The Empowerment Center is a collaborative project to renovate an old elementary school into a service hub for partner agencies that provide supportive services to homeless and low-income households. The center is adjacent to a permanent supportive housing development, and is owned by a nonprofit developer of affordable housing. The renovation means extending the life of the building by at least 20 years as well as providing a much needed community asset. The long-term goal of the center is to strengthen Rochester by breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty and homelessness through early interventions. According to the American Community Survey, in 2016, 10.7% of individuals living in Rochester lived below the poverty line (for comparison, Minneapolis was 21.3%)–23% are Black residents and 4.3% Asian (Census Bureau, 2015).
The 54-acre Heart of the City is a mixed-use, pedestrian friendly downtown area for Burnsville. Recognizing the residents’ desire for a more integrated, active-living lifestyle, Burnsville used smart growth principles to create an “urban setting in a suburban environment” that promotes economic prosperity, social equity, and environmental sustainability. The plan calls for 20% of the housing built to be affordable for diverse housing options, utilizes ground floor retail and office space, includes a large central park for gathering and recreation, and brings arts and cultural opportunities to the downtown core through a performing arts center. “That 54-acre site in the city only made $246,000 in property taxes,” reflects Mayor Elizabeth B. Kautz. “Today, it makes over a million.” By developing a compact, walkable downtown core, Burnsville was able to expand its economic opportunities, while protecting residents’ health and the environment.
The City of Burnsville boasts 79 parks, ranging from small parks in residential neighborhoods to large athletic fields for sporting events. Nicollet Commons Park is one of the first “town square” style parks to be developed in the Twin Cities and serves as the focal point of Burnsville’s Heart of the City. Currently, 30% of Burnsville residents identify as people of color, and close to 14% are foreign born as Burnsville has emerged among Minnesota’s top 10 destinations for many East African immigrants. The park features a 250-seat amphitheater, open green space, a water feature, and free wireless internet. “We made sure that we have places where our children can play, be healthy, be active and where families can come together and get to know one another,” explains Mayor Elizabeth B. Kautz. “When you know one another, you’re not going to be afraid.”
Burnsville believes in transparency figuratively and literally. As you walk through City Hall you can see into meeting rooms, offices, and chambers which are clad in glass facades. This intentional design conveys openness and ensures that “decisions aren’t being made in some back room out-of-sight of the public.” In the city chambers hang the community-defined values: a welcoming, caring, and compassionate city which offers respects to all and expects it in return. This reminds everyone, from residents to elected officials, of the city’s larger vision and that everything that is done in the city needs to work toward those values.
Transparency in City Hall
Photo credit: Marty Doll
The Heart of the City project grew from the Partnerships for Tomorrow community visioning project that identified the creation of a central meeting area as a community goal. “We had charrettes and focus groups,” reflects Mayor Kautz. The Heart of the City grew from a simple streetscape project in 1995 to a full-fledged redevelopment effort. In 1999, the Burnsville City Council adopted a framework design manual and zoning ordinance which outlines architectural guidelines to assure that future development is consistent with the community’s vision. The community-lead design framework is a development playbook with narratives and pictures describing the types of environments residents wish to have. “There are pictures to make sure that everybody understands this is what the space needs and what the landscape needs to look like,” explains Mayor Kautz.