Design Contest Seeks to Promote Rebuilding in Twin Cities

March 25, 2010

By David Hill

Willard Homewood is one of the most storied neighborhoods in North Minneapolis. Known for its grand early 20th century homes, the area was the setting for violent race riots in 1967. More recently, it has become a haven for artists and their families, with one 16-square block now called the Artists’ Core.

vacant lot in North Minneapolis
Photo courtesy City of Minneapolis
Architects are invited to submit residential designs for a vacant lot in North Minneapolis.
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Despite the renewal, Willard Homewood has been hit hard by widespread foreclosures over the years. Some houses have been torn down; others are boarded up. “You have these terrific old buildings, but many are victims of decay,” says Katie White, a program assistant in the city’s Community Planning and Economic Development department. “Yet, there’s still a strong neighborhood underneath it all, even if the physical housing stock doesn’t always reflect that.”

Last summer, local architect Jay Isenberg, AIA, whose parents both grew up in North Minneapolis, took one look at an empty lot in the neighborhood—at the corner of Plymouth Avenue and Sheridan Avenue North—and saw the future. “It’s a very prominent keystone site with a lot of potential,” says Isenberg, who hit on the idea of holding a design competition for up to six single-family housing units to fill the space (actually three contiguous lots). Isenberg took his idea to Tom Streitz, the city’s Director of Housing Policy and Development, who immediately embraced it and enlisted the participation of the Builders Association of the Twin Cities and its Builders Outreach Foundation.

Organizers hope the competition, “Bearden Place: A Housing Competition in the Artists’ Core,” will inspire participating architects and designers to create innovative, sustainable living spaces for first-time home buyers willing to pay up to $175,000. “We’re giving the designers a lot of space for creativity,” White says. “And we’re looking forward to what they come up with.”

Entries are due on April 21. Anyone can enter, and multidisciplinary teams are encouraged to participate, as long as a Minnesota-licensed architect is included (organizers note that there is a chance for NCARB members to get cross-registered by the entry deadline). The winning design, selected by a five-person jury, will be built with funding by the Builders Outreach Foundation.

The development will be named Bearden Place, after the late Romare Howard Bearden, an African American artist and writer. But Isenberg says the competition goes beyond one project. “We want to replicate it,” he says. The design ideas and funding model could be used on other city-owned properties in need of redevelopment. Currently, the city of Minneapolis owns more than 350 vacant residential properties.

Isenberg says he is hopeful that Willard Homewood will someday become the thriving neighborhood it once was. “It has a very good chance of coming back,” he says. “It’s on a great path.”

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