The Sabri family's dominance of Somali-American merchants in Minneapolis must be broken, Council Member Abdi Warsame said this week, and he promised to lead an effort to build a new, cooperatively owned mall for East African businesses.

"The Somali community is not beholden to the Sabris," Warsame said. "We need to have an alternative mall."

Somali-American merchants in Minneapolis have depended on Basim Sabri and his family, who manage several buildings across south Minneapolis, including the two largest collections of Somali businesses in the Twin Cities — the Karmel Square Mall just off West Lake Street and the Village Market at the corner of 24th Street and Elliot Ave. S., better known as the "24 Mall."

The two shopping centers are packed with nearly 350 small businesses combined, the majority of them owned by women.

They have also been flash points in neighborhood politics for years — plagued by code violations, squabbles with city officials and neighbor complaints about parking, traffic, cleanliness and unpermitted construction.

Warsame, whose Sixth Ward includes the 24 Mall, said tenants are too scared of the Sabris to complain publicly, but they come to him regularly with grievances, and they need another option.

Basim Sabri, a Palestinian by birth, said Thursday that many of his tenants are like extended family to him, that he has helped Somali immigrants launch thriving businesses, and that while he, like everyone, makes mistakes, he rejects the notion that he or his family are abusing tenants.

"You don't have to bring someone down in order to come up with a good idea for a new mall," Sabri said of Warsame's proposal. "They've got my blessing. I could even maybe invest with them."

A new mall

Warsame blames Sabri for staining the reputation of the Somali community by holding East African businesspeople "hostage" in substandard properties.

The city has cited the 24 Mall for regulatory violations 182 times since January 2010, rejected applications to expand the 24 Mall twice in the past three years, and has forced the building's manager, Omar Sabri, to install more restrooms in recent months.

"People come to these malls, white people, they visit the malls and they think, 'oh, this is disgusting,' " Warsame said, adding that it leads to assumptions about Somali culture. "It's not the culture. It's because this guy doesn't invest in hygiene and doesn't fix the bathrooms and makes every little corner into a stall that he can rent for $1,000."

But Omar Sabri said his tenants don't want to leave.

"They're smart enough to know when they're being taken advantage of," he said. "A lot of my tenants have been very successful."

For Warsame, the plight of Somali merchants in south Minneapolis is unfinished business, and he doesn't want to end his first term without "having a go at it."

Aside from bearing down on Sabri Properties for regulatory violations, Warsame said the only true remedy is a large Somali-owned mall. Details so far are scant, but he believes the city of Minneapolis can help with land, design and technical support, and Somali businesses should be able to finance the project.

"The community's entrepreneurial. We have enough resources to build it," Warsame said.

He doesn't know where — maybe on land off Hiawatha Avenue in south Minneapolis, maybe in north Minneapolis — but he said plans are in motion.

History with the city

For the Sabri family, battles with the city and elected officials are nothing new.

Basim Sabri, the uncle of Omar Sabri, went to federal prison for a year and a half for bribing then-Council Member Brian Herron in 2001 in exchange for help on a development deal. In 2012, Sabri barred former Sixth Ward Council Member Robert Lilligren from his buildings when tension broke out between the two men.

Lilligren, who was defeated by Warsame in 2013, said the neighborhood has mostly been welcoming of the Somali presence, but neighbors were concerned about the mall's management and effect on the community. He said the Sabris were skilled at painting their critics as anti-Somali.

"The Sabris would leverage any friction and explode it into this sense of white versus black and longtime resident versus new arrival," Lilligren said. "It was really frustrating."

Warsame believes now is the time to break that political dynamic. As a Somali-American himself, he cannot be accused of being anti-Somali, and he said a growing number of Somali homeowners in Phillips share the concerns of white homeowners who've been complaining about the 24 Mall for more than a decade.

Basim Sabri believes a significant amount of the backlash against his malls has been anti-immigrant sentiment.

"I don't use the race card, but believe it or not there are people who are against Somali Muslim Americans," Sabri said.

And he said Somali tenants are hard on his properties. Managing these properties, with their winding corridors and stores packed with carpets and fabric and dresses, is not easy, he said.

Several tenants of the 24 Mall said Thursday they are scared to criticize the Sabris for fear of getting kicked out, but they complained the bathroom setup was intolerable for years before the city forced the owners to build new ones. Others were more supportive of the Sabris. One shop owner said the Sabris are honest and allow people to pay rent on a flexible schedule if business is slow.

Basim Sabri said his business isn't perfect, but insisted his relationship with tenants is strong. "I could do better, and my organization could do better, but my heart's in the right place," Sabri said.

Adam Belz • 612-673-4405

Twitter: @adambelz