Sitting on a makeshift "healing stage" where the popular Gandhi Mahal restaurant once stood, owner Ruhel Islam and his partners unveiled a plan to not only rebuild his space but turn it into a place to help rebuild a broken community.
Along with Pangea World Theater, Islam unveiled plans for the Center for Peace and Social Justice, a 14,000-square-foot development that would include the Indian restaurant, a 200-seat theater, co-working and incubation space for businesses owned by people of color, a food reserve bank and public plaza.
"This is ground zero for social change," Islam said, whose restaurant was among businesses burned to the ground in the stretch of Lake Street hit hardest during riots following the police killing of George Floyd in 2020.
The organizers hope it will be a hub for art, culture, climate action, education, social justice and community, they said.
"This intersection between art and business and community is the breath of Lake Street," said Dipankar Mukherjee, who is Pangea's co-artistic director with Meena Natarajan.
The Lake Street Council has provided a $50,000 predevelopment grant to help launch the project, said Allison Sharkey, executive director. The money helps Gandhi Mahal and Pangea hire architects, do environmental testing and other actions while raising money for the center.
The Gandhi Mahal land is now a community garden. Islam, who wrote on a viral social media post in the riot aftermath to let his building burn and that justice needed to be served, said the center's buildings would carry on the environmental mission as well.
They would be fully sustainable and regenerative, with a greenhouse and solar panels on the roof, aquaponics in the basement, bee hives to produce honey and a thermal compost system that would generate new soil, Islam and his partner in the restaurant, Riz Prakasim, said.
The land for the joint development includes an empty lot next to Gandhi Mahal. The lot was previously owned by Native American nonprofit Migizi, whose building also burned to the ground during the riots.
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, which sits behind the two lots, bought the Migizi land to keep it locally owned, said Ingrid Rasmussen, the church's pastor. The Lake Street Council supported the acquisition with a forgivable loan, Sharkey said.
"There was a real risk that this land would become a parking lot, or just be sold to the highest bidder, so it's really this beautiful thing that's come together," Sharkey said.
The church is acting as a temporary land bank and will donate the land for the development of the proposed building, Rasmussen said.
Holy Trinity has been at its location along Lake Street for 117 years, Rasmussen said. Donating the land for a cause like the Center for Peace and Social Justice aligns with the church's mission, she said.
"This feels like one of those opportunities for us to act in a way that attends to the moral harm we're all caught up in," Rasmussen said.
For years, Pangea World Theater, a multicultural theater production group, used the community room at Gandhi Mahal for its events. Prior to the pandemic and Floyd's murder, Islam offered Pangea its own space inside a new area he was planning to build at his restaurant.
After the unrest, Islam reached out again and proposed building a center together. The new proposed theater would have room for around 200 people.
"Initially, we were just having conversations about what does it mean to build back," said Natarajan, also executive director at Pangea. "How can we bring back businesses and not gentrify at the same time."
Pangea has been leasing or renting space over its 25-year history. Mukherjee and Natarajan said it's time the theater owns its building.
"I feel like this partnership allows both of us to do that," Natarajan said.
The one-mile corridor along Lake Street that includes the land was the area most impacted by the unrest. The Lake Street Council estimates it will cost $250 million to restore it.
Since the riots, the council has received more than $12 million in donations from the public. The money has been used for grants for rebuilding, with more than $8 million distributed so far to support more than 500 small businesses along Lake Street. The money also has gone toward a dozen redevelopment projects through acquisition and predevelopment grants.
"It's really going to come down to government agencies and corporate philanthropic partners to match what entrepreneurs are going to be investing," Sharkey said. "People's insurance paid out a fraction of what they lost and what it's going to take to rebuild. It's one thing to rebuild exactly what was here before, but to rebuild with the vision these guys have, it's nowhere near what insurance paid out or what was raised, so it's going to take a lot more public investment."
The founders are looking at a multi-pronged strategy to fund the construction of the center, Prakasim said. That could include investments from the community so people who live in the neighborhood are vested in the project.
Last year, Islam moved forward on a $125,000 bid to demolish the damaged Gandhi Mahal restaurant. That work took almost a year, he said. Insurance covered just $50,000 of the cost.
A Go Fund Me campaign raised more than $125,000 to help Islam and his family. That money was used to start up Curry In a Hurry, a fast casual restaurant Islam launched last year on South 31st and East Franklin avenues in Minneapolis, and to activate the Gandhi Mahal site by building the healing stage, garden and community gathering area that will eventually become the new center.
"We have nothing here," Islam said of the current site, "but we have a community to build it better."
Islam said it could take as long as five years for the full center to come to fruition. Greater financial resources, though, could speed up that process.
"You have to have a dream and believe in that dream and work toward that dream," Islam said. "We'll get there one day. Today or tomorrow, we'll get there. Five years or 10 years, we'll do it."
Rasmussen believes the center will be completed.
"If anyone has a vision big enough to do it, they do," she said. "They have this ability to invite all of us into a vision that centers people over profit."