Mary Lau wasn’t sure what she would keep and what she would throw away. Sporting a baseball cap and mask late last week, Lau helped direct workers as they carried out what remained in her closed Peking Garden restaurant.
For about 15 years, Lau has served authentic Chinese dishes out of a corner of the Midway Shopping Center in St. Paul, but she and other tenants are being forced to move out after the buildings were damaged by looting and fire following the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd and the landlord’s subsequent termination of their leases.
It is an abrupt end for the Midway Shopping Center, which for more than 60 years has served customers at the busy intersection of University and Snelling avenues.
The strip mall was already on its way out, part of a plan to redevelop the land into a mixed-use district following the opening of Allianz Field.
Still, for the diverse array of tenants and neighborhood advocates, the Midway Shopping Center’s demise marks the end of an era for a retail destination that has been a community linchpin.
“It was perfect for us,” Lau said, about her restaurant space. “It is so sad to see it disappear.”
Fences and a dumpster blocked the main entrance of the former Peking Garden on Thursday. A table covered with ruined chair covers and sashes sat outside of its boarded-up windows as tubs of wrapped plates and cups were piled up waiting for a destination. Workers had to toil in the dark since the power to the building had been shut off.
When the spread of the coronavirus forced restaurants to shut their doors to diners in the spring, Peking Garden continued to stay open for takeout. Lau had big plans to fully reopen, but Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis Police ignited protests and riots throughout the Twin Cities that left hundreds of businesses damaged.
Peking Garden sustained smoke damage, but Lau said she thought she would make repairs. Late last month, the strip mall’s New York-based property owner, RD Management LLC, informed tenants their leases were being terminated and they would have to be out of their spaces by mid-July. Some business owners said they have been granted extensions.
Thien Do, owner of Thien’s Cajun Boiling Seafood, had been attracted to open his restaurant at the Midway Shopping Center in 2018 because of the diversity of the area and the central location. He emigrated four years ago from Vietnam to further pursue his passion for food.
“It was always my dream to come to the United States and open a seafood restaurant,” Do said.
His small restaurant had suffered minor smoke damage. On Monday, he was back at his cleaned-out restaurant and tying up loose ends. Do said he is in search of a new site.
“It’s so all of a sudden,” he said. “We don’t know where to go.”
The Midway Shopping Center has been a melting pot of businesses since it was built at the site of old streetcar barns. The $6 million shopping center was advertised as a “complete one stop retail center” with “everything you need or want.”
The 40-store center even had a map depicting its strategic location between Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Stores that called the strip mall home then included G.C. Murphy Co., Walgreen drugstore, the Piggly Wiggly supermarket (Klein Super Markets) and F.W. Woolworth Co.
While large chains such as Foot Locker and Family Dollar have more recently occupied prominent spots at the center, a more diverse set of small-business owners such as Do and Lau also moved in over the years, a reflection of the continued growth of minority-owned businesses along University Avenue.
The Applebaum family has been a staple of the Midway Shopping Center for decades. The family ran its Big Top Liquors flagship at the strip mall for more than 40 years. Twin Cities grocer and family patriarch Sid Applebaum founded Rainbow Foods and operated one of the grocery stores at the center.
“We are committed to this corner,” said Nancy Rosenberg, one of Applebaum’s daughters who is co-owner of Big Top. “This is the corner where we built our business.”
A couple of years ago, Big Top moved from its longstanding location to the former Perkins restaurant to make way for Allianz Field. During the riots, Big Top was heavily damaged by fire, and the family is now looking at options including finding a new location.
“It was a very sad way to end this era,” Rosenberg said.
The Snelling and University intersection, one of the busiest in the metro area, sees about 59,000 vehicles and is close to a Green Line light-rail stop.
“It’s done so much for the business community,” said Chad Kulas, executive director of the Midway Chamber of Commerce, about the shopping center. “It’s done so much for residents.”
Kulas reflected on shopping at the center for groceries and attending events at the Midpointe Event Center on the backside of the mall.
“This is more than a shopping center,” said City Council Member Dai Thao, who has been in contact with some of the tenants. “This is a destination.”
While Thao said the timing for tenants who have to move out is “unfortunate,” he said the new plan for the space is a big opportunity for the city.
Parts of the shopping center, including the Rainbow Foods and Midway Pro Bowl, were demolished in 2017 to make room for Allianz Field.
The future vision for the shopping-center site and land around the soccer stadium includes a massive mixed-use development with office, retail, residences, entertainment, hotel and green space. In the fall, a groundbreaking is scheduled for retail space and two apartment towers.
Despite the circumstances, departing tenants of the Midway Shopping Center said they would remain positive.
“I think life will still go on,” Lau said, adding she does not know where she will reopen. “I’m sure when we go, we’ll come back stronger.”