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?

Linda Berglin, then a 28-year-old candidate to represent the area in the state Legislature, told the Star, "It's not a very attractive street. It's too cluttered and too junky." The newspaper counted 78 vacant storefronts between Garfield and Cedar Avenues alone. "Though aging," the paper concluded, "Lake Street still ranks as [the] 6th-largest retail trade area in the Twin Cities." Photos from the era depict record stores, head shops, motorcycle shops, and hippies drinking 16-ounce cans of Grain Belt on the street. It was a far cry from the retail frenzy after World War II.

Through the years, a series of grand plans and revitalization schemes has followed. One that took hold was Calhoun Square, which solicited tenants with a 1979 pamphlet that bragged about how many cars idled at Hennepin and Lake each day. (The mall didn't open for another five years.) In 1982, something called the Greater Minneapolis Metropolitan Corporation offered $2 million in loans to area business owners to spruce up the place. Despite optimism that this signaled a rebirth, the money was disbursed with no discernible result.

Businesses continued to leave the area. The most notable was Minneapolis-Moline, a farming-equipment factory that had provided all sorts of labor jobs around town--and the Midwest--for years; the company was gone by the early 1970s. In its absence, a 26-acre plot near Lake and Hiawatha Avenue was left to go to seed until 1975, when a $7 million project brought a Target store and a strip mall anchored by a Super Valu. (The developer was Ryan Companies.) On the whole, however, Lake Street's decline continued. The final blow came in 1994, when the enormous Sears tower closed for good. Ray Harris, the man who conceived the Calhoun Square project, promised to do the same for the vacant structure. But that, too, fell by the wayside. All through the 1990s, it seemed that no one with serious money wanted to touch Lake Street.

Around this time, a group dedicated to changing that was formed. Hatched in 1997, the Phillips Partnership today boasts of having "leveraged and guided institutional investment to improve the long-term livability of the Phillips neighborhood in Minneapolis," according to its website and many promotional newsletters. "The organization has set national precedents for strategic cooperation between the public and private sectors."

While some of its initiatives have been heralded for bringing jobs and office space to south central Minneapolis, the Partnership's interests have been largely political and professional. In some respects the Phillips Partnership looks a lot like the Midtown Community Works. Its current board includes McLaughlin and Rybak, along with Richard Sturgeon, the president of Abbott-Northwestern hospitals, Susan Davis, senior vice president of Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, Alan Goldbloom, CEO of Children's Hospitals and Clinics, and Rick Collins, vice president of Ryan Companies. Finally, Tom Johnson of Smith Parker oversees the partnership's "transportation initiative."

A notable Phillips alum is Mike Christenson, who now has a job with the city's department of Planning and Economic Development (CPED). Christenson represented Allina's interests in the Phillips Partnership and, according to his bio on the city's website, served as an attorney for Smith Parker. "The agreement behind the partnership," Christenson says, "brought a lot to the table."

By late 2003, plans for the long-vacant Sears tower were at last moving forward. Ryan had signed up to renovate the building, and Allina had committed to putting a lot of employees there by consolidating other scattered-site offices. This was spurred in no small part by the presence of the Wells Fargo and the hospitals in the neighborhood--it suddenly looked like an economically viable corridor. The refilling of the Sears tower created a buzz. Most of the newfound momentum was chalked up to the role that that the Phillips Partnership, Midtown Community Works, and Smith Parker had played in creating the business consortium. The fact that Allina committed to stay was, for Ryan and other entities, "decisive," Christenson says.

There had been so much struggle over Lake Street in recent years, though, that many failed to notice one minor detail. For years, the city of Minneapolis had been in charge of Lake Street. But the Minnesota Department of Transportation plays a significant role in determining which government entities oversee what roads, and in 1993, it determined that Hennepin County should be responsible for Lake Street. From then on, the county board would take the leading role in any major projects concerning the street.

 

Smith Parker has three contracts with Hennepin County. The first one, dated October 2, 2001, calls upon the law firm to, among other things, "provide staff resources for overall Project management," "designate and provide a Project Manager to communicate and work directly with the County and City, and to serve as Project spokesperson," and to "develop and implement a program to engage the public, through direct participation in Project development and decision making." The cost of these services, the contract notes, shall not exceed $300,000.

By July 22, 2004, another contract had been signed to raise that figure to $555,000. A still later revision, as yet unsigned, amends that to $655,000. This is one of the sorest points in the whole affair to some opponents of the plan. By several accounts, Smith Parker had little interest in the community process at any point. The Project Advisory Committee meetings were often contentious, and a host of community volunteers quit in disgust. It still leaves a bad taste.

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