Extreme Makeover: Lake Street

Hennepin County and Minneapolis are spending millions to rebuild south Minneapolis's main east-west thoroughfare in a new image. But whose vision is it?

The evening rush hour on Lake Street is different these days. Traffic still jams deep at red lights, as it has for ages, but only on the south side of the street. There's one lane of traffic going east and one going west, but levels have dipped in recent months, for good reason: The north side of the street is demolished for some 12 blocks, from 5th Avenue South to 15th Avenue South. There's a near-mile stretch of dirt, old concrete, cables, and pipes. Cement trucks, Bobcats, cranes, and other heavy-construction gear sit scattered through the area, though by this time of day they are idle. In fact, Lake Street is oddly placid.

But there's not much rest in the relative peace and quiet. Miguel Hernandez, for one, is hustling bottles of Mexican soda pop into a storefront cooler. He's on the 13th hour of his workday, which started at a car wash near his home in Crystal. After rising each day at 2:30 a.m., he picks up cars from auto auctions in Minneapolis, spends the day cleaning them, and waits for the new owners to come.

Even so, here he is, before the last sunset of August, prepping for an evening dinner crowd that won't show tonight. It's been 15 days since Hernandez took control of Marisquería El Nayarita, an eatery near the northwest corner of Lake Street and Chicago Avenue, which he bought from an acquaintance who was originally from his hometown of Nayarit, on the central west coast of Mexico. Hernandez paid $65,000 for the business. Rent, including the 500 or so square feet of storefront, along with kitchen space, an awning and a sidewalk, is $1,650 a month--better than the usual $3,000 in this area.

Hernandez came to the states by way of Ontario, California, 10 years ago. Four years later, he came to the Twin Cities. Upon arriving, the 45-year-old recalls, "It was my dream to own a restaurant on Lake Street."

But Hernandez obtained a loan to purchase Marisquería El Nayarita without knowing that Lake Street would be torn up, and business is bad. The original owner told him he could count on $500 worth of business a day, maybe three times that on Saturdays. But that was before the groundbreaking for the new Lake Street, a three-phase, $31 million project that won't be finished until 2008. Hernandez has been seeing about $100 a day in receipts--$50 more on the weekends, $50 less some weekdays.

Because of this, his wife Maria runs the joint by herself pretty much all day. There's no money, and no need, for help. Visit Maria for lunch on any given weekday, and there's usually a couple of customers--construction workers--at most. "I work for free," she says, in broken English, smiling wanly toward her husband. The couple's two sons, Miguel, 8, and Michaél, 4, scurry about the store after eating a modest dinner plate of fried eggs and red beans. Miguel Sr. surveys the scene and gestures to a white van parked in a lot across the street. It's emblazoned with a "Fiestas Latinas" logo. This is the name of a weekend business he's launched to cater backyard parties in the neighborhood. "I'll make it through this," he maintains. "I have to say this. I can't say that I won't make it."

 

Miguel Hernandez's story is not one that anyone associated with the Lake Street project will readily acknowledge, but anyone who frequents businesses along the torn-up stretch of road has likely heard similar tales. Even so, plans are in motion to rebuild nearly all of Lake Street, from Dupont Avenue near Uptown all the way east to the Mississippi River. The scope of the project--some five miles of concrete and asphalt reconstructed over a period of more than three years--is not widely publicized, but has been forged and debated over a period of years. Hennepin County, which took control of Lake Street from the city of Minneapolis in 1993, has spearheaded the project and will foot most of the bill. And the county plan has been heralded by a host of public officials and private partners who have had their sights set on revamping the city's main corridor for a decade.

There's little doubt that most of the impetus for the Lake Street plan came from a confluence of corporate interests in south Minneapolis. When Honeywell operations based there were sold to a New Jersey-based company in 1999, the company departed its headquarters on 28th Street, touching off a crisis in the eyes of city leaders. Honeywell had been an anchor employer in the Lake Street area for 114 years. Without companies like it in the vicinity, officials feared both for the city's tax base and the character of the surrounding neighborhoods. Around this time, "public-private" foundations and organizations whose boards were stocked with executives of major local businesses--groups such as the Phillips Partnership--began working in earnest to fortify the corporate presence in the area.

Norwest Mortgage, which became Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, purchased and moved into the old Honeywell building shortly after it was abandoned. The move brought 3,500 employees. By 2000, Wells Fargo and Abbott-Northwestern Hospitals were working with the Phillips Partnership to invest some $400 million in the neighborhood and create as many as 4,000 new jobs. Both companies either rehabbed offices or built new ones in the area. Additionally, it was long-rumored that Allina Hospitals and Clinics wanted to consolidate several offices around town and move into the Sears building, which had gone dark in 1994.

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