Good, Thoughtful Hosts #208: Root District with Rebecca Muchow

Rebecca Muchow joins this episode to tell us more about the Root District. This neighborhood, home to a 100-plus-year-old farmers market, is looking to build a green, equitable community around food. But it wants to go beyond restaurants and stores and include business incubators, homes, culture, and more. Muchow explains how the folks involved are using a central story to build awareness and momentum behind their ideas.

Learn more about the Root District:

About Our Guest

Architect Rebecca Muchow serves as office and regional manager for Cushing Terrell’s location in Minneapolis, MN. With a lifelong curiosity about design, ideation, and creation, she has 20 years of experience as a project architect with a focus on sustainable design solutions. Her past work includes historic preservation projects and managing sustainability and LEED certification efforts. Rebecca is passionate about mentoring others, being active in her local architecture community, and advancing diversity, inclusion, and equity within her firm and throughout the larger industry.

Episode #208 Transcript | Listen on SoundCloud

Sarah Steimer 00:06
Sometimes you get to start from scratch. When developments begin to pop up on virgin land, planners can sketch out where roadways, homes, shopping districts, schools, and more make the most sense. But in cities that already exist, you may be tasked with redeveloping areas that have pre existing histories and challenges. And there are lots of hopes and ambitions that are tacked on that. I’m Sarah Steimer. And on today’s episode of Good, Thoughtful Hosts, we’re exploring a project in Minneapolis that’s been dubbed the Root District. And just to note, we will have more details on that in the show notes. But this part of the city aims to be a food-centric area that can support housing, entertainment, entrepreneurship, and more. It’s a really big, lofty project that has countless moving parts and stakeholders. But one of the big lessons, as we’ll hear, is that to keep everyone focused, it really helps to use a central story.

Producer 01:17
Today’s special guest

Rebecca Muchow 01:20
Rebecca Muchow, senior architect and office and regional manager of Minneapolis.

Sarah Steimer 01:26
First of all, thank you so much, you and I have talked previously — not on this podcast, but for other pieces. And I have a little bit of background on this, but tell us if you would about what the root district is, but also how you became involved in this project in the first place.

Rebecca Muchow 01:43
Absolutely. The Root District is an area, it’s a moniker. It’s a name that was created. So it’s an area that is just west of the Minnesota Twins stadium in the downtown-adjacent Minneapolis area. It’s largely undeveloped, it’s ready for redevelopment. There’s single-story buildings, lots of empty parking lots. The city owns 30% of the land, there is an affordable housing facility, there are a few of them actually related to a group called Catholic Charities. And there is a new light rail that will be coming through that area. So that tends to result in new development where the light rail goes, housing goes up and those sorts of things. So the North Loop Association, actually, it’s called the NuLoop Partners. They are essentially a public-private partnership or group of businesses that are very invested in the communities that they are in and live, etcetera. So they want to get ahead of development and, quote unquote, do it right. And by do it right, that means there is an essence of equitable development, sustainable development, and art and creativity are kind of woven into the built environment. So it’s not doing day-to-day new developments. It’s really trying to be more engaging and focused in terms of what kinds of buildings and what kinds of people are there. And in a way also to help combat gentrification. So the North Loop is the area just east of the Twins stadium, and it really developed around that stadium coming in about 15 years ago. That is a very high-end gentrified area. So they’re trying to not be that. But also this area has the Minneapolis farmers market. It’s been there for over 100 years, there’s a few of the structures still remain. They have red roofs, you can see them as you drive by on one of the interstate overpasses nearby. So it has good roots, which is why it’s part of the Root District. That’s why it’s named such so. Yeah.

Sarah Steimer 03:47
And then tell us how you got involved with that in the first place?

Rebecca Muchow 03:50
For sure. Yep. So I moved into Minneapolis about six years ago. And as I became more involved in the office and projects, I started to be more curious about the communities that we were in. I went to a presentation by the downtown council that was on the Root District. And I was just super curious about it. And so I reached out to the gentleman who gave the presentation. Dan Collison is his name, and he was the executive director of the NuLoop Partners and the Minneapolis Downtown Council. And I said, Hey, what’s up with this idea you have, how can I become involved or learn more? And that’s when he said, Well, we’ve got these three working groups, the art and creativity group, the equitable framework group and the climate group. So he said, some people are involved in one or all three, it’s volunteer basis, contribute and show up if you want, and this was during the pandemic. So a lot of that ended up being you know, Zoom meetings and things like that. So I at first was involved in both the equity group and the climate group. I have a strong background in sustainable design. I’ve worked on a lot of LEED buildings and I became the I’ll call it like the working group leader of the climate group about two years ago. And since then, we have been so lucky to partner with ULI Minnesota, and we’re able to pursue some grants through ULI national. And that included one that was focused on netzero energy or decarbonization of the built environment. And it was the first time they had rolled out that opportunity. And our proposal was one of the eight that was selected to be part of this first cohort. And that allowed us access to all sorts of resources. And we did the work that was necessary for that grant, which included a two-day technical panel with industry experts, making some recommendation for the Root District in terms of climate change and energy efficiency, etc, at a district level. And we were then able to get an implementation grant for the next cohort. So we were the only one that was carried over from the first cohort to the second. So what’s different about the Root District, at least on the energy side of things is that it is all independently owned parcels. So energy districts are more feasible, I would say when there is a single owner, whether that’s a city entity or a developer, and this one is not, so how do you make it work is the big question. There is a waste-to-energy plant that the county owns in this district called the HERC the waste is brought in that is essentially burned and then it is turned into gas, which then can supply heat to adjacent buildings. It does that already. It’s not fully utilized to its max capacity. But that’s just a little bit of how I became involved and a little more history on the district itself.

