, and business owners in general, has become a time-consuming part of local officials' days. Indeed, City Council members and business people now spend many evenings attending NRP board hearings.

A fifth observation is that the movement from plan development to the allocation of funds is an iterative process. The sequence required continued citizen engagement, and even today some goals remain as unfunded mandates. Changes in neighborhood leadership altered the focus of NRP policies, as Goetz and Sidney (1994) pointed out in analyzing the changing organizational structure of three neighborhood groups. Allocations made are the final consensus of what the participating neighbors wanted, although they might not represent the aspirations of all residents.

There is no doubt in the minds of those who have observed the NRP over the past decade that it has increased Minneapolis residents' sense of ownership of their neighborhoods. Subtly, it has also changed the power structure in the city. Elected officials know that their constituents are much better informed about many aspects of planning and development than they were before the NRP was established, and they are consequently much more answerable to more constituents.

"What the neighbors want" turns out to be both as predictable and more complex than anyone might have imagined in 1990. The narrow path of some neighborhoods was no surprise; the ingenuity of some neighborhoods in defining agendas that included other neighborhoods and businesses was not expected. The emphasis on pedestrians, bicycling, constructed wetlands, and green corridors was a new twist in neighborhood planning. The widespread interest in highlighting neighborhood identity and history bodes well for the future of the city. NRP 2, the second phase, got underway in 2001. It calls for a reining in of neighborhood options. A strong directive driven by the City Council demands a new focus for Phase Two's proposed $150-million budget. Having been judged to have missed the mark of citywide affordable housing goals in Phase One, NRP policies now set aside $16 million specifically for affordable housing and an additional $4 million for revitalizing commercial corridors (Mack, 2001).

The experiences of the first decade of the NRP will continue to echo through City politics as well as through neighborhood landscapes that have been permanently transformed. The neighbors, too, are more knowledgeable and involved than ever before.


In the fall of 2001, the second decade of NRP was irreversibly altered. State legislation enacted in spring 2001 rearranged state property tax rates. This change severely reduced expected revenues from tax increment districts-the income stream that funded NRP in the first place. As the prospect of reduced funding emerged, politics came to the foreground. NRP advocates proposed a fall ballot referendum to hew to committed second phase revenues. This proposal failed. But several strong supporters of downtown tax-increment projects were defeated in the fall election, including the mayor and two powerful City Council members. Observers attributed these defeats, in part, to a perceived lack of attention to residential neighborhoods. The incoming mayor pledged to continue NRP support, extending its duration for another 5 years, in order to straddle revenue sources. The absolute contours of these decisions are still in flux. What is certain is that lower levels of NRP funding will be available over the coming decade, expenditures will be far more constrained than in the first phase, and the NRP will continue to be a local initiative worth attention.


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© Copyright 2002 Journal of the American Planning Association. All rights reserved.

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