The revamped Nicollet Mall will have more trees and places to sit when it reopens next year. But it probably won’t have a popcorn wagon.
City officials have said the new design won’t include a spot for the old fashioned snack wagon — a fixture on the mall since 1970.
The Red Wagon’s owner, Essam Fawzy, said he has broken into tears during calls with the city trying to work out an arrangement.
“I said, ‘Where am I supposed to go?’ ” said Fawzy, who has been selling treats to people strolling the mall for more than a decade.
Nicollet Mall’s $50 million overhaul, funded largely by the state and downtown property assessments, is expected to be complete by late 2017. Crews are ripping up the street to make way for trees, outdoor seating and lanterns at the “Art Walk,” near where Fawzy’s wagon was usually located on 6th Street.
Unlike food trucks, which rumble in and out of downtown every morning, the popcorn wagon sat locked up and gated at night due to the difficulties of moving it — Fawzy said it is too heavy to be pushed by hand.
That’s part of the problem, said Don Elwood, the city’s director of transportation engineering and design.
“We wanted to redesign the mall with pedestrians as a priority and to make it as open [and] flexible as possible in the redesign,” Elwood said. “A popcorn wagon is a pretty permanent structure.”
He said the situation might be different if the wagon were more mobile. But Fawzy says he can’t find a place nearby to store it, and moving it out of downtown is very time-consuming.
The wagon also previously relied on an electrical hookup, which won’t be available on the new mall. And Downtown Council President Steve Cramer said his group, which is leading the project with the city, does not want to have generators out there.
“There’s a lot of ways to get at that activation, the lively street idea, and this just was not considered to be part of the plan,” Cramer said.
City Council Member Jacob Frey, who represents the area, said the city has to consider the precedent set by allowing one business to set up a structure on the mall. But he believes it is possible to strike a compromise if the wagon could relocate for major events.
“Pedestrians go with popcorn almost as well as artificial butter flavor,” Frey said.
The Red Wagon wasn’t on the mall this summer because of construction. It and two other wagons — including the original Nicollet Mall wagon — are sitting outside at a storage facility off Highway 280.
The popcorn wagon became something of a local landmark under the original proprietor, Charlotte Sunderlin, who died in 2000. Known as the “Popcorn Lady,” Sunderlin was such a fixture on the mall that her movements were regularly chronicled by Minneapolis Star and Star Tribune columnist Barbara Flanagan.
Fawzy says he recently paid more than $15,000 to have the primary wagon taken to Iowa to be refurbished.
Now 60 years old, Fawzy emigrated from Egypt in the 1970s and said he works various jobs to pay the bills, including overnight security at Target’s downtown headquarters. He said city staff have told him they will help try to find him a different spot for the popcorn wagon, but so far nothing has been settled. He hopes there might be a place for him outside Target Field or U.S. Bank Stadium.
“That would be a wonderful addition if we can do that,” Fawzy said.
In addition to popcorn, Fawzy sells ice cream bars, slushy ice drinks and nachos. Fawzy said Minnesota Twins owner Carl Pohlad, who died in 2009, was a regular customer, as was former Mayor R.T. Rybak.
Asked whether the new mall will feature other types of salespeople, Cramer wrote in an e-mail that “the focus for the new Mall is going to be on programming and activation” and noted that the Downtown Improvement District will hire someone next year to oversee that.
At least one City Council member had a suggestion for Fawzy.
“I love popcorn,” said Council Member Lisa Goodman on her way out of a recent council meeting. “I’d encourage him to move the popcorn stand closer to City Hall.”