NRP Making a good program better

Star Tribune Editorial Board

Monday, Feburary 28, 2000

For someone who hadn't seen the city for a while, a trip through Minneapolis neighborhoods in the late 1980s was a disturbing experience. Disease had killed the city's lush canopy of elm trees only to reveal unmistakable signs of urban decay: boarded-up houses tagged with graffiti, youths dealing drugs on street corners.

Wander down those same streets today and things look remarkably better. Crime is down. Boarded-up houses sit beside others that have been defiantly rebuilt, houses freshly painted with new windows and iron fences. Around the corner, new businesses have been started. Even the greenery is coming back.

Surely, the long economic boom explains much of the progress. But so does the city's Neighborhood Revitalization Program. Launched in 1990, NRP is a 20-year initiative designed to encourage neighborhoods to help themselves. The city divided itself into 66 parts and began to divert redevelopment money directly to neighborhoods. Residents gather to decide how to spend a stream of $400 million in two phases, over two decades.

NRP quickly drew national attention and, through its first phase, reignited grass-roots democracy. Few cities can match the civic spirit and commitment of Minneapolis neighbors.

But NRP hasn't been perfect. The program has struggled to meet the Legislature's mandate that 52.5 percent be spent on housing. Too many neighborhoods have wasted money on unsustainable projects. Some neighborhood organizations have been captured by professional agitators. Most worrisome, perhaps, is the inevitable rise of entitlement and turf - the notion that what's good for my neighborhood is good for the city.

This is, of course, not always true. Minneapolis needs more affordable housing, for example, and more infill development of all kinds. And it needs less of the fortress NIMBYism that some neighborhoods erect.

The answer for NRP's second phase is not for City Hall to grab back the power. Devotion to neighborhood is key to Minneapolis' comeback. But the program needs more flexibility to help solve citywide problems like affordable housing and the redevelopment of West Broadway, Lake Street and other commercial corridors - projects too large for single neighborhoods to take on.

Because NRP was front-loaded, money available for overall community development will shrink by nearly half over the next decade. So now, more than before, the city needs the biggest possible bang for its buck. When the NRP Policy Board meets tonight, it should set aside some portion - at least one-third - of NRP money for a citywide pool devoted to housing, commercial corridors or, better yet, the blending of affordable housing and businesses along commercial streets.

These projects transcend neighborhood boundaries. Minneapolis must amount to more than the sum of 66 parts.


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