Four months after Minneapolis officials promised to spend $2 million to clean up some of ugliest — and most hazardous — piles of rubble left from last spring's riots, the city has nothing to show for the effort.
At the corner of Chicago Avenue and E. Lake Street, several city blocks remain filled with scorched timbers and jagged metal. Similar scenes of devastation continue to blight other inner-city neighborhoods, including W. Broadway in north Minneapolis.
Merchants and property owners say their pleas for help have gone unanswered at city hall, even though their buildings are on the city's list of sites preapproved for demolition assistance. Some said they were threatened with hefty fines if they didn't clean up their sites promptly, even if quick action jeopardized their promised aid.
"They keep giving me the runaround," said Ade Alabi, who is facing $350,000 in charges to remove debris from his Lake Street shopping center that was destroyed in the riots. "They told me my address was on the list, so I was really happy. But we have waited and waited and nothing has happened."
Steve Poor, the city's director of development services, said he sympathizes with Alabi and other property owners who have been frustrated by their inability to obtain relief.
"We are trying to do the right thing," Poor said. "Is it perfect? No. … We don't have a good playbook for this."
In Minneapolis, which suffered the brunt of the heaviest rioting following the death of George Floyd in May, more than 150 properties sustained heavy damage or were destroyed by fire during several days of looting, according to city records.
Minneapolis officials agreed to pay for demolition work at 18 of those properties after a Star Tribune report revealed that prices for the work had skyrocketed after the riots. Some property owners were asked to pay $200,000 to $300,000 to tear down buildings worth little more than that before they were torched.
To make the city's list, Poor said, a property had to be considered a threat to public safety.
"The ones you usually worry about are those that are right up against the sidewalk," Poor said. "If they fall down, someone could really get hurt."
Property owners, however, didn't have to ask to be put on the list. In fact, some of those who qualified for help said they don't need it.
"Nobody reached out to me and said, 'Hey, do you want some free money?' " said Martin Harstad, owner of a property at Snelling and Lake that made the city's list. "But I had insurance to cover those kind of things."
Harstad said it cost about $20,000 to clear the lot, once the site of an Arby's. Harstad said Arby's is not going to rebuild its restaurant, citing concern about the potential for more rioting if the police officers charged in Floyd's death are acquitted. Harstad has yet to find another tenant for the site.
Two miles away, contractors are clearing three other sites that qualified for city help, including the former site of Express Payday Loans. Express executive Richard Barr said he looked into the city's offer but opted against it.
"They make it very difficult," Barr said. "There were so many hoops we had to jump through with the city."
Barr teamed up with two neighboring property owners to pay for clearing their sites near the old Kmart store near Nicollet Avenue. He said his share of the bill will come to about $75,000, or half of what contractors were asking when he first sought bids last fall and demand was higher.
"We were afraid the city would do something to change the zoning if we didn't move ahead now," said Barr, who hopes to eventually redevelop the site.
Poor agreed it is not easy for the preapproved property owners to obtain help. For starters, they must agree to let the city hire the contractor. So far, however, not one of six pending projects has made it through the city's procurement process. City officials must conduct multiple reviews to ensure bids are fair, that minority contractors were considered and that environmental considerations have been taken into account, Poor said.
"We have reached out to our folks in procurement to see if these can be processed a little faster," he said.
Once a job is completed, the city will pay the bill and property owners will be assessed the cost of the work on their property tax bill. Poor said owners can then ask the Minneapolis City Council to forgive the assessment on a "hardship" basis, which he predicted would not be a major hurdle since the council approved setting aside $2 million for the work last fall.
Some preapproved property owners, however, have already moved forward with hiring their own contractors, expecting the city would reimburse them for the work.
Fade Factory owner Ray James, who borrowed $40,000 from a relative to pay for wrecking the site of his former barber shop on W. Broadway, said he is short of funds to rebuild and needs the help. He said he was motivated to clear his lot after the city threatened to fine him if he didn't finish the job within three weeks. Continued violations could bring total fines of $5,000, though Poor said he has not yet assessed any cleanup penalties for these 18 riot-damaged properties.
"They were putting all kinds of pressure on me," James said. "I am stretched really thin now."
Alabi, whose shopping center site was cleared weeks ago, said the city also threatened to fine him if he didn't do the work immediately. He said paying the contractor will wipe out all of the money he has left from his insurance settlement. "I don't know if I can rebuild," said Alabi, who had to turn most of his insurance money over to his lender. "I have depleted everything I've got."
Ruhel Islam said he is forking out $80,000 to clear away the site of his destroyed restaurant, Gandhi Mahal. He said city officials have not offered to reimburse him any of those funds.
"Just make it easy for us," Islam said. "Don't make so much process. We are dealing with so many things in our lives right now."
Poor said he is not sure if any of those owners will receive assistance since they hired their own contractors. He said city officials are still ironing out those details.
"We can't just give people money," Poor said. "It's illegal."
Though the city operates other grant programs that hand out cash awards, those programs were approved by the City Council through a time-consuming process that would have delayed demolition work by several more months, Poor said.
"We are still working on the end solution to this," Poor said. "I wish it was smoother. I wish it was less confusing. ... But I have faith in our city leaders."
Other property owners said they hope the city expands the list, noting how little of the most serious damage qualifies for assistance. Poor said it's possible the city will allow more property owners to seek help if the $2 million fund is not used up by the 18 qualifying owners.
"We are absolutely going to do more with it — we have to," Poor said. "We just don't know how much of the $2 million will be left."
Jeffrey Meitrodt • 612-673-4132