Chicago Avenue: From Main Street to mean street

For businesses on the stretch of Chicago Avenue between downtown Minneapolis and Lake Street, a reconstruction project means hard times and little city help.


Don Belawski and his family car lot in Minneapolis survived the arrival of Interstate 94, but he isn’t sure it will last while Chicago Avenue is rebuilt, cutting off access.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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For nearly 40 years, the Belawski family has fixed and hawked used cars at 1619 Chicago Av. S. in Minneapolis. Then, in May, Chicago Avenue disappeared, and with it, two-thirds of the income at the Belawskis' business.

The city of Minneapolis scraped the street down to dirt as part of a total reconstruction from 28th to 8th Streets. At the same time, the Minnesota Department of Transportation demolished the bridge where the street crosses Interstates 94 and 35W. These days, doing business on Chicago Avenue means plotting your journey through cross streets and alleys and around traffic cones.

"How can they shut you down and you still have to pay taxes?" asked Don Belawski, who along with his brother owns Alex Used Cars, named after their father.

Before construction started, government agencies and neighborhood groups held meetings and sent letters to warn about the upcoming disruption. But local businesses, many of them low-margin and immigrant-owned, have quickly learned that when the jackhammers start and the barriers go up, they're largely on their own.

Groans from business owners are a common noise whenever the big yellow machines take over commercial thoroughfares. The number of businesses affected by the five-month Chicago Avenue project is dwarfed by such mega projects as the three-year reconstruction of Lake Street in Minneapolis and the upcoming Central Corridor light-rail construction.

Still, the troubles are the same. For all the community meetings, letters and phone calls, merchants only comprehend the effect of a total closure when it happens.

"What we underestimated was how the Chicago Avenue reconstruction really cut off almost all access between east and west," said David Fields of the nonprofit Elliot Park Neighborhood Inc. "It's even difficult for pedestrians ... I had no idea it was going to be that kind of an impact."

With its street closed, east-west access restricted, the bridge out to the south and the busy Route 5 bus detoured, this no-frills commercial strip has withered. Convenience store owner Ibrahim Mohamoud said his business is down two-thirds. Abdul Jama, who runs a home health care company, said his contractors quit and went to work somewhere else because they can't park nearby.

Last year, Gurey Mohamed got the required city permits to open an African restaurant and coffee shop on Chicago Avenue. No one at the time told him that he would soon lose the street in front. Mohamed said the $150,000 invested in Twin Cities Coffee seemed to be paying off. Then Chicago Avenue closed. He said his revenue dropped 80 percent. Less than two weeks later, he shut the place down. Four people lost jobs.

Will he try to open a new restaurant? "Never in my life," he said.

Jeff Handeland, the city's project engineer, said that two weeks after construction began, complaints from business owners prompted the city to put up signs directing customers to them. He acknowledged the financial pain it causes and said the city can help arrange low-interest loans for affected businesses.

As frustrated as he is, Belawski insists he's not angry. He just wonders whether Alex Used Cars will make it. The business started as a service station closer to downtown. In the early 1960s, it moved to its present location. The business survived the construction of I-94 in the mid-1960s and adapted to the neighborhood's changes.

These days, he said, plenty of customers are people who step off the No. 5 bus and decide they want to drive home. The disruption from the street project has forced the Belawskis to put an emergency $10,000 into the business to keep it solvent. He projects revenue of $300,000 this year, down from a typical year of $800,000. Belawski said the city is assessing him about $15,000 for the Chicago Avenue project.

Foundations and government agencies have spent plenty of money to counsel business owners about surviving construction projects. "I've had funders say to me, we wonder whether it wouldn't be better off writing a check to every business owner," said Joyce Wisdom of the Lake Street Council, a business booster group.

That's what Belawski and others on Chicago Avenue would like to see. But no one thinks that will happen.

When the $10 million project reaches completion, which is scheduled for October, the renewed street will be tree-lined, pedestrian friendly and -- with traffic lights removed from three intersections -- a faster ride. Property owners will benefit from those changes, the city says.

"We know it's going to be a good deal," Belawski said about the new Chicago Avenue. "How can you benefit if you're done?"

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