NRP Shifting the focus to "Main Street"

Star Tribune Editorial Board

Sunday, July 16, 2000

On a Linden Hills street one warm recent evening, a woman fed an ice cream cone to her dog and explained to bemused onlookers that vanilla was his favorite flavor.

This is the kind of Norman Rockwell moment that's liable to break out at any time along Upton Avenue, a leafy south Minneapolis street that offers a bakery, restaurants, flower shops, a coffee bar, a butcher shop, a hardware, a co-op grocery, a bike store, housing of all sorts and, of course, an ice cream parlor - not to mention neighbors who care deeply about their surroundings.

Few places capture a sense of community as well as this. Indeed, as rural America fades and suburbia becomes bigger and faster, it's clear that the most likely place to find the virtues of a small town is in a big city.

That's why Minneapolis' most important task in the coming decade is to create as many Linden Hills as possible - not all of them, obviously, with the same income advantages and ethnic makeup, but places that foster neighborhood pride, beauty and stability.

The best vehicle for achieving this goal is the Neighborhood Revitalization Program (NRP), soon to enter its second 10-year phase. Wisely, the program will now turn its focus to reviving commercial/residential corridors - the old streetcar business districts along Lake, Franklin, Broadway, Lowry, Central and other neighborhood thoroughfares. These are the keys to reestablishing communities with a lively blend of shopping, housing, jobs and pleasant, safe, walkable streets. It's here that neighborhood boundaries often blend together and where common interests can be pursued most efficiently.

NRP was born in 1990 as an antidote to urban decay and middle-class flight. It hasn't been perfect, failing to meet its mandate on affordable housing, failing to help lowest-income homeowners as much as it should have and turning some neighborhoods into fortresses.

But the San Francisco-based consultant Teamworks gives the program high marks. The core idea of giving neighborhoods the money and power to help themselves paid off. By almost every measure, the city's poorest districts have rebounded since the '80s. A robust economy and declining crime surely helped, but so did NRP.

The program pumped $51 million into 5,500 housing renovations in its first nine years. Home ownership rates rose 3 percent citywide (4.1 percent in poorer neighborhoods). The report credits NRP with reviving the city's owner-occupied housing market, as well as neighborhood pride. Overwhelmingly, Minneapolis residents, whether rich or poor, tend to rate their neighborhoods as improving.

"People are more confident now, more willing to go out and explore," said Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton. NRP has helped accomplish this with minimal patronage. According to the report, a typical neighborhood organization spends less than $12,000 a year on personnel.

On July 24, the NRP Policy Board is expected to formally recommend the new focus on commercial/residential corridors and, by its nature, a more cooperative relationship with the city's more traditional development arm, the Minneapolis Community Development Agency. This new focus deserves support. As NRP Director Bob Miller says, "We're all in this together; we've just not realized it before."


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