Soon the City of Minneapolis will be taking concrete steps to reopen Nicollet Avenue at Lake Street, through the site where Kmart and Jerry’s Foods currently stand. The street got closed 40 years ago when the city was desperate to get a tenant at its Lake and Nicollet development site. Through probably the worst example of bad planning possible, the city tore down businesses, houses and apartment buildings on the blocks from 29th Street to 31st Street and from Blaisdell over to First Avenue without having any idea of what would replace them. They took property by using their powers of eminent domain and, once they had built their empty Field of Dreams, nobody came. Finally, they bribed Kmart into becoming a major tenant by blocking the street for them, so Nicollet Avenue emptied into their parking lot.
Now the city realizes that: “Reopening Nicollet Avenue through the site would improve the neighborhood and create better driving, biking and pedestrian experiences. It would restore an important connection for traffic and pedestrians. Help revitalize nearby businesses along the corridor from South Minneapolis to Downtown. Pave the way for redevelopment that grows the tax base. Focus and leverage the transit investments being made in the immediate area, which is near several large employment centers, including downtown Minneapolis.
“The City Council has formed a staff working group that is meeting and making preparations so that when a private developer is able to reach agreements with the existing businesses, the city is poised to assist wherever possible. This working group includes representatives from the Whittier Alliance and Whittier Business Association, Lyndale Neighborhood Assoc-iation, Nicollet-East Harriet Business Association, Kingfield Neighborhood, Midtown Greenway Coalition and Lake Street Council.”
At its most recent meeting, on April 17, the Reopen Nicollet Working Group, according to Transit Oriented Development Manager David Frank, “reviewed the current status of discussions with the grocery store land owner, the grocery store tenant, the Kmart land owner and Sears/Kmart, as well as other property owners in the area. We discussed the Lake and Nicollet Redevelopment Plan, and specifically what the Redevelopment Plan is not: Eminent domain, funding for the project, or approval of specific property acquisitions.
“We reviewed the most recent key project milestones. There are funds available for the early project development work now underway in the city’s adopted 2014 budget. We discussed when to begin a more robust community engagement process, and we all agree on the importance of this part of the process.”
Two years ago Sears announced it would close about 100 to 120 Kmart and Sears stores across the country. Many cities are struggling to keep their local retail outlet. According to the StarTribune: “In Minnesota, Kmart stores in White Bear Lake, New Hope, Willmar and Duluth will close at a date to be determined. For the time being, none of the state’s 12 ‘full-line’ Sears stores or 41 specialty Sears outlets will be affected in this wave of consolidation.”
It’s possible that Sears is keeping the Kmart on Lake Street open because it’s doing good business, but it’s also possible that it’s keeping it open in order to get a good price for the store when the city wants to tear it down to run Nicollet Avenue through its front door. If the city gives Sears a good price to tear down the present building, then that price should be based on the good value of the retail site. If there is good value in the site, then Sears should be willing to rebuild another Kmart on that site. If they do not rebuild, then they were inflating the price of the property before the sale. The city must have assurances from Sears that it will commit to rebuilding on that site as part of a purchase agreement.
So far, Kmart officials have said they want to stay in the area and be included in the new layout of the streets and building sites. They have a lease on the property until 2053. They have also hired some heavy guns to help them get the best possible deal they can from the city: former City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes, attorney Martin Fallon and political strategist Darin Broton.
At the same time that the city is planning to reconnect Nicollet Avenue, there is a $114 million project to upgrade 35W in the Lake Street area. At the present there is no way to enter 35W to go north to downtown, and there is no way for people coming from downtown and north to exit onto Lake Street without going all the way to 35th Street and doubling back five blocks. At this point it looks like the entrance to go north on 35W to downtown is no longer in the plan, but the city does plan to build an exit from downtown onto Lake Street, rebuild four bridges, improve the highway near Lake Street and build a massive new transit station in the middle of the highway, similar to the one near 46th Street, that would speed bus service to downtown and eliminate some bus shelters. They also plan a Green Crescent Trail that would connect the Midtown Greenway to fast transit on 35W.
Better connections to downtown—with Nicollet Avenue open, with better transit opportunities, with connections to the Greenway—means better connections from downtown to Lake Street, and that means more customers, better business and healthier communities for South Minneapolis.