Upper Harbor Terminal: Minneapolis’ Contradictions and Exclusion of the Northside

North-facing aerial view of Minneapolis' Upper Harbor Terminal development site along the Mississippi River.

Having largely been kept out of the process thus far, people in Minneapolis’ historically-Black Northside have reason to expect greater collaboration between them, the City, and the Pohlad family-owned United Properties (UP) on the Upper Harbor Terminal (UHT) development project. For perspective on what community-focused development could look like in Minneapolis, let’s take a brief look westward.

Market Creek Plaza Sets A Higher Standard For Upper Harbor Terminal

San Diego’s Diamond Neighborhoods, a large community of color, broke ground on the generational development of Market Creek Plaza in 1999 in a true collaboration with the developer, the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation (JCNI). Along with co-designing the plan before beginning construction, JCNI worked with residents to create two resident-owned entities — Market Creek Partners, LLC and the Neighborhood Unity Foundation (NUF) — which own a combined 40 percent of Market Creek Plaza and an additional parcel of nearby land.

Among real estate ownership and other amenities, Market Creek Plaza has brought the Diamond Neighborhoods their first local grocery store in 30 years and a 500-person capacity outdoor amphitheater.

Market Creek Plaza in San Diego's Diamond Neighborhoods community pictured from the bottom of the amphitheater space

Market Creek Plaza in San Diego’s Diamond Neighborhoods community, pictured from within the 500-person capacity outdoor amphitheater

In 2019, Minneapolis City Council approved the grand UHT development in the McKinley neighborhood based on a plan the City, UP, and First Avenue began designing years before involving local residents through the Collaborative Planning Committee (CPC). The development, centered around an 8,000-seat performance venue managed by First Ave, will be publicly funded to the tune of at least $15 million from the City yet privately owned.

Months after City Council approved UHT development, an investigative piece by FOX9 showed Mayor Frey gushing about the riverside concert venue vision and how the project came about after an impactful experience he and First Avenue CEO Dayna Frank each had at an Alabama Shakes concert on Halls Island. Northside residents appear to be tacked onto project considerations as Frey is later given the chance to ensure they don’t “continue to get the short end of the stick.”

When asked about United Properties previously funding his mayoral campaign, Frey denied it had any bearing on them becoming the UHT developer. When asked about displacement of current Northside families due to UHT development, Mayor Jacob Frey conceded it was inevitable. On economic opportunity for current North Minneapolis residents, First Ave’s Frank discussed “endless” job opportunities where a venue runner could reach for the stars and possibly be a “future stage manager.” When pressed about valid environmental safety concerns, the City stuck their fingers in their ears.

We know community-owned development is possible. We know North Minneapolis is a city-designated “Green Zone.” We know the City of Minneapolis has made a big deal out of their own ethical standards for Upper Harbor Terminal development, including “disrupting gentrification,” wealth creation, and a “restorative approach toward racial justice.” So, why does the project clearly not care about any of that? Local residents, the environment, nor justice will be served if UHT is developed the way it is planned to be.

How did a project with so much potential for social, economic, and environmental restoration so quickly become more of the same? How can North Minneapolis residents gain some power over what’s happening in their own community?

The Community Project The Community Doesn’t Want

Much like the planned Roof Depot demolition in East Phillips, the City of Minneapolis has approached the McKinley neighborhood with plans and a vision for the community that were formed without the community.

A staple of the Twin Cities municipal approach to equity work in marginalized communities is setting up committees made up of community members to review government plans. However, it is no secret among organizers and the otherwise politically-involved in Minneapolis and Saint Paul that these committees are largely for show.

Real power is never granted to these citizen committees; the extent of their power is almost always described as “recommendation” of action to whichever government entity is actually in charge. The “Collaborative” Planning Committee for Upper Harbor Terminal development is just the latest example of such.

Let’s make a few things clear: the City did own the Roof Depot building. The City does own the land Upper Harbor Terminal sits on. These plans — to develop a public works campus and a hotspot commercial space by the river — are well within the City’s rights to do so. But beyond “rightful” government action often being wrong for the people, the City of Minneapolis perpetually goes out of its way to present itself as a leader in ethical, equity-focused governance.

More than anything, Minneapolis City Council and Mayor Frey receive scrutiny for failing to deliver on their own promises. The City is not quite as cruel as leadership in places like New York City and Chicago, but the gap between what is promised and what is delivered by Minneapolis politicians is a canyon.

What The City of Minneapolis Says, What The City of Minneapolis Does

As much as a city-backed development project needs to be held accountable to the demands of citizens, the Upper Harbor Terminal project is failing to meet the City’s own standards of success.

