Minneapolis has twice stopped a bustling East African mall in south Minneapolis from expanding in recent years. Then the porch appeared.
A wooden structure atop cinder blocks jutting out from the Village Market mall went up in recent weeks without notice — or permits — and a former parking lot next to it now features a Bobcat and mounds of construction debris. The sudden addition was a shock to neighbors who have long complained of parking, trash and crime problems around the mall at 24th Street and 10th Avenue S. The construction has prompted renewed calls for the city to rein in the mall’s owners.
“I was dumbfounded,” said Lawrence Benson, who lives a block away. “Because the last I heard there was no expansion approved.”
The mall’s manager and part-owner, Omar Sabri, did not return several messages seeking comment.
It wasn’t the porch in particular that irked Katherine Blauvelt, but its appearance while other neighborhood concerns remain unaddressed.
“The mall is an important part of the community,” she said, “but what we have been facing is sort of a lack of partnership to deal with some livability issues around the level of traffic and now crime that have grown up around the mall as it has grown as a destination.”
The construction has turned into a tug-of-war at City Hall. After learning about the new structure in mid-August, the city ordered the mall’s owners to halt work. Inspectors returned several times to find work had continued, ultimately resulting in $3,600 in citations and re-inspection fees. Any expansion of the property must be reviewed by the city’s Planning Commission, due to its zoning, and the city is now mulling whether the new structure needs to come down before owners can pursue a permit.
“There was a sense from residents that the owner feels like paying a fee is like a small price to continue to do his expansion without having to deal with the whole Planning Commission scenario,” said City Council Member Alondra Cano, who represents the area just south of the mall.
The Village Market mall is home to more than 100 entrepreneurs selling clothes, food, furniture, phones, books and various services, as well as a mosque. But with a steady stream of customers, parking and traffic in the neighborhood have been a perennial concern.
“I’ve always contended that if [the owner] wants to treat the neighborhood as his parking lot, then he has to maintain his parking lot,” said Ryan Billig, who lives down the street, adding that he would like the city to enforce traffic management plans and for the mall to hire an off-duty police officer.
Village Market was bustling with customers as the workday came to an end one recent evening, filled with people shopping, socializing and grabbing a meal.
“It’s very important to the people that live around here that don’t have transportation,” said Dahir Ahmed, standing amid the crowds.
But for those that do drive, Ahmed said the installation of pay parking lots has alleviated many problems.
“They didn’t used to have that. People used to park anywhere that they wanted to, and people used to get a lot of tickets and [get] towed,” Ahmed said.
Cano said she wants to solve the neighborhood’s problems to benefit the mall’s businesses.
“I want this to be a community where anyone and everyone feels like they can come and shop here,” Cano said.
Basim Sabri, who owns several similar malls nearby and is the uncle of Omar Sabri, said the city is overreacting about the porch.
“This is not a structure to lease, or a structure to hold an event in or a strip bar. It’s an awning for God’s sake,” Sabri said.
The mall first tried to expand in 2014 but was shut down due to the city’s concerns over neighborhood livability problems and traffic congestion. They returned to the city with a similar application in 2015 but were rejected again.