Street Fighting Man

neighborhood prophet or capitalist pariah. basim sabri doesn't care what people think of him--as long as they stay out of his way.

Basim Sabri is always fighting for something or against someone. He can't help it. A stocky bundle of a man, the olive-skinned 41-year-old is perpetually scheming, animated by nervous energy and a steady stream of cell-phone calls. Mercurial, by turns comically playful, then menacingly brusque, he thrives on confrontation. He talks in profane torrents about his ideas, his plans, his projects, his allies, and his growing list of enemies.

His company, Sabri Properties, is headquartered in a Spartan, two-story brick building at the intersection of Lake Street and Fourth Avenue South in Minneapolis, an area that houses exactly zero of Minnesota's sixteen Fortune 500 companies. Residents still complain about sex and drug traffic along this stretch of road. But where other capitalists see a blighted inner-city neighborhood, Sabri sees opportunity. Problem is, not everyone fits into his vision. Sabri is a real estate developer and a landlord, after all. He is not--as he so fond of saying--Mother Teresa.

When Sabri bought the building at Lake and Fourth, for instance, he promptly raised the rent. One of the tenants, Central City Theater, couldn't pay. Tough luck. "He made it impossible for me to stay," says Judy Cooper Lyle, who ran the operation. Previously, Cooper Lyle and Sabri had served together in a neighborhood group. At the time, Sabri "was just as sweet as pie to me," she recalls. But that all changed when he bought the building.

David Kern

Cooper Lyle's complaints echo those of many who live and work in the Central neighborhood. They believe Sabri is nothing but a manipulative bully who will fill his pockets by any means necessary; a man who needlessly divides people to achieve his own goals.

"You know what?" counters Sabri, in a characteristically booming, rapid-fire cadence. "I don't give a shit. I'm not a charity, I'm a businessman. I'm not Catholic Charities. I'm not the welfare office. I'm here to make a business go. Running a business is different than being a nice guy."

Those who benefit from Sabri's ambition can be fiercely, devotionally supportive. They see him as a savior who is bringing new, vibrant life to Minneapolis's previously dilapidated core. In the last two to three years, Sabri has acquired and redeveloped a half-dozen commercial properties in and around south Minneapolis's Central neighborhood. His most visible projects include Karmel Square, a Somali market just a block off on Pillsbury Avenue and Lake Street; the International Bazaar at 301 E. Lake St., packed with small Latino stores selling everything from clothing to CDs to food; and 315 E. Lake St., home to a host of immigrant-run businesses.

"I was so pleased when he did 301 and 315 E. Lake Street because they'd been dead and hideous for a long time," observes longtime Central resident and activist Wizard Marks. "That was wonderful. There are people working and people with their own little businesses. It used to be hookers, pimps, and drug dealers."

With characteristic pride, Sabri notes that both his friends and foes have a point. He makes no bones about being a businessman. Meeting the bottom line means completing deals, even stepping on a few toes. But Sabri also fashions himself as an urban missionary who gets results. "I could be an asshole, and I could be the sweetest guy," he chuckles.

Sabri's latest scheme has the neighborhood buzzing--and will test the effectiveness of his overall approach. Sabri owns a plot of vacant land that sits behind the Roundup Beer Hall on Lake Street and an exit to 35W, where he hopes to partner with AmericInn International to build a hotel. Sabri would develop some retail space on the first floor. The Chanhassen-based AmericInn would put their corporate name on the franchise. Those who believe in the project say such a structure would be a boon for the shaky neighborhood, spurring another round of revitalization and investment. But neighbors worry the hotel would simply serve as a haven for the area's already sizable population of drug dealers, addicts, prostitutes, and johns. "It's garbage," argues Central resident David Piehl. "It's not appropriate for our area. It's a suburban solution to an urban space."

Hotel or no hotel, there's no doubt Sabri is becoming a force in south Minneapolis. For proof, a person only has to walk six blocks to the east of Sabri's office, where six years of redevelopment plans have come and gone and the old Sears building still sits empty (the City of Minneapolis is in the process of buying out the previous developers, who were not moving fast enough for the city). In characteristic fashion, Sabri says he's got a few ideas about the old retail store. And given his recent track record, it might be the Sears building's last, best hope: "If the city gets it back, I think I do have a plan."

 

Sabri is pacing. It is a late afternoon in early April, and a standing-room-only crowd has gathered for a community meeting at Urban Ventures, an austere-looking building near the corner of Lake Street and Fourth Avenue South, just down the block from Sabri Properties. There are several items on the agenda, but most of the 100 people that have filed into the room are here because of AmericInn.

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