News that the last Kmart in the Twin Cities will close June 30 would ordinarily prompt a shrug of shoulders at City Hall rather than the congratulatory clinking of coffee mugs. But after buying out the store’s lease for $9.1 million, Minneapolis officials are celebrating their perseverance in finally correcting an urban design blunder that has dogged the city for more than four decades.
In 1977, desperate to lift a sagging Midtown neighborhood, the city closed off one of its main north-south thoroughfares, Nicollet Avenue, to make way for a suburban-style discount store/grocery development on Lake Street. While the Kmart proved popular with hard-pressed neighbors and became one of the fading chain’s top performers, it also formed a clot in the city’s circulatory system.
“Cities thrive on connections,” said David Frank, Minneapolis’ director of community planning and economic development. “Reopening this street is something people have wanted for a very long time.”
Indeed, to drive east along Lake Street, past the vibrant Hennepin and Lyndale intersections and then through the improving Chicago and Hiawatha segments is to understand how the Nicollet sector has been skipped over. But maybe not for much longer.
Reopening Nicollet is one of several transportation improvements set to showcase the district’s development potential: A full interchange at Interstate Hwy. 35W, along with an Orange Line BRT station, both under construction two blocks away; the Midtown Greenway running adjacent to the site, and the long-awaited Nicollet Avenue-Central Avenue streetcar line (if it’s ever built) bisecting the property.
The city’s 2040 Plan foresees a reopened Nicollet-Lake as a “regional destination” that emphasizes transit and includes buildings of up to 15 stories. With neighborhood groups and the City Council likely to resist “gentrification,” no one anticipates Whole Foods, lululemon or luxury apartments, but rather a set of mixed-use blocks that fit the needs of neighbors while providing the tree-lined streets that the vast, barren Kmart parking lot has denied them all these years.
Fixing “one of the worst planning decisions in our history” (Mayor Jacob Frey’s words) has been costly. Altogether, Minneapolis has spent more than $22 million to reclaim the site and buy out the lease, which ran through 2053. It will spend more to relocate the street and prepare the 10-acre parcel for redevelopment.
This page is confident, however, that the investment will pay off in the coming years. Four decades ago, our editorial ancestors offered a split opinion on closing off Nicollet: The Tribune for, the Star against. An open Nicollet Avenue was right then — and it’s right now.