As critical as Northside Minneapolis residents, Friends of the Mississippi River, and various other factions have been of the UHT project, all anyone has done to date is hold the project up against the City’s own words.

Let’s revisit a few guiding principles of the UHT development.

“Disrupting gentrification” is one, the idea that creating this privately-owned commercial space in a working-class community will somehow fight the trend of … privately-owned commercial spaces in working-class communities pricing people out of their homes. Sure, that trend will continue says the Mayor, but otherwise this project is anti-gentrification (?).

A similarly bold-faced contradiction is the City of Minneapolis’ conduct in what they have labeled “Green Zones.”

East Phillips is one such Green Zone, a place in which the City claims to be doing greater environmental safety work. In practice, there is no practice.

The City wanted to build a public works campus with a diesel refueling station and hundreds of trucks in the “Green Zone” of East Phillips. You know, the neighborhood regularly vying for the title of Most Polluted Place in Minnesota. As they fought that ultimately losing battle, the City continued planning UHT development with bare minimum environmental assessment in another one of their “Green Zones” in North Minneapolis.

When Community Members for Environmental Justice (CMEJ) sued the City in October 2021 to push for a stronger environmental safety review of the UHT site, the lawsuit was thrown out nine months later for being submitted too late. (Judge Lois R. Conroy took nine months to determine if the lawsuit was late or not because different statutes of limitation had possible application to the case.)

Once again, “Green Zones” are not resident-enforced labels. These are the City of Minneapolis’s own ideas and words which the City continues to fall short of.

Where North Minneapolis Residents Can Find Power

The deal between UP and the City of Minneapolis notes the City still owns the UHT site. That being said, UP’s exclusive rights are being granted for 99 years, the maximum lease length in standard ground leases.

One way or the other, North Minneapolis residents will have to deal directly with the City of Minneapolis and UP to get what they want out of UHT. But since much of a development project’s checkpoints require cooperation or, at the very least, neutrality from residents in the area, public opposition on the grounds of just one of their valid concerns could greatly slow down the project.

An interesting observation of the eight-page document “Exclusive Negotiating Rights Term Sheet” is that two of the 10 land parcels on the UHT site do not have a concept for development yet. Parcels 6b and 7b are there for UP to come up with something as development continues on other parcels.

Since the document’s language suggests Parcels 6b and 7b be used to “support Community priorities,” any announced plans for those parcels that are not in the Northside’s self-determined best interests would be deserving of public criticism. This still applies to the planned concert venue and certainly applied to the now-scrapped idea of a luxury hotel, one of few edits made to the original City-UP plan due to community backlash.

(“Community” is specifically defined in the Negotiating Rights document as “People who have a vested stake in outcomes of the development of the Upper Harbor Terminal site, specifically American Descendants Of Slaves (ADOS) and Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) individuals” along with those living nearest to the site.)

Regarding Parcel 6b, UP has to update the City of Minneapolis every 6 months on a “feasibility study” they’re required to conduct in collaboration with local developer Building Blocks. What that means is UP must explore how “feasible” it is for them and the City to bring in health and wellness programs, reserve space for local startup businesses, and create financial strategies to help lower rents for local businesses.

Part of the agreement between United Properties and the City of Minneapolis to explore the possibility of local business support on the Upper Harbor Terminal site in North Minneapolis

The language in this section leaves a good first impression of searching for solutions to community issues. Very quickly, however, one must realize there is no “feasibility study” being done for the huge concert venue. Not only are local businesses and health services barely being squeezed into this privatized plan, they might not even be included at all if UP and the City consider it “unfeasible.”

Along with written points in the agreement between UP and the City of Minneapolis, Northside residents still have valid concerns about the potential environmental impact of the UHT project. Despite CMEJ having their lawsuit against the City thrown out in 2022, residents can still call for a stronger review of potential environmental damage the UHT project could cause. Failure from the City to adequately respond to this request could publicize the UHT controversy and give weight to an independent review of possible environmental harm funded by Northside residents à la East Phillips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI).


Many questions remain about plans for Upper Harbor Terminal: how many Northsiders will inhabit the affordable housing units? Will they actually be affordable? Who is holding the City of Minneapolis and United Properties accountable for those developments?

Pertaining to the concert venue, how much space needs to be created for parking? Who is responsible for waste management? Will local residents be able to afford tickets to the marquee events imagined for this venue? And how do jobs such as venue runner and “future stage manager” contribute to the goal of local wealth creation?

In a city quick to call itself progressive, who and what is progressing in the current UHT development plans?