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?

Allina, a system of hospitals, clinics, and other health care services in Minnesota and Wisconsin, counts some 23,000 employees and 5,000 physicians on its payroll. It's the state's largest health care nonprofit and has seen remarkable growth and expansion, with annual revenues of roughly $2 billion. In 2004, Allina--which is the parent company of Abbott-Northwestern--agreed to move into the Sears building, paying some $5.2 million to headquarter as many as 1,500 employees in the Sears site. "It's one of the great success stories of the city today," Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak told the Star Tribune at the time. "This is a decision that transforms a community." And with that, the rush to re-create the street for a new corporate community that had come together under the Phillips Partnership was underway.

"I envision a Lake Street for the 21st century," says Hennepin County Commissioner and Minneapolis mayoral candidate Peter McLaughlin, who has played a significant role in bringing the project to fruition. One popular refrain surrounding the project is that Lake Street hasn't been touched in a half century, since the city's widely admired streetcar system was torn up in 1954. And if it's true that Lake Street may be, as McLaughlin says, "pretty tired out, physically," it is also true that the reconstruction has little to do with transit or traffic issues.

Countless advisory committees, neighborhood groups, and business representatives have haggled over the future of the six-mile stretch of road, which runs through every conceivable sort of demographic enclave in the city. By the time final plans emerged 18 months ago, it became clear that, save for a couple of tricked-out intersections and medians alive with shrubs and bushes, little about the road itself would change. There will still be two lanes of traffic in each direction. Sidewalks will not be expanded or receded. Mass transit opportunities will largely be overlooked. Storefronts will not be demolished--at least not for now.

Instead, the renovation is mainly about what some proponents call "beautifying" the street. Detractors call it gentrification tailored to corporate interests, an upscaling that shows little regard for the character of the businesses and residents who have toughed it out through thick and thin for decades. Many believe the remaking of Lake Street will serve to drive them out once and for all.

Just 10 years ago, the stretch of Lake Street that was torn up this past May abutted some of the most crime- and poverty-stricken neighborhoods anywhere in Minneapolis. Then a wave of new arrivals--most of them Mexican and Somali immigrants--took hold of long-abandoned storefronts and breathed life back into them. Vacant houses were rehabbed and filled with working-class families. A lot of people along Lake Street referred to it as a renaissance.

The portion of Lake Street that's presently torn up, which runs through the Central, Powderhorn, and Phillips neighborhoods of south Minneapolis, saw a twofold increase in Latino population between 1990 and 2000, according to Census data. Thanks in part to the businesses they launched, the heart of Lake Street was bringing in some $160 million in total tax revenue annually by 2002, by some estimates, nearly 40 percent more than in the previous decade.

Not surprisingly, though, this street-level revival was of less consequence to city leaders than the happiness and stability of the southside corporate community, which had grown to include Allina, Abbott-Northwestern, the Phillips Eye Institute, and the Children's Heart Clinic. In fact, the $190 million plan to rehab the Sears tower into offices for Allina, million-dollar lofts, a hotel, and a "global market" was one important catalyst for the Lake Street reconstruction.

"It's not about [transportation] at all," contends Wizard Marks, who has lived in the area for more than 30 years. "There's a hope of reviving Lake Street to some kind of yuppie standard that it's running afoul of right now." Marks, who spent eight years driving the 21 bus route for Metro Transit along Lake, goes on: "Nobody will admit to this, but it's a great deal about yuppifying the street to increase the tax base. It's about 'We'll use you poor folks, thanks for what you've done, but now it's our turn.'"

Now that advisory committees have been dissolved, resolutions have been passed, funding has been procured, and ground has been broken, it's still not entirely clear what the future holds for Lake Street. Will it look like the Lake Street of old? No. But will it look like Uptown? Will it look like Southdale Mall? There are conflicting answers.

 

In early May, a ceremony to launch the Lake Street reconstruction was held at Plaza Verde, which sits near the northwest corner of Lake and Bloomington Avenue, a long-troubled area that used to be rife with street-level crack dealing and prostitution. In just the last few years, some 20 single-family units of affordable housing have been built nearby, and there's generally been a sort of triumphal spirit about the neighborhood. Earlier, in April, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak gave his annual state of the city address at Plaza Verde.

Rybak was also there for the May media event, along with a number of neighborhood activists and politicos, all of whom had apparently had one belief in common: This was the best thing that ever happened to Lake Street. Rybak and his foe in the current mayoral reelection contest, Peter McLaughlin, sat elbow to elbow at a table in the middle of a shop that sold cowboy boots, Latin music CDs, and jewelry. Both men claimed no small part in bringing a transformation to Lake Street.

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