Mall Rats

The city says it won't try to bulldoze Hi-Lake for months, if at all. Shopping Center tenants aren't impressed.

It's a sleepy Monday morning, but Scott Nagel is talking in rapid-fire bursts about the coin laundry he has owned for eight years in the Hi-Lake Shopping Center in Minneapolis, a strip mall located at the intersection of Hiawatha Avenue and East Lake Street, where the fabric of the city's history and future are precariously stitched together. Nagel's eyes widen and the pitch of his voice rises as he points out his neighbors in the mall--a hardware store, a new clothing store, a new Subway sandwich shop. Business has never been better on the northwest corner of the intersection, he says.

Nagel looks out his front door to the parking lot and watches as a noisy, late-1970s Buick stops at the curb. A man pulls bag after bag of laundry out of the trunk. This morning Nagel is pondering the rumors that have been floating around Hi-Lake since April. That's when he and other mall business owners got letters saying that as part of the process of planning for a light-rail stop nearby, the city was scoping out the area for housing, offices, and new retail space. Since then, talk had been that the mall would be demolished.

"The city is talking about redevelopment," he says. "But this isn't redevelopment. This is screwing with people's livelihoods."

Spin job? City officials say they're not really considering razing the mall; they just needed to show federal funders a plausible vision for the intersection.
Daniel Corrigan
Spin job? City officials say they're not really considering razing the mall; they just needed to show federal funders a plausible vision for the intersection.

The area has always been envisioned as a hub of some sort, but ever since the Lake Street streetcar line was closed in 1954 numerous development plans have come and gone. In the Sixties there was talk of pushing an interstate highway through the area; in the Seventies proposals were floated to run a light-rail line there. Over the years many neighborhood businesses began to show signs of neglect.

Hi-Lake itself was built in the 1950s and purchased in 1964 by the late Erling Rice, the mastermind behind the Red Owl grocery chain, who was a popular figure with the people of the neighborhood. His son Rex, of Rice and Associates, has managed the property since 1970. Since then, Hi-Lake has managed to survive as easily accessible retail for the numerous low-income residents in the nearby Corcoran, Powderhorn, Longfellow, and Phillips neighborhoods.

And then last summer, after it became clear that Minneapolis's light-rail transit dreams were pinned to the Hiawatha corridor, the city and developers suddenly began sizing up the land at Hi-Lake, where a crucial station on the proposed light-rail line will be located. In order to secure federal light-rail funding, the city needed to show it had a vision. In the three years since light rail has moved closer to being a reality, some early signs of development, such as a new Hiawatha bridge over Lake Street and a new YWCA, have appeared. But an exact plan for the land around the proposed transit station, or even for development within a half-mile radius of the intersection, has yet to materialize. Some of the proposals would cut the amount of retail space in the area by 80 percent; in all of them, it's a low priority.

At the same time, the 130,000-square-foot Hi-Lake shopping complex has been on the rebound. But it is clear that the haphazard design of the lot and its somewhat shabby structures don't fit aesthetically with more upscale visions--restaurants, coffee shops, walkways--of what some believe the area could be. Since last summer the city has moved quickly on three separate redevelopment plans for specific parts of the area; the quickest and easiest seemed to be the Hi-Lake Development, which deals mainly with the shopping center.

When the city wants to take over a private property, the MCDA must first get the city council's approval to study whether a parcel is "blighted" and assess its value. It must then gain approval to actually condemn and purchase--or declare "eminent domain" over--a blighted area. In the case of Hi-Lake, the MCDA started this process in April, and quickly won permission from the city council to take the first step, according to city documents.

What's unclear is whether the city plans to follow through and condemn the mall. By July the MCDA had sent out "relocation packets" to the shopping center's tenants. Panicked and unsure of their rights, members of the Hi-Lake Business Association then asked to talk to MCDA staffers. Soon residents and neighborhood organizations were outraged at the prospect of the city bulldozing a critical retail area.

Frustration with the city's tactics boiled over at an August 31 public hearing before the city's Planning Commission, held across the street from Hi-Lake in the new YWCA's field house. Ostensibly about the city's long-term vision for the Hiawatha-Lake corridor, the gathering quickly degenerated into a squabble over the possibility that the mall might be razed.

Many of the 140 people at the hearing said they were caught off guard, that the city was moving too fast, and that they no longer had a say about a redevelopment that would drastically change their neighborhoods.

"I personally do not know why the MCDA is 'rushing' to raze the shopping center," said Annie Young, an East Phillips resident and community activist, in written testimony submitted before the meeting. "Using eminent domain on these businesses does not seem to be involving everyone for a better place to work and shop. It doesn't feel to many of us that the city and the developers understand what the residents and businesses want and need."

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