BY STEPHANIE FOX
When the Minneapolis 6th Ward City Council Member Abdi Warsame and Mayor Jacob Frey announced the details on the city’s plans to build what they called an African village on a publicly-owned lot in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, the local reaction was shock and surprise. The announcement, made at an East African Business Forum in June, was the first time that residents and business owners in the neighborhood had heard of the plan that could completely change their lives.
The shock and surprise were quickly followed by protests, led by residents, business owners and a group called Somali Mothers of MN who showed up with their children, waving protest signs.
By the end of August, the protesters’ anger had increased. Warsame and Frey called a meeting to get local feedback. They got it, but not in a way they expected. A large group of angry protesters showed up at the Brian Coyle Center and took over the microphone, chanting, “People over profits!” and, “No voice. No mall.”
Counter protesters were there as well, and one of the Somali Mothers of MN reported that she was struck in the face by a supporter of the new mall. Warsame and Frey had to be escorted out of the Center.
According to Dave Alderson, the co-executive director of the Cedar-Riverside Neighborhood Revitalization Program, there had been discussion about creating an East African-focused mall in various locations around Minneapolis for years. But the revelation of detailed plans to create that mall on what is called Lot A—a city-owned parking lot located behind longtime Cedar Avenue businesses the Red Sea Restaurant and the Keefer Court Bakery and just a block from the intersection of Cedar and Riverside Avenues—has created a crisis.
In 2017, Council Member Warsame proposed the building of a mall on an empty lot at 2600 Minnehaha Avenue, part of his campaign for City Council. A new mall was needed, he said, as an alternative to other African malls and a way to offer Somali women a space to open their own businesses. A new mall, said Warsame, would be a way to protect Somali-American women from exploitation from landlords at the city’s two other African markets, 24 Mall and Karmel Square.
Karmel Square is owned by local landlord Basim Sabri, who had been accused by some of financially exploiting women small-business owners, an accusation he denies. Sabri became a vocal opponent of Warsame and supported one of Warsame’s challengers in the last election.
In August of that year, the City Council proposed a feasibility study for the Minnehaha development, but it never transpired. The mall at 2600 Minnehaha went nowhere. Then, this summer, the City of Minneapolis announced new plans to develop Lot A.
Much of the negative reaction to the newest plan came because community members and residents said they were not involved in any of the decision-making and that the city government had sprung this new development on the neighborhood without any input from the people who live and work in Cedar-Riverside.
The new plan includes a 10-story apartment building with an African-focused mall on the ground floor.
Such a development will bring increased density to the city’s most dense neighborhood, with an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people already living in Cedar-Riverside. The new mall, community members fear, will also bring in crime and drugs to an area already plagued by these problems.
Some in the neighborhood are also concerned that the new apartments would be high-end and expensive, gentrifying the area. For business owners, the mall takes away parking that they say is vital to their customers.
According to local business owners, the new structure would eliminate about 100 parking spaces used by local business customers and would eliminate pick-up and drop-off areas for school buses carrying hundreds of local school children each day during the school year. The area is also home to popular entertainment venues, including the Cedar Cultural Center and the Mixed Blood Theatre, whose patrons need inexpensive parking.
And, while Warsame has said that 98 percent of Somalis in Minnesota support the plan, “No one who lives here wants this,” said Russom Solomon, owner of the Red Sea restaurant.
Alderson said that there is a lot of mistrust between the neighborhood and the city leaders. “There is a lack of credibility with the neighborhood. The current City Council opposes neighborhood organizations and claims they don’t properly represent the people, but we have very active participation and people here are speaking up against this new mall.”
Mychal Vlatkovich, a spokesperson for Mayor Frey, said that building a public, East African mall in partnership with the community “has been a priority for thousands of East Africans in Minneapolis for years and furthers the mayor’s vision for economic inclusion. Details about parking, housing and other features on the site have yet to be finalized,” he said, “as community feedback is still being gathered prior to issuance of a request for proposals.”
What some members of the community said they would prefer would be building a community center that would focus on young people, with opportunities for recreation, and with parking and green space. “Our first priority is for the kids,” said Mohamed Salad, a community youth leader who now attends Augsburg University and grew up in the neighborhood. “They could build a center with program space, a gym, a pool and a library. There could be space for Best Buy to bring in a tech center for students,” he said.
Nasro Hassen, a member of the Somali Mothers of MN, said that drugs and crime are huge problems in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood and that the mall will increase those problems. In early March, a shooting near Lot A killed one 17-year old and injured two others and the MN Mothers say that another market and increased density will only make things worse.
“This fight is not for me,” Salad said. “It’s for my younger siblings and cousins, so they don’t have to experience what I did, living in poverty, going to funerals because of guns and drugs. The city has to listen to us, not decide for us,” he said.
“When Warsame first got elected, we were very excited,” said Hassen. “He was the first Somali elected to office anywhere in the United States. In his first election in 2013, Warsame won with 64% of the vote. The last time, he won by only 240 votes, even as an incumbent. The next election, we’re not voting for him.”
“Tell the mayor to listen to us,” she said. “Tell the City Council our voice has to be heard. We have to be listened to. They have to listen to the community.”