It took Coca-Cola three months in 1985 to figure out that New Coke was a bust and that the classic version should return. It took Michael Jordan a whole year (1994) to discover that baseball really wasn’t his game. It took Minneapolis 38 years to recognize its blunder at Nicollet-Lake and finally to set in motion a plan to reopen Nicollet Avenue, restore the neighborhood’s urban form and give the district a chance to join the city’s revival.
Last week, the City Council approved a redevelopment plan authorizing the purchase of nine parcels at the intersection of Lake Street and Nicollet Av. S. from willing sellers, including the infamous Kmart site. No cost estimates or funding sources were included. But the council took a welcome step forward, with the hard part still ahead.
The best outcome would produce a reopened street surrounded by a cluster of new housing and retail stores — including a new urban-style Kmart — all integrated into a walkable streetscape with connections to the Midtown Greenway, to a new bus-rapid-transit station on Hwy. 35W and to two new streetcar lines, one heading up Eat Street to downtown, the other heading east-west along the greenway.
That’s the long-range vision. If it happens, Nicollet-Lake, now an open stretch of parking lots and dated, suburban-style buildings, can finally join the parade of redevelopment that’s transforming a broad, 6-mile stretch of Midtown Minneapolis from a future light-rail station near Lake Calhoun on the west to the Lake Street/Midtown station on the east.
None of that can happen, however, unless the Kmart dilemma is solved. Back in the 1970s, the city foolishly demolished several blocks in the district without guarantees that new development would appear. Indeed, nothing appeared. By 1976, the city was so desperate that it agreed to close off Nicollet Avenue in exchange for a suburban-style Kmart with a massive 500-car parking lot. Also part of the deal was a sweetheart lease that runs through 2053.
Deconstructing all of that won’t be easy. Only recently has the city begun talking to New York investor Lawrence Kadish, who owns the Kmart land, and only recently has it renewed conversations with the discount retailer itself. Kmart executives say the company is eager to join with the city in a partnership to reopen the street and build an urban-style store. But it wants city officials to stop referring to the current site as “blighted” and to stop casting doubt on the store’s future.
“Putting a cloud” over the store hurts business and employee morale, said Max Bulbin, director of real estate development and leasing for Sears Holdings Corp., which operates Kmart. Bulbin pointed out that Kmart stepped forward in the 1970s when no other retailer would and that it has provided a “low-cost option” for neighbors ever since.
The company also wants a specific proposal from the city, including a phasing plan that would construct a new store on the east portion of the parking lot while the current store continues to operate. Negotiating a lease that fits the current market is another potential roadblock.
In the end, satisfying Kmart might be expensive for the city, but the retailer should also recognize that its image would be severely damaged if it stands in the way of neighborhood renewal and related transit projects. It’s in the best interest of Kmart and the eight adjoining properties to strike reasonable deals with the city. Just because Nicollet-Lake isn’t as affluent as some of its neighboring districts doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t share in the city’s wider revival.