Spotlight on Success

Jamil Ford lives and works in North Minneapolis. His relationship goes far beyond that though; he believes that his business, Mobilize Design Architecture, is an important part of creating a prosperous, dynamic and safe community there. His passion is to design beautiful and accessible buildings and housing at busy, blighted or crime-ridden intersections to spur economic development. Prosperity, security and pride, he believes, will follow.

Ford is one of those rare guys who had his path mapped out in the 8th grade. He was the kid who was corralling friends to haul logs, lumber and railroad ties to build the clubhouse he designed. He would see cranes building skyscrapers downtown, and he’d start sketching. Fortunately, North High School offered a four-year Architecture and Engineering program focused on residential drafting, designing & building a solar boat. “My parents pushed me to have big dreams and I knew architecture was it,” he said. His first completed formal project was a solar boat that was entered into a statewide tournament, and he was hooked.

Two of the more high-profile projects Mobilize has recently taken on designing an airy and artistic Hennepin County Human Services hub on Plymouth Avenue, and the Commons at Penn Avenue, at the corner of Penn and Golden Valley Road. This project is taking a blighted corner known for crime and vagrancy and turning it into commercial space topped with a 45-unit affordable apartment project. It was another man dreaming of a stronger North Minneapolis who pushed that project: former pro basketball player and Ford’s childhood friend, Devean George. Construction will begin later this summer.

Recognizing the early modeling and apprenticeship programs he was involved with that shaped the kind of man and architect he is today, Ford pays it forward. The Mobilize office is located on West Broadway in a building recognizable by its funky mural façade and tenants who are creative and community-focused. One neighbor is Juxtaposition Arts, a nonprofit that pairs driven, talented youth with professionals to learn such skills as production, marketing skills and architectural design. Ford and his partner David Witt are mentors to Juxtaposition’s young aspiring architects/designers. They have an open door policy and have even allowed these students to design features on some of their projects.

Ford’s first connection with NDC came in 2010 via NEON, Northside Economic and Opportunity Network that helped them get off the ground. NEON Executive Director Grover Jones provided support and made connections with potential clients, but also kept pushing Ford forward, encouraging him to make a difference in his hometown.

Ford took NDC’s Plan It! Entrepreneur Training program in 2012 through NEON, where he graduated with a business plan and greater marketing skills. One takeaway Ford got from that class was the value of building community and of creating future jobs through Mobilize. NDC was also able to provide Ford with a loan when it was needed most. He used it to cover the cost of computers and insurance. And true to form, Ford wants to help NDC. He’s offered his services to consult with entrepreneurs to decipher zoning and city codes or façade projects.

“The name Mobilize comes from the idea of mobilizing people through architecture and design… mobilize a community that’s been set back for many years. If we can begin to transition North Minneapolis, the city of Minneapolis as a whole will be a much better place, Ford said. “We want to drive that.”

Ford recognizes that fine architecture alone won’t ignite the needed changes in North Minneapolis, but it can be the agent that inspires energy and commitment in its residents: “Buildings don’t change communities, people change communities; MDA is a part of the change that our community needs; our presence, our commitment & our passion is here for the long haul.”

Transportation, 'revitalization' and safety on the table at 'Bringing Broadway Back' forum

Jamil Ford asked for a show of hands, and determined that well over 50 percent of those in the room do not live in North Minneapolis. He remembers growing up being able to get on the bus with no fears, and a local bike shop owned by a black resident. We need to “inspire our youth to be entrepreneurs. If we don’t get this right today, outsiders will define for us.” He urged “turn North Minneapolis into the front yard, not the back yard,” of the city.

Ford urged people to play by the rules and guidelines set out by WBC and the West Broadway Alive plan, and alluded to “Spike Lee on gentrification (after he moved to the East Side). When whites redefine communities,” they make them to what they understand. “We should have defined areas, like Eat Street, for cultural tourism.”

Good play by Devean George

Devean George, son of north Minneapolis and real estate developer who’s about to break ground on an $11 million-plus residential-retail complex at Penn Avenue N. and Golden Valley Road, has been quietly spreading a bit of his celebrity and a lot of his time with North Side partners.

The Augsburg College graduate, who retired from the NBA in 2011, has spent several years putting together his first big North Side project and uses his North Side-based nonprofit, Building Blocks, in partnership with existing agencies that encourage family self-sufficiency, school success, job training and employment.  

Last weekend George spoke at the annual fundraiser for the City of Lakes Community Land Trust, another North Side nonprofit that works with the city and financial institutions to help working-class families buy refurbished city housing lost to foreclosure. George talked about the “continuum of housing” and how he expects to see some families at his rental units, where they also will benefit from several on-site nonprofits, get their finances together, upgrade employment and move into neighborhood houses, said Jeff Washburne, executive director of the land trust (

Washburne, who has helped nearly 200 families buy quality housing over the last decade, expects to do up to 40 transactions this year. The average purchasing family of three earns about $33,000, about half the Twin Cities average household income. Owners are disproportionately minorities and immigrants. And there have been only seven foreclosures over the years. Prospective owners go through a rigorous homeownership training program. And the CLCLT foreclosure rate is less than Minneapolis’ as a whole.

Two other multifamily projects are under construction or planned within several blocks of George’s Commons at Penn Avenue,according to the city planning agency.

Meanwhile, business is picking up for North Side architects Jamil Ford and David Witt, whose Mobilize Design & Architecture ( is the designer for Commons, as well as the under-construction Hennepin County service center on Plymouth Avenue and several other planned projects.

MDA project approved by MHFA

The Commons at Penn Ave - North

  • 45 new construction affordable units
  • 1 BR, 2 BR, 3 BR for income less than approximately $41,150
  • Foreclosure remediation
  • Mixed use: First floor commercial space separately financed
  • Workforce housing

Sponsored by Building Blocks Non Profit, Inc. 

Award Amount: 

  • $1,249,975 by Minnesota Housing
  • $350,00* by Family Housing Fund

*Funding subject to approval by partner organization boards.

Total Development Cost: $10,238,749