Gateway to Richfield? Or Gateway to the Future?

In May of 2000, the Nicollet Avenue Task Force published its official report, laying out its plans to guide the “Revitalization” of Nicollet Avenue, or “Minneapolis’ Main Street,” as the report referred to it in the subtitle. Looking back from our vantage point of 17 years later, it seems the task force, or those nudged in the right direction by the task force, largely succeeded. This despite the fact that K-Mart still blocks the road at a crucial intersection with Lake and that that unfortunate configuration still blights the neighborhood’s traffic patterns, development plans, and appearance. Still, it’s just one or two blocks, and Nicollet is a long avenue. A little later that same year, the Greenway opened about a mile west of Nicollet, and in the subsequent years of the 2000s it built eastward to become the amazing resource it is today, allowing one to bike, jog, or skate from one end of South Minneapolis to the other. The actual revitalization of Nicollet Avenue, though, was still in its early stages. The term “Eat Street” for the northern end of the Avenue, just south of where it ceased to be the Mall, was only a few years old.
There is an upside and downside to being a main thoroughfare through a city of diversely developed neighborhoods. The upside is that strong prosperous businesses will flock to locate there. The downside is that perhaps too many of them will, and that can be unsustainable, leading to either ugly, unfriendly overdeveloped spaces, or to just too many business to allow them to be successful, so that there is churn, turnover, seedy establishments just barely hanging on, or just the wrong kind of businesses to encourage people to live near them. What you want, and what the task force sought, was balance. Just enough business, just enough residential. Walkability was a concept still a few years down the road, but when it came to be, then it was—oh, yeah, balanced and walkable. And bikeable. So just enough traffic, but not too much. Foot traffic, of the right kind. Some high-price real estate, a few fine homes, but also some affordable housing, and this being Minnesota, maybe some successful social services and other institutions.
The task force had as members, in addition to the City Council members from all the contiguous wards, and other major stakeholders both public and private, representatives from all the South Minneapolis neighborhoods that touch Nicollet Avenue. Stevens Square, Whittier, Lyndale, Kingfield, Tangletown and Windom. Two neighborhoods that really seem to exemplify what the report of 2000 was looking for are Kingfield and Tangletown. Kingfield neighborhood hosts Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park, a large park with a lovely mural of Nicollet Field, the baseball park a few blocks away that was torn down in 1956. Kingfield Neighborhood Association (KFNA) was founded in 1989. Tangletown neighborhood used to have the official name of Fuller, which is still reflected in its principal park, Fuller Park. Tangletown was its nickname, because the grid system does not apply here, with its winding and “tangled” streets, shaped by Minnehaha Creek, which cuts through it, and a 50th Street that becomes inexplicably curvy east of Lyndale Avenue. The Tangletown Neighborhood Association was founded in 1998, making it one of the youngest in the city.
Even the task force called Nicollet Avenue “a gateway to Richfield.” Or conversely, because the city line was an example of that phenomenon of too much commercial space out of balance with meager, unhappy residential space, they bemoaned that it made a bad gateway to Minneapolis for the northbound denizens of Richfield and beyond. Today, the Avenue is far more developed on the Richfield side, and just far more presentable—and, yes, balanced—on the Minneapolis side. Today there is a mix of affordable single-family homes, moderate rentals, ex-rentals turned into condominiums, a little bit of infill housing, and a very successful housing development for formerly homeless youth. The scattered and unplanned businesses have been shepherded into “nodes,” and planning has taken note of walking and biking and all the consumer trends. Nowadays there are some very interesting destinations on Nicollet Avenue.
Not all of them are new. Some are quite long-standing businesses. Take Curran’s Restaurant at 42nd and Nicollet, for example. This establishment dates back to the 1940s and is still going strong. They have better coffee these days (fair trade and quite well-made, I have to say), but the menu changes only gradually and is never trendy in the slightest. It almost harks back to the days when dining out in the Twin Cities meant Embers or Perkins, except that Curran’s is one of a kind. In the longtime category is also Finer Meats just north of 38th Street on Nicollet, which we covered in an earlier article. Despite the very trendy and popular Kyatchi just across the road, and at a destination corner anchored by Nighthawks Diner and the Blackbird Cafe, Finer Meats and another older business, Cocina Latina, persist in their popularity.
The direction if not the success of the revitalization of these neighborhoods may be in part due to the fact of Tangletown Gardens coming on the scene in 2002. Combining an upscale garden center in the city with a CSA sourced from the owner’s Plato, Minn., organic farm, the Gardens helped Tangletown establish a brand of family-friendly, slightly aspirational sustainability and environmental consciousness. In 2011, the business spawned an early and popular entrant in the chef-driven farm-to-table restaurant movement in Wise Acre Eatery, which opened in a former gas station site once famous for its frozen custard. Wise Acre features food from the same farm as the CSA. Not having its own resident CSA, Kingfield neighborhood for a while contented itself with having one of the biggest and best hardware stores in the city, Nicollet Ace Hardware, another long-established neighborhood anchor business. The year before Tangletown Gardens opened, KFNA had started a farmers market; it was just a couple of trucks behind the Anodyne Coffee House at the start. Sometime in the mid-2000s the farmers market really took off. It became one of the most successful and award-winning farmers markets in a city literally stuffed full of farmers markets, and by 2014 it had spun off two other neighborhood markets—Fulton and Nokomis—leading to the incorporation of an umbrella nonprofit called Neighborhood Roots and independence from the neighborhood association.
The buzzing Kingfield Farmers Market is toward the south end of the neighborhood at 4310 Nicollet. Very nearby are some other notable neighborhood businesses. Vicinity Coffee (formerly Bull Run) is a tiny local chain of coffee roasters and coffeehouses (just two at present). It features house-made chai, interesting food and signature lattes, as well as their own roasted beans. At 44th and Nicollet you will find the Driftwood Char Bar, opened in 2007. This is a kind of throwback hippie bar but more diverse, with live music including Grateful Dead tributes every Sunday. The Salt Cave at 48th and Nicollet is, I think, the only salt therapy place in Minnesota. Salt therapy or halotherapy is a very affordable alternative treatment that is good for respiratory conditions of all kinds, as well as stress and skin problems. The techniques were refined in eastern Europe and their own salt cave features a halogenerator from Estonia, plus six tons of Himalayan salt on the walls and floors of the treatment rooms.

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