For 42 years, the Kmart on Lake Street in south Minneapolis has served as more than a discount store. It’s given rise to its own ecosystem.
Food trucks sell tacos at the southwest corner of the store’s sprawling parking lot. Yellow school buses line up side by side at the center of the lot after their morning shifts. Day laborers gather by the Lake Street entrance, hoping for work installing roof tiles or pouring concrete.
Others have come there for an illicit trade in food stamps, among other contraband. Pigeons flock by the hundreds to peck at bird feed and perch on power lines, watching everyone else pass by.
That urban community will likely come to an end now that the city of Minneapolis and Kmart reached a tentative $9.1 million deal to buy out the company’s lease. Hoping to rectify what’s considered a planning blunder, the city aims to demolish the store, redevelop the 10 acres and reopen Nicollet Avenue for the first time in four decades.
Kmart will close up and clear its aisles by the end of June. On Friday morning, the people in the heavily Latino and immigrant community could only speculate as to what will replace it.
Most of them say it’s been a long time coming.
“By opening up the street, everything improves,” said Enrique Silvan, who works at City Coin Laundry behind the Kmart, where Nicollet Avenue comes to a halt. “The traffic clears up. There’s a potential for new establishments. A community develops.”
The Kmart was packed with customers when Silvan first moved nearby about 20 years ago. That has changed over time, and so have the surrounding blocks.
“The entire Hispanic community went there,” he said in Spanish. “But in the years since, there have been many changes in the community. New construction, new companies have come in and made it much better.”
To him, Kmart was always an obstacle. When Nicollet Avenue connects to Lake Street from the north, he hopes shops and potentially housing can spring up on both sides of the street, bringing new jobs and new visitors.
“When Kmart gives way, everything will change,” he said.
Next door, the owners of Pho Tau Bay, a Vietnamese restaurant at the tail end of what the city calls Eat Street, were also happy to learn the street would be extended. They opened in 1995 and have waited for Nicollet to open up for just as long, said Lina Lai, who owns the restaurant with her sister.
“We’ll be able to see to the other side of Lake Street,” Lai said before the lunch rush. “We were so excited and waiting for that day.”
Just days before the city’s announcement, the sisters had made arrangements to put the restaurant up for sale and retire, Lai said. Now they’re waiting to see what the new Nicollet has in store.
By opening the street, Lai said, everything will be “better, safer, happier.”
In front of the Kmart, a group of day laborers stood in the parking lot. Wearing beanies, hoodies and sunglasses, they paced back and forth, waiting for someone to drive up with a job offer.
They saw that Kmart would be closing on the news last night, a surprise considering they had just redone their storefront, one of them said.
They’re not too worried about what happens next for them, said Julian, a worker who would give only his first name. The laborers are well connected and know where to migrate for work. Besides, there are better locations to wait than the Kmart, such as Home Depot, he said.
“I guess we’ll just have to stand somewhere else,” he said in Spanish.
Once the Kmart closes, the city will seek contracts to demolish it and plan what will happen to the property. It could be a year or more before Nicollet Avenue reopens, public works officials said.
Brad Bourn, Minneapolis Park Board commissioner and executive director of the Lyndale Neighborhood Association, was there for the rise and fall of the Lake Street Kmart. Born one year after it opened, he was raised on Stevens Avenue blocks away from the store. He would go with his parents to shop and ride the little carousel out front.
“It’s an interesting equalizer in the neighborhood,” Bourn said. “Everybody is the same when they stop at the Lake Street Kmart.”
The store is a “cornerstone” of the neighborhood, he said. While he is excited Nicollet will open once again, he was worried there wouldn’t be another place as affordable and “dignified” to shop in this cross-section of Minneapolis.
“They played a real anti-gentrifying force,” he said. “I’m really nervous that some folks will be left behind.”