Sarah Steimer 06:52
So this really I mean, it’s it’s such an ongoing project, how many years has it been since sort of like the initial maybe pitch plan started? How many years has it been?

Rebecca Muchow 07:01
Boy, I wish I, I’m sorry, I didn’t look that up ahead of time, I’m sure for the people who have been really focused in on it that are part of the NuLoop Partners, it’s probably year six for them. You know, I’ve only been involved the last two and a half, three years, first year, I kind of just listened in these different groups. It’s been a long time coming. And Jackson Schwartz is one of the folks who’s been heavily involved. He is an artist and entrepreneur, he owns a company called Hennepin Made, they make very beautiful custom light fixtures. He had bought a building there, and really said, hey, you know, like, this is important to me, I think this district could really be all of these great and interesting things. And he was really kind of one of the drivers. And he’s still very involved in his building. They are a zero waste facility in terms of their manufacturing of these light fixtures. They have solar panels on the roof, they host events, they have a meeting space, so that it’s really innovative. And he was very ahead of the times, I think for that area and in his thoughts of what that district could be. So he for sure is one that has been involved for quite some time.

Sarah Steimer 08:08
Sure. And I mean, when you have a project like this that does span over quite a bit of time, and then you’re mentioning all these grants, and you know everything else involved, maybe different entities getting involved, things like that. I’m sure the focus has sort of shifted over time. And there have probably been different challenges moving forward. And I’m sure sometimes when there is such, you know, you mentioned how this is the idea is to be really conscious of what’s going to go in how things are going to be developed, especially since that other area just north was very heavily gentrified. So being thoughtful about all of this, I’m sure that there are probably arguments that when you do take so long, it just tends to pull the process out a little bit more than maybe you anticipate.

Rebecca Muchow 08:56
Yes, yes. And it does.

Sarah Steimer 08:58
Instead of just pulling the trigger on stuff. But you know, how have things sort of changed as you move forward?

Rebecca Muchow 09:04
Minneapolis is interesting, and it has experienced lots of unique things that other parts of the country, maybe haven’t. We had the murder of George Floyd, which resulted in a lot of civil unrest. And still, there’s ripple effects from that. There are lots of redevelopments that the city has been pushing for stronger community engagement, having the voice of the people there from the beginning, through the end. So this isn’t the only large area of the city in the last five years or so, that has kind of gone through a new vision or a revisioning, if you will. And so one of the things that came out of the technical panel that was part of the ULI grant, we had a gentleman who was the lead of that two-day event. His name is Keith Baker, and he is the executive director of the ReConnect Rondo project. Rondo was a historically black neighborhood in the St. Paul area that was essentially devastated and split apart when the interstate system came through. And if you’re aware of sort of that history of the United States, and when those large roadways were put throughout the country, Minneapolis, St. Paul, the Rondo neighborhood was not the only historically black area that was impacted by some decision making. So point of this is Keith, who is awesome, one of the things he said was, you know, when we’ve been working on at ReConnect Rondo, one of our advantages is that we have the strength of storytelling, and that has allowed funding and media to rally around it. And the Root District doesn’t have as strong of a story for a variety of different reasons and you know, maybe your team of volunteers should refocus. And so because we’ve been spending time on the grants and the climate conversation, and that’s all very important. But the theme that kept coming up was like what equity is important, and what, what is one of the main elements of the Root District that makes it unique, and that is the farmers market. We kind of went back to the drawing boards, if you will, on the story and the why for this district. And it really goes back to the concept of a food district as really a way to set it apart from some of these other redevelopments and districts in the metro area. That means that it really touches on all the elements of what could go into a food district. So how, you know, again, we kind of talked earlier before this about the concept of a 15-minute city, and that includes addressing work and housing and food and health and culture and leisure and education. And so how, how do all those six components come into play when you’re thinking about what a food district is? And so the team of volunteers we’ve talked about, okay, obviously, restaurants, right, food-related retail spaces, but what about food labs, entrepreneurial spaces, all related to food and creating partnerships with some of the big agricultural companies in the Minnesota area, which would include potentially organizations like General Mills, Cargill, Land O’Lakes. We’ve got a long-standing history of those kinds of agricultural-based companies in this area, it’s a big farming area. And so how can we tie what I’m gonna call old big ag with new food concepts and food entrepreneurs, and those spaces. And a lot of those companies that I just mentioned have foundations, and they’re looking for things like this, like this district could be kind of the breeding grounds, if you will, for lots of innovative food-related ideas. And then how do we tie that into, you know, the education piece, the training of workers, food service individuals? And then because this area is part of the 2040 comprehensive plan, there’s some density requirements. And so how do you address the different kinds of housing, one of the things we’ve talked about is SROs, which is single-room occupancy. And those are essentially rooms are a little bit furnished, and it’s targeting kind of low and minimal incomes. So if you are, maybe an entrepreneur, or you’re getting some training, or you’re working in retail and restaurant, and your salary may not allow you to be in this district, or adjacent districts, the SROs is possibly a way to kind of increase the opportunities by having another mix in the formula. And then culture and leisure. I don’t know about you, but music and food are always great combinations — art, food, and music is even better, and then having really cool spaces where all that happens. And if you’re right next to the farmers market, it seems kind of natural.

