A resident and business owner in St. Louis Park the past 35 years, Curt Rahman has never seen the city's Historic Walker Lake district as vibrant as it is today.

"It used to be a ghost town at night," Rahman said. "Now it's constantly busy."

Located in the city's Lenox neighborhood around the intersection of Walker and Lake streets, the district was once the commercial center of St. Louis Park. In the late 19th century, lumber businessman and art collector T.B. Walker, founder of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, led a group of investors that created the district as an industrial hub situated along the Minneapolis and St. Louis railways, according to the St. Louis Park Historical Society.

The district thrived until the nationwide economic crash of 1893, leaving development stagnant for roughly 50 years thereafter. Business growth sputtered and nearly tanked when the elimination of the streetcar in 1954 and the opening of strip malls in the late 40s and early 50s shifted development away from the area, according to city documents.

As more businesses opened on Excelsior Boulevard in the city, Walker Lake "fell into despair", Rahman said.

From an economic viewpoint, it was imperative to revitalize the city's original commercial center to appeal to new business tenants and their customers, Rahman said.

"It was one of the first things people saw when they came to the city," he said. "If it looked run and down, then that's the impression people got of St. Louis Park."

Attempts were made to improve the district over the years, but the execution of those plans brought little success. The city shifted gears in 2018 and used recommendations from business owners to eliminate barriers that prevented commercial growth. The city rezoned the district, giving new property owners flexibility with how they could use some of the district's historic buildings, including the use of shared parking, said Jennifer Monson, the city's redevelopment administrator. The city implemented a revitalization plan that included additional parking, bike lanes, public art, repaving roads and sidewalks and upgrading some of the buildings.

It was a $6 million investment by the city, Monson said.

"It's the heart of St. Louis Park," she said. "The high school is there. Central Community Center is there. It's a hub of small business. We really wanted to preserve the character of the area and maintain its walkability."

As a result of changes and improvements, small businesses moved in. The district now boasts more than 100 businesses that include restaurants, hair and tanning salons, pet stores, a fitness studio and clothing stores.

New businesses arrive

Spencer Johnson, founder of Sota Clothing, a brand that caters to Minnesota pride, purchased the Walker Building, named after T.B. Walker, in 2018. The 1892-constructed property is considered the district's oldest building, and one of the oldest in St. Louis Park.

"It checked all the boxes for us," Johnson said.

Johnson moved in around the same time the city began executing its revitalization plan. Though he had to endure construction, it was worth it. The district had enormous potential, he said, mainly due to its proximity to downtown Minneapolis, but also a rising number of Millennial and Gen Z first-time home buyers within walking distance from surrounding neighborhoods.

Plus, property costs and taxes in St. Louis Park were significantly lower than in Minneapolis, Johnson said.

Each year since 2018, sales at Sota Clothing have increased at least 10%, he said.

"Just seeing the growth of the businesses in the area, it's huge," he said.

Luke Derheim, a partner at Craft & Crew Hospitality, a Hopkins-based restaurant group with six locations in the Twin Cities, appreciated the industrial and residential mix of the district along Hwy. 7 and thought moving in would be advantageous to the group's growth. In 2019, his company opened The Block, a dog-friendly pub off Walker Street and Louisiana Avenue in what was previously a vacuum retail store.

"We saw St. Louis Park was dying for more restaurants," Derheim said.

Like Johnson, Derheim viewed Walker Lake as an area ripe for development given its young demographic. As of 2020, the vast majority of St. Louis Park's more than 50,000 residents were those between the ages of 25 and 34, according to Minnesota Compass, a division of St. Paul-based Wilder Research.

Derheim and business partner David Benowitz doubled down on St. Louis Park last December when they bought the former Galaxy Drive In, which is being revamped into Wells Roadside, a dog-friendly burger joint serving ice cream, beer and wine. The drive in is located just outside the Walker Lake District.

Shifting the trajectory

In 2018, there were multiple vacant spaces in the Walker Lake area, Monson said. Today, there's no more than two units available for rent and no properties for sale, she said.

"It's been great," Johnson said. "Since we moved in, there's been multiple new businesses."

Derheim, Rahman and Johnson were the founding members of the Walker Lake Business Association, created as part of the city's revitalization plan. For about three years, the three were the voice of the business community and built communication channels between business owners and residents who wanted a communal gathering place to call their own and "be proud of", Derheim said.

With construction of Metro Transit's Green Line light-rail extension stations on St. Louis Park's Louisiana Avenue and Wooddale Avenue expected to be completed by 2027, Rahman predicts traffic into the district will increase.

Rahman, who began buying property in Walker Lake in 1996, owns about 22,000 square-feet of real estate in the district between three buildings, all at capacity with a total of 15 tenants. He's intentionally kept his rent priced below the market to keep Walker Lake attractive to small business owners and avoid turnover.

He doesn't want the area to deteriorate again.

"The place is alive," Rahman said. "And it wasn't 25 years ago."

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Wells Roadside would show movies.