There were several choice moments at last Wednesday's marathon meeting between folks living in the East Harriet area of Minneapolis and local representatives from SuperAmerica. As the corporate suits smiled through clenched teeth, residents of the 10th Ward neighborhood ordered them to "get their act together." An old-timer hobbled to the microphone, then scowled through a squint as he schooled youngsters in the crowd on the ways of big-business blowhards and their newfangled ideas. One rabble-rouser even suggested there might be conspiracy in the air. After all, she charged, SA did "provide cookies" to dip in the evening's gratis coffee.
Most memorable, though, were Carol Johnson's visual aids. These empty Pepsi bottles and soiled Snickers wrappers are just the tip of the iceberg, she said, waving a bag of garbage in front of the crowd: SA's two corner stores, sitting across the street from one another at the intersection of 40th Street and Lyndale Avenue South, are a menace to civility. Idling cars dirty the air. Customers are often obnoxious. On more than one occasion, they've peed on surrounding lawns. Nearby homeowners have even been forced to scoop "human feces" from the boulevard. "What can you do about that?" Johnson exclaimed. "None of my other neighbors have caused this kind of problem!"
Convenience versus annoyance. In the end, that's what the fracas--now months in the making--comes down to. SA, according to their local real estate lawyer Timothy Keane, finds itself saddled with two "obsolete and tired stores." The fuel-and-food chain, owned by conglomerate Marathon Ashland Petroleum, wants to tear down their smallish shop located on the east side of the street (4001 Lyndale) and expand and spiff up the west-side site (4000 Lyndale), which was a 7-Eleven until 1989.
In readying for the redo, SA purchased the house at 4008 Lyndale in August--a century-old, blue two-story built by Johnson's grandfather. The plan is to demolish the home, then rezone the property for commercial use, which would make room for SA to expand their store's square footage twofold. First, though, SA is required by the city of Minneapolis to get signatures of approval from two-thirds of the 15 residents now living within 100 feet of the proposed construction site. So far, at least seven of them--sick of the noise, tired of those "obnoxious," brightly lit signs in the parking lot--are saying no.
Ann Lynch lives at 4012 Lyndale, next door to SA's newly acquired property. She started hearing rumors of the company's plans more than a year ago, but says local employees weren't up-front about management's intentions. A month after the blue house sold, 10th Ward council member Lisa McDonald told the East Harriet Farmstead Neighborhood Association of SA's game plan. Lynch decided to get busy. She put a sign in her second-story porch windows: "Don't Expand SA," triggering an ad-hoc coalition of locals to start producing protest lawn signs and passing anti-SA petitions door-to-door. As a result, Southwest Journal--the biweekly neighborhood newspaper--printed a page-long feature about the effort in early November. The lines were drawn.
"This is the wrong place for a big, corporate store. There are houses all around here, and they're all owner-occupied. We're interested in our lives in the neighborhood. SA's only interested in making a buck," Lynch says. "If they want to make improvements on the lot they're on now, that's fine. But we're not going to let them destroy any more property."
To kick off last week's summit meeting, SA laid out a blueprint of its overhaul for the first time in a public forum. There were few specifics, because, Keane says, the chain wants to collaborate with the neighbors on details. But this much was clear: For SA to meet their desired profit margin, the blue house would have to go and the west-side store would have to grow. To woo the crowd, SA brought in local commercial developer Michael Lander, who specializes in renovation and revitalization. If expansion gets green-lighted on the west side of the street, SA hopes to sell the opposite property to someone such as Lander, who would develop affordable housing or a small business on the lot.
The strategy won over a few hearts and minds, mainly of neighbors who live in East Harriet but whose signatures aren't needed for rezoning. It has also made the deal more attractive to council member McDonald, who has worked with SA over the past two years on expanding sites at 25th and Hennepin and 22nd and Lyndale. Those with the most to lose (or gain), however, are wary. "If they expand their commercial property, there'd still be the process of rezoning the other property for residential use," Dirk Lieske, a member of Lynch's group and resident at 715 40th, says. "That [property] will not be that valuable. It will be across the street from an expanded SA. So now we have a bigger SA and lower-income real estate. And that's if we win."
"I understand the concerns," McDonald counters. "But in neighborhoods not as accustomed to development, like this one, people often get caught up in the idea that any expansion will ruin life as we know it. I don't think that applies here. SA has been very straight with me. They could've leveled that house, gone out and gotten their own signatures,"--thus pre-empting Lynch's grassroots rebellion--"and built whatever they want. Instead, they've come here in good faith to work on something that will be beneficial to everyone."
Off the record, SA opponents say McDonald is acting as a shill for the company, then point to financial statements her re-election committee filed in Hennepin County for 1997 in which both SA attorney Keane and developer Lander are listed as contributors. When asked if Keane's $150 contribution or Lander's $200 puts her in the corporation's pocket, McDonald bristles. "I think that's a cheap shot on the part of some people with a political agenda," she says. "I don't have a dog in this fight and I'm not falling on a sword
McDonald also points out that many others living in East Harriet donated money to her campaign, including at least one resident who lives within 100 feet of SA. The council member certainly doesn't object to expansion; however, constituents at Wednesday's meeting made it clear that going out on a limb for SA would be more political liability than asset for her.
Still, SA has no plans to retreat. If they can't get what they want now, they'll wait: for Lynch's group to change their minds; for a couple of them to move; for sympathizers to convince their friends on the neighborhood association to exert pressure on the holdouts. Both McDonald and Keane hope that even the most stubborn naysayers will finally see the light: that one bigger, better store would be more tidy and less troublesome than the two properties SA has no plans of abandoning or sprucing up.
"I was hoping after all of this they'd leave us alone," Lynch said wearily and somewhat warily after Wednesday's meeting. "But I doubt they'll go away.
Intern Miki Ann Mosman contributed to this story.