Sarah Steimer 14:03
Right for it to kind of trickle over a little bit. Yeah. You know, one of the things that I keep thinking about and I’m glad that you mentioned that more historic piece where you know, you’re talking about how a lot of the roadways, highways in the US when they were being built, they split a lot of communities and it was often for communities communities of color, and it’s something that I know a lot of cities are looking to fix now. But one of the things that did was it really actually kind of wrecked what had initially been 15-minute cities Yes, in those areas. You know, it kind of the results have been food deserts, things like that, where you can no longer easily get to work, get to a grocery store. So it’s really unique, I think to pull that sort of a story in like you’re saying and kind of bring the past in the present. You talked about, you know, trying to fix issues post-George Floyd and so forth like that really does — to do include that sort of story in there and then to ask actually base it around food, that’s really unique, it seems. And then now something else, speaking of the 15-minute city, and this is something that I actually hadn’t heard about that you had brought to my attention, which you started to talk about here is that idea of sort of a playground city. So not everyone is going to work downtown anymore. A lot of folks are working from home or maybe other workspaces that are closer to home, maybe they’re not going to an office anymore. So how do you continue to develop a 15-minute city where maybe work is not always part of that commute anymore?

Rebecca Muchow 15:40
That’s a great question. And it’s very relevant. And I think there is overlap between sort of the concept of the playground city and 15-minute city in particular in that culture and leisure component. So how do you make this district a destination that folks want to come to out of curiosity? One of the results of the pandemic was, we didn’t go anywhere. We didn’t travel, we didn’t go to spaces of culture, including like museums, and theater and music, venues, etc. So the playground city is this idea of creating these interesting destinations that will draw people in, and I think the food concept, the food district idea for the Root District, it feels like it’s really great alignment for that, and I think can offer some really great creative ideas in this. This will be part of the entrepreneurial spirit, and how can you make a food district interesting beyond just kind of having a food and music concept? And how do you also lengthen the opportunity of when you can interact with whatever may be going on, right? So if a city is to kind of move more towards like a 24-hour city, and you’ve got what brings you there in the morning, versus what’s bringing you there in the middle of the day, versus what’s bringing you there kind of after typical work day, you know, that sort of 4 to 7pm, and then what’s happening later, so the playground city really would address all of those different timeframes, so that you’re able to pull people kind of in a continuous manner. It requires a lot of programming for sure, by people, not only in the city of Minneapolis, or whomever I’m going to call it like the neighborhood association, whether that’s through district or another group kind of comes out of this. It’s yet to be seen, of course, but I think it’s an interesting concept. I think it offers a lot of opportunity for stakeholders, neighborhood-adjacent organizations, organizations, and you know, the county that’s already invested and has property in the Root District kind of get together and do some interesting community engagement and ideation.

Sarah Steimer 17:55
It kind of adds that piece, of course, everyone thinks about the basics of you know, education, work, food, etc. But leisure time really is something that matters as well, and that cities have the opportunity to really develop for the people who live there. Really my my last question for you that kind of takes all of this together, everything that you told us together, you know, why does having a clear story help to propel a massive, ongoing project like this forward? Why Why does a clear story matter for something like this so that you can get people on board and challenge them, excite them? Whatever it may be?

