When Robbinsdale City Manager Marcia Glick takes her lunch break, she often walks from City Hall to a formerly sleepy stretch of W. Broadway Avenue that has, in recent years, transformed into a humming foodie destination that's drawing visitors from across the metro.
The dining choices in downtown Robbinsdale run the gamut from Costa Rican fare to barbecue, Italian, Greek, Mexican and craft pizza. The eateries, many locally owned, include as neighbors a bakery, hardware store and 120-year-old meat market — all with a view of the Minneapolis skyline.
All those new restaurants and businesses, along with efforts to rejuvenate the area with murals and places to gather, have worked to enliven the perception of Robbinsdale, Mayor Regan Murphy said.
"The ground was always fertile in our downtown," he said. "But the last several years have been a kind of constant changing."
It started with the popular Wuollet Bakery in 2007, then continued with Travail in 2010, which brought fine dining to downtown Robbinsdale. Travail's owners opened Pig Ate My Pizza across the street in 2013, and moved it this spring to a renovated space at Travail's original location. A highly anticipated third iteration of Travail will open its doors on W. Broadway in early 2020.
A Costa Rican restaurant called Marna's Eatery and Lounge opened last year and just expanded its dining space and bar. Smokin' Flame Saloon, a barbecue joint, opened on the same downtown stretch this summer. Come spring, the owners of the Bulldog restaurants in Minneapolis will launch The Birdhouse near the downtown plaza, serving American comfort food in a renovated space.
"We are excited to get in on the ground floor of what's becoming the next good food scene," said Josh Dykhuis, one of the owners.
In the words of Mike Brown, one of the owners of the Travail Collective, Robbinsdale's Broadway corridor "is really becoming a little 'Eat Street.' "
Murphy said the initial changes downtown came organically with Wuollet and Travail, following decades of investments in the area that included streetscape improvements.
"But what's really helped shape our downtown in a short period of time is the size of our city," Murphy said. "Because we're smaller, we can be more nimble and flexible when it comes to helping new businesses."
Examples include tax-increment financing for new buildings, or variances and ordinances for outdoor seating, he said. In order to attract a brewery, city leaders created an ordinance allowing taprooms in the city; Wicked Wort Brewing Company moved in not long after.
Downtown's redevelopment makes up one of what Murphy calls the "bookends" of W. Broadway/France Avenue, with the city's new Hy-Vee (on the site of the former Terrace Theater and Rainbow Foods store) at the other end. Now city officials are looking to revive the space in between, he said.
The city of about 14,500 on the northwest edge of Minneapolis has often been associated with North Side crime, as victims are likely to be transported to the city's North Memorial Medical Center. By the 1970s, Robbinsdale was nearly 100% developed. "When I was growing up, no one sought out Robbinsdale," Murphy said.
Now many of the places built 40 to 50 years ago "are losing their functional life and are ready for redevelopment," Glick said.
That's already happening. The former site of a small office building is now home to an almost-completed 152-unit apartment building, Bird Town Flats, that will be the city's first modern apartment complex not limited to seniors, Glick said. The old American Legion Post 251 will be razed and replaced with a 198-unit luxury apartment building set to open in 2021.
City officials hope the apartments will attract both new residents and current ones who are looking to downsize. That could free up the single-family starter homes that long have been a large part of the city's appeal.
Before finding the site that became Travail's first home — chosen mostly because it was affordable — Brown said he didn't know where Robbinsdale was. But he liked the quaint downtown, which reminded him of his hometown of Savage, he said. Easy parking and the ability to walk to City Hall to see the city inspector are the kinds of perks that have anchored Travail in the city, he said.
"The city is very supportive of its businesses," he said. "Here you are literally connected to other business owners and [city leaders.] ... We don't want to give that up."
Robbinsdale celebrated its 125th year in 2018, and elements of its small-town vibe remain. People go to Hackenmueller's for their sausage before walking across the street for a tool at Ace Hardware. Those behind the bakery counter know customers (and their dogs) by name.
Other suburban leaders often ask Murphy how Robbinsdale managed to foster such a tight-knit community feel.
"We didn't," he said. "That's the beauty of it — it was this organic explosion of city pride, which you just can't manufacture."
For those who grew up in Robbinsdale like Murphy did, it's not so much the appeal of the city that has changed, he said. It's just the fact that others have caught onto it.
"It was hard to explain what it was about this place," he said. "Now we have people choosing it who are helping tell that story of what we all love about Robbinsdale."