The intersection of Penn and Plymouth avenues N. is half-empty today. But it was once part of a prominent north Minneapolis commercial strip, and Hennepin County is teaming up with one of the state’s largest black-owned businesses to breathe new life into the corridor.

An expanded medical center, ground-level retail, parking ramp, office space and new funeral chapel would transform three corners of the intersection under a plan unveiled this week. Anchoring the proposal is a $67 million county investment to create a larger campus for NorthPoint Health and Wellness, a county facility offering a wide range of medical and other services.

The project also comes with sizable private investment, notable for an area that has struggled to attract for-profit companies. Thor Construction, which says it is the largest minority-owned business in Minnesota, will be moving its headquarters from Fridley to a new four-story building it will construct on the site.

“I hope that it is the start of many other wonderful businesses who also want to commit to being a partner here in our community,” said County Commissioner Linda Higgins, noting it will be the first time in her memory that all four corners of the intersection will have buildings.

The area along Plymouth Avenue was once a thriving business district, home to butcher shops, cafes, salons, food markets, a bowling alley and even a movie theater. But it suffered amid riots of the late 1960s and was largely cleared away in the urban renewal demolitions that followed.

The city has struggled for years to redevelop the intersection. In the early 1990s, the city inherited one corner and hoped it could be used to expand an adjacent strip mall. The plan failed and the mall closed — it is now a University of Minnesota outpost.

Most recently, the city put its hopes in a private grocery store proposal that never materialized. The store’s failure was viewed by some on the City Council as emblematic of larger hurdles to jump-starting commercial activity on the North Side.

Mixed-use development

Thor’s new headquarters will feature about 76,000 square feet of office space, 16,000 square feet of street-level retail and a multistory parking deck. A Thor official said they are even designing the building to accommodate outdoor patio dining — a rarity in north Minneapolis. The company hopes to begin construction this fall.

“It’s time that we reclaim north Minneapolis and do our part,” Richard Copeland, Thor’s founder and chairman, said at a public meeting Tuesday. “And so I’m putting my money where my mouth is.”

The building is expected to cost Thor up to $35 million, about $14 million of which will be repaid by the county in exchange for more than 400 parking stalls for NorthPoint.

The overhaul of NorthPoint will expand its campus area by about 74,000 square feet. CEO Stella Whitney-West said they have been running out of space and facing a growing parking crunch.

“It’s crowded. If you’ve been there on a really busy day — which is every day — you’ll see lines,” Whitney-West said.

NorthPoint was established more than 50 years ago as part of a federal initiative to open service centers in several cities across the country. Now, NorthPoint’s medical programs see about 25,000 patients a year, about 58 percent more than a decade ago, Whitney-West said. And 14,000 people access social services there.

The expansion will require moving another North Side institution, Estes Funeral Chapel, across Plymouth Avenue where the county will build a new chapel for the 54-year-old business. The Minneapolis Urban League will stay on the northeast corner.

Other changes coming

Due to the Estes relocation and need for parking, the project is expected to occur in phases, starting with the Thor development. Michael Noonan, manager of the county’s real estate division, said county’s goal is for the project to be totally complete in 2019.

The development coincides with others that could reshape the area. Metro Transit is planning a rapid bus line along Penn Avenue that may begin construction in 2018. Transit planners also hope to see the Bottineau Blue Line extension open by 2021, which would put a light-rail stop within a 10-minute walk of the intersection.

Tracy Wesley with Estes said the Penn-Plymouth project could have a profound impact in north Minneapolis, offering new employment opportunities.

“When [violent] things happen within the neighborhood, it’s typically because people don’t have hope,” Wesley said. “And I see this project as a project of hope.”


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