Rebecca Muchow 18:36
Yes, it does a couple of things. I think the story really helps create the guidelines, the Northstar, the framework or whatever term you want to use, because there’s going to be people that are involved the entire time. And there’s going to people that come and go. So if you have a story that is that sort of continuous thread, to allow that flexibility of who’s engaged and no longer engaged, etcetera, it’ll end up being more successful. And we actually, we do this on, I get the Root District, it’s a large-scale thing, right. It’s huge. We do that story, even on our smaller projects at Cushing Terrell, because it helps the team rally around, what are we doing here, people? And how do we get to the finish line? So the story really helps us to do that. Additionally, it’ll help with the marketing and communication and getting people excited about the project. It’ll help with capital campaigns and any fundraising that’s necessary. It’s going to help policymakers rally around it. One of the ideas that we have is that some of the requirements or I’m going to call them actually more like guidelines that the working groups of the district team have been thinking about. We want development to stick to them, you know, and so how do you do that without policymakers? You really can’t, it’s just kind of an idea. So the story really helps them say, Oh, I get it. I will back this idea. It is exciting. It makes a lot of sense. since it’d be good for the community at large, it’s good for the environment. So the story is super important for a variety of reasons. But I would say it’s the heart, right. And that’s the only way to keep the blood pumping through the rest of the body.

Sarah Steimer 20:13
That’s a really good analogy, especially when you consider the variety of stakeholders. Yes, it’s not just a bunch of architects that you have to like, stick together, or no one group, one type. And it also, like you’re saying, this is this is something that you you want people to just generally be interested in. And of course, like, stories are something that almost anyone can understand. I personally haven’t been to Minneapolis in probably like 10 years. And something like this is, it’s an exciting reason to look forward to a future visit. So you know, it’s just, it’s a really cool thing to hear about. Is there anything else though, that you wanted to mention about the Root District, maybe some upcoming things that you’re excited about, or just sort of something that anyone else involved in a similar project, regardless of the scale, can maybe keep in mind a lesson that you’ve perhaps learned so far?

Rebecca Muchow 21:04
I think the main lesson that I’ve learned is being open minded. There’s lots of different voices that come to the table. Sometimes I think, oh, everybody’s in agreement. And then we have had some, like, townhall sessions, and somebody will say something I’m like, Oh, good point. Yeah, I didn’t think about that. As an example. You know, a lot of the conversation so far has been about new development. And then there’s people who own buildings are like, what about us? I’m like, Good point! What about you? And you know, what are the incentives for them to want to consider equitable redevelopment or energy efficiency of their existing structure and what policy benefits are there for them. So that was just one example. But I think the other lesson learned that I’ve had is, there are so many amazing and intelligent people out there. And it’s exciting to try to get those people together and talk things through and share and ideate. So be open minded about who those are, and keep your eyes and ears to the ground to find them and bring them in, because it’s definitely a team effort to try to get anything moving forward. And then to recognize that it takes a long time, I talked with the another architect who worked on something in an adjacent area. And he was like, I’ve been involved in that for about 10 to 15 years — I’m like, okay. So if you’re passionate, you know, it takes a little bit of energy to stay involved. And you got to give yourself some breaks here and there so that you don’t all burn out. But going back to that story, it’s usually reinvigorating and remembering why why you even started out on the path in the beginning, too.

Sarah Steimer 22:43
I like that, and also, you know, just kind of get comfortable, because it might be a longer ride than you’re used to, of course. Well, thank you, as always, for chatting with us, Rebecca, I really appreciate it. And I do look forward to how this project moves forward. And I, you know, hope to get up there to see everything sometime soon. I always like to, every time I think about Minneapolis and that one trip that I took up there, had one of my all-time favorite celebrity sightings, which was Usher on a Segway. And I’m always like, Oh, well, like I love how like, I think of Minneapolis is this very, like, it always ranks really high in people being outside and it’s very livable, and things like that. And then, you know, you see Usher out and about on a Segway it’s like, oh, well, then it must be true. It really does sound like the Root District is just such a great microcosm of that idea of being outside, being active, you know, staying local things like that. So it’s cool to see things like that just kind of pop up and think about this more modern 15-minute city because that’s ever evolving, like you talked about like that playground city. So that’s just that’s really exciting to hear about as well. But once again, thank you so much, Rebecca. I really appreciate your taking the time.

Rebecca Muchow 23:59
Yeah, thank you, Sarah. Great talking with you.

Producer 24:07
Music for Good, Thoughtful Hosts was written, produced and performed by Sam Clapp. Our moderator is Sarah Steimer. Editing by Travis Estvold and a special thanks to our content development team, Amanda Herzberg and Marni Moore. For more information about the podcast, visit Thanks for listening.

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