MINNEAPOLIS (AP) –From a distance, Riverside Plaza is a gloomy-looking monolith, a clump of stern concrete towers with fading multi-colored panels that suggest it’s one of society’s failed public housing experiments.
Up close, Riverside is something different: A lively and mostly cheerful haven for the thousands of immigrants who have come to Minnesota in recent years. Kids fresh off school buses giggle and chase toy cars, their backpacks emblazoned with their favorite cartoon characters. Mothers, graceful in long, colorful scarves, struggle to scoop up their rowdy young. Old men in suits lean on wooden canes as they stroll the premises.
That vitality is why the federal government and others are plowing $65 million into Riverside to address leaky pipes, moldy ceilings, outdated utilities and the general battering of nearly four decades of operation. At a time when many big public housing complexes are being pulled down around the country, Riverside — which is privately owned — is getting a breath of new life.
“People are happy here; it’s a dream come true,” said Halima Yusuf, 46, who came to the U.S. 14 years ago from Somalia and still sends photos of the complex to family members in her homeland.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development views Riverside as a poster child for what they’d like to see more of, and is loaning nearly $50 million for the renovation. Large, multi-family complexes like Riverside are increasingly undergoing massive rehabs nationwide, driven in part by a lack of new public housing and deterioration in the old ones.
“Given its size, it’s at the forefront of the kind of things we’d want to see happen,” said Carol Galante, HUD’s deputy assistant secretary for multi-family housing programs. She said the complex is ideal in that it provides its residents with resources like a community school and a grocery store.
Since around 1996, the federal government has paid to knock down many big public housing complexes. Often, the sites have been redeveloped with mixed-rate housing that usually includes fewer subsidized properties than before. Ultimately, the demolitions resulted in fewer public housing options nationwide, Galante said.
Riverside’s renovation is part of a $132 million refinancing package assembled by the federal government, the city of Minneapolis and more than 14 other public and private sources. Sherman Associates, the company that owns the 11-building campus, is contributing $3 million to the project. Besides the upgrades to infrastructure, the multi-colored panels that once gave Riverside a modern gloss will be repainted, and some replacement panels that weren’t part of the original scheme will be put right.
It’s coming at a good time. Residents often have to wait a half-hour for water to heat up before showers. The wait for buildings’ heat or air conditioning to kick in can take a week. Leaky ceilings and mold are common.
“There were horrible problems,” said Fredda Scobey, executive director of the Riverside Plaza Tenants Association. “Management was told, ‘Listen, this place is about to fall apart.”‘
Some money will also go to build a safety facility where security staff and resources will be headquartered and new security cameras.
The 2008 shooting of a 20-year-old Augsburg College student across the street from Riverside contributed to its image as a high-crime location. But tenants and police downplay any safety concerns. Data on police calls to the complex weren’t available. Neighborhood crime statistics show the area just above the citywide average, even though the neighborhood is the city’s fourth most-populous.
Over the past few years, Minneapolis police officer Jeanine Brudenell said she’s seen crime drop in the neighborhood following the addition of two night patrol officers. The crimes are now mostly thefts, whereas there used to be more violent crimes, she said.
Built in 1973 as Cedar Square West, the complex was backed by the federal government with a utopian vision to house rich, poor, young and old. Developers had originally hoped for a massive collection of buildings to house 30,000 people, but widespread community opposition limited it to about one-fifth that size.
The complex was a hit when it opened, and it drew a number of young people and University of Minnesota students. Its architecture, inspired by the French-Swiss urban architect Le Corbusier, was considered cutting edge at the time, as was placing the parking garage below the residences, said Charlene Roise, who led an effort to win historical status for Riverside.
“To me, it really epitomizes the optimism and just the good spirit of the 1960s,” said Roise, president of Hess Roise Historical Consultants. “It was a real social experiment.”
Mixing the market-rate and subsidized units together never panned out, as the federal funding required the units to be separated, and over time Riverside became something very different. Today, about half of Riverside’s 1,303 units are government-subsidized and half are market-rate. The more than 4,500 tenants also make the complex unique: about 70 percent are Somalis, 14 percent are Ethiopians and nearly 10 percent are Vietnamese.
Ed Goetz, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Minnesota, has studied Riverside and public housing in general. Goetz said research shows that some people who rely on public housing don’t attempt to better their situations. In Riverside, though, the average length of stay is between three and four years — likely illustrating “upward and outward mobility” of tenants new to the country.
“It shows that the housing is probably serving its purpose pretty well,” Goetz said. “Folks are using that time to get on their feet.”
Even though its original vision didn’t materialize, Riverside has become a success in its own right, Scobey said.
“It works really, really well as villages within a city,” she said. “If you live here, you can be with your own folks, speaking your own language. … And I think that’s the magic of the place.”
(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)