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?

"They were beholden to lobbyists from day one," Ken Avidor claims. "They had Allina representatives in the room with them. They think they can't do any of this stuff without corporations. The immigrants have brought so much to Lake Street, but it's not the kind of thing that they get to be a part of, now that there's corporate value in the project."

Projections as to the cost and scope of the Lake Street revamp have been ever-changing, but the first phase, from roughly east of I-35W to 21st Avenue, will cost the county $10.1 million. This is to be completed in the fall of 2006, according to the latest county records. The next phase, from Dupont Avenue to 35W, will start next year, and is supposed to cost the county $7.5 million. The final phase, from 27th Avenue South to West River Parkway, will start in 2007 and run through the next year, to the tune of $9 million. Additional costs to be borne by the city of Minneapolis are projected at $1.5 million for each phase.

Then there is the so-called "Access Project," a plan that would further transform Lake Street by putting freeway entrance and exit ramps at Lake. Though the project will be funded federally in large part, the county has to foot the bill for all sorts of "streetscaping." Plans have ground to a halt, but estimates put the cost of the Access Project at more than $200 million in federal, state, and local dollars. Smith Parker also holds the contract for the Hennepin County portion of that. "That might be finished by 2010," Smith Parker's Tom Johnson notes. "But nobody knows for sure."

That said, there will be no change in traffic flow or transit. One report shows that car traffic on Lake Street has waxed and waned without changing much overall since the 1960s. A report from the McKnight Foundation, heavily critical of the redesign, notes that there will be 25,000 daily car trips at the intersection of Chicago and Lake when the project is completed. This is roughly the same as it's been for the past 20 years.

So what's the point of the project? "It's going to be a good, safe, comfortable place to have fun," says Smith Parker's Tom Johnson, citing Uptown as an example. "Property along Lake Street is going to emerge into housing, restaurants, and retail." There's little doubt that the leaders behind this project want a place where employees of Wells Fargo, Allina, and the hospitals can feel welcome. They also want it to be, as CPED's Christenson says, "a regional retail destination." If a Starbucks replaces a Mexican boot shop, so be it.

Johnson, McLaughlin, and Christenson all point out that one of the major renovations of the "Midtown Exchange" will be a 78,000-square-foot "global market" for immigrant shop owners on the ground level of the old Sears tower. (The city just approved a loan to fund part of it in mid-August.) "Is it a concern that we might lose these immigrant businesses?" McLaughlin asks. "Sure. But we're doing what we can to preserve it. It has a unique character and we're trying to build on it."

But others, like Wizard Marks, wonder how much of the current-day Lake Street will survive. "They're trying to redo the economic engine of the city," Marks offers, saying she's not entirely opposed to simply rebuilding the street. "It's like they want to run us out of town. This neighborhood is working-class and always will be. We were born here and raised here, or we came here to contribute to the street as immigrants, and this is how you treat us?"

Marks, who lives on a fixed income, says flatly, "I won't be here by the time it's all done." She notes that she will be assessed $22,500 in the next 15 years for the reconstruction.

Tom Johnson denies that Wells Fargo, Allina, or anyone else drove the project, but there's no doubt it's designed to facilitate what Christenson refers to as "campus expansion" for the corporations in the neighborhood. Johnson seems perplexed when asked about the desire to drive out the immigrant population: "I haven't heard that at all."

But how will the businesses, and the cultures, that have grown up along Lake Street in the past decade survive? "You've got the wrong source on that," he answers. "You'd have to ask them."

Since May, there have been marketing campaigns for shop owners to put signs in windows, declaring in various languages that the businesses are open and that "Lake Street will never close" during the construction. And community and city leaders note that there are loans available--with 18.5 percent interest rates--to get shopkeepers through tough times. A host of business owners, immigrant and native merchants alike, believe they'll make it through the reconstruction, but they have to believe so. The truth of the matter is, no one knows for sure.

Mark Simon, whose family has owned Roberts Shoes, on the corner of Chicago and Lake, in the shadow of the Sears tower, since 1937, offers that the reconstruction has been "very difficult." His sales are down 40 percent. But he remains "very optimistic." John Wolf, who has owned the Chicago-Lake Liquors store that has sat kitty-corner from Roberts since 1973, allows that the project has been "shitty. And you can quote me on that." He sits in the expansive basement of his store and grins when the foundation rumbles from the trenching equipment at work outside. "There are two factors here," Wolf continues. "One, you are killing my business. And, two, you are assessing me for it." Wolf figures that he'll be assessed "hundreds of thousands of dollars," over the next 15 years for the remaking of Lake Street.

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