Minneapolis’ dreams of unraveling what many cite as the biggest planning blunder in recent city history, the closure of Nicollet Avenue at Lake Street, grew nearer with initial approval of a plan to redevelop the area.
The south Minneapolis intersection is home to a Kmart, a grocery store and parking lots that replaced a dense commercial corridor as part of a 1970s renewal effort. A City Council committee signed off on a plan Tuesday that, if approved by the full council next week, will allow the city to buy properties from willing sellers. Several private stakeholders must agree to a deal to make it a reality, however.
Area neighborhoods have long hoped to literally blow through Kmart’s concrete wall — which features a mural protesting the street’s closure. The massive structure is plopped amid one of the city’s most important corridors, abruptly halting Nicollet’s vibrant ethnic food district and bewildering motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians who must detour around the complex.
The redevelopment plan proposes peppering the area with dense, mixed-use housing and retail developments.
Nicollet and Lake is becoming increasingly important as a potential transit hub. Separate plans envision streetcars along Nicollet Avenue and the Greenway, better bus service on Lake Street and a major bus rapid transit station at Lake Street and Interstate 35W.
“As you’re walking down Nicollet, it just sort of empties out into a sea of vacant lots and surface parking,” said Council Member Lisa Bender, who now represents the area. “And I think we need a vision for a new urban community that really knits together Whittier and Lyndale and the surrounding areas.”
But Tuesday’s action still leaves most of the cards in the hands of Kmart, which has a lease that doesn’t expire until 2053. Kmart executives say they support goals to redevelop the area and open Nicollet Avenue but would like to be included in the new layout. They added Tuesday that public statements about the project are hurting their business.
“Already our customers are wondering for how long they can continue to shop at our Lake Street store,” Kmart District Manager Tom Manke told the committee. “Our employees are concerned whether their jobs are secure. Despite this concern, Kmart stands fully committed to remain in Minneapolis to serve the needs of the community.”
The city was careful to note that eminent domain — taking properties by force — is not yet being considered and would require separate action from the council.
David Frank, Minneapolis’ director of transit-oriented development, said that Kmart has a long-term lease, “so at the moment, based on the authority we have now, if they don’t like the proposal and they don’t like the plan, they stay in their store the way it is and we can’t have our street.”
Kmart is already bulking up its protection. The company has hired lobbyist Jackie Cherryhomes, a former council president; local political strategist Darin Broton, and attorney Martin Fallon — all of whom were at Tuesday’s meeting.
Fitting Kmart into a new, more urban configuration on the site would be a new model for the company, whose 1,152 stores nationwide largely adhere to a more sprawling, suburban style. Other major retailers, such as Minneapolis-based Target, have started to experiment with compact urban-style stores.
“It’s just a new model that a lot of retailers are working toward,” Max Bulbin, Kmart’s director of real estate development and leasing, said in an interview Tuesday. “Being in a more urban, dense setting and fitting into a mixed-use development and just generally people moving toward a different model because there’s a lot more urban infill and a lot more urban development.”
The redevelopment plan includes nine properties that may be acquired by the city, which tax records show are owned by five landholders. The city has been in talks with the owners, including those who control the key parcels beneath the Kmart and the grocery store. Lawrence Kadish, a New York investor who owns the Kmart land, did not return a call seeking comment.
The grocery store next to Kmart is leased from a Wisconsin landholder by Edina-based Jerry’s Foods. The company said in a statement that it is committed to maintaining a grocery store in the neighborhood. “We intend to work with the city of Minneapolis and other interested parties on this redevelopment plan, with the goal of finding the best opportunity to provide a grocery store for this important neighborhood in the future,” the statement said.
Hope remains high among surrounding neighborhoods. Mark Hinds, executive director of the Lyndale Neighborhood Association, said property owners have been unsure whether to invest in their property because of confusion about the future of the site.
“It’s not about Kmart. It’s not about Kmart being there,” Hinds said. “It is about reopening our main street.”