By CP Staff
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Chris Parker
By Jesse Marx
By John Baichtal
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Jesse Marx
By Olivia LaVecchia
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.
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.
When it came time for questions from reporters and a handful of area business people, the two mayoral candidates turned over the proceedings to a number of community members who had been on various advisory committees surrounding the project. Questions followed: How much would the project cost? Who was paying for it? How long would it take? At one point, a Somali man who ran a shop in Plaza Verde spoke up. "This is all news to me," he said. "I knew about the street being torn up, but I didn't know about the cost." He trailed off, and then added: "I just got a bill saying I would be assessed for this, thousands of dollars, something I knew nothing about. Who do I talk to about this?" Blank stares and silence met his question.
Hanging around the perimeter of the assembly was a man named Tom Johnson. Johnson is portly and unassuming, but by all accounts he's played the point role in shepherding the Lake Street plan. Johnson didn't speak at the unveiling in May. He is not an employee of the city, county, or state. Instead, he works for a Minneapolis law firm called Smith Parker, whose role in the Lake Street deal has been irksome to critics. Smith Parker bills itself as a "small practice chosen to represent some of the largest interests in Minnesota," according to its website. "Yet we're not just a firm for 'the big guys.'"
Still, they have done very well by the big guys. The website boasts that "our clients have given us the opportunity to address some of the great challenges in law and public policy." Smith Parker has been involved in "successful representation of the Metropolitan Council to assure the construction of light rail transit; counseling America's largest urban lake restoration; ... and formation of award-winning public-private partnerships to revitalize urban neighborhoods and guide sustainable growth in the Twin Cities' transportation corridors."
Johnson himself is not a lawyer, though he is listed as the firm's transportation consultant. His CV lists such posts as deputy chair of the Minnesota Waste Management Board, assistant chief administrator at the Metropolitan Transit Commission, director of marketing and public affairs for MnDOT's Office of Minnesota Road Research, and unit chief of MnDOT's Office of Environmental Affairs. The presence of Johnson and Smith Parker in the project would seem to indicate that Lake Street is in the hands of an accomplished public-private negotiator--and a deft legal team ready to fend off any potential lawsuits.
Ken Avidor, an agitator who was asked to join the Lake Street "Project Advisory Committee" (PAC) three years ago, then was asked to resign after four months because of his protests over lack of mass-transit planning, still wonders at Smith Parker's involvement. "They have no urban planning experience," he notes. "They talk about public-private partnerships in order to get things done. But what happens to the community and the democratic process when these guys are involved? They do an end around, because they represent very powerful interests. They see themselves as power brokers."
Louis Smith, one of the partners at Smith Parker, serves as counsel for an entity called the Midtown Community Works partnership. Formed in 1998, the MCW has played a significant role in the Lake Street rehab. It acts, in effect, as a one-stop shop for planning, promoting, and consulting on the project. The notion came up, according to the organization's website, because "while a renaissance of south Minneapolis was underway, a largely neglected yet extremely valuable area of the city had been overlooked." The website also notes that "the MCW Partnership is comprised of top executives of prominent corporations and non-profit institutions" who "realize that in order to sustain this renaissance, they must create a path for targeted public and private investment within the Lake Street Midtown Greenway Corridor.
"As discussion among these influential leaders progressed," the primer continues, "a vision of an economically, socially, and environmentally revitalized corridor emerged."
While community involvement and betterment are among the nominal goals to which MCW is dedicated, there are relatively few community folks overseeing what it does. Its board includes McLaughlin, the Hennepin County commissioner representing the area, Mayor R.T. Rybak, and a handful of City Council members. The board is chaired by Nate Garvis, vice president of government affairs for Target Corp, and its other members are Met Council head Peter Bell, Abbott-Northwestern hospitals president Richard Sturgeon, Wells Fargo executive Kelly Gosz, Xcel Energy's Dan Pfeiffer, and Rick Collins, vice president of the developer Ryan Companies.
Ryan has had a hand in several high-level projects around Minneapolis, including the Target on Nicollet Mall and the renovation of the Grain Belt Brewery. Its revenues in recent years have been in the $500-$700 million range. Ryan is also redoing the million-square-foot Sears tower. The revamped 77-year-old building will house some 1,500 employees of Allina.
In a flourish of commerce-speak, the Sears building has been renamed the "Midtown Exchange." It's part of a larger Smith Parker-led marketing campaign to rename this stretch of Lake Street "Midtown," in an obvious nod to the success of Uptown on its west. The marketing campaign's cost is projected to be $500,000. As part of the May launch event, a new logo was unveiled. It's vaguely multicultural--a sandstone-colored background, lettered in various colors to represent "diversity," and a slogan: "Midtown: Color. Flavor. Rhythm."
Lake Street has vexed city fathers and urban planners from the beginning. By the mid-1940s, it was a major urban thoroughfare, but the genesis of Lake Street goes back to the early 1860s, when it was simply a dividing line between the farms just shy of downtown Minneapolis and the further expanses of farmland that stretched south uninterrupted for miles. By no real design, covered wagons began using this route to cross town, and at some peril: Many got stuck in the lowlands and swamp--and, according to one newspaper account, "much horse dung"--at either the Mississippi or Lake Calhoun ends of the trail.
In 1919, Major Edward Falk, who owned a harness shop on Lake, reminisced about the early years of the "finest boulevard in town" to the Minneapolis Tribune. "[H]e used to sit in front of his shop and watch the throngs of bicycle riders, men, women and boys, going in both directions," the paper recounted. "Pedestrians had to wait for 15 to 20 minutes waiting for a chance to cross." Falk went on to recall that "in 1885, Lake Street had no business houses at all. There were only a few scattered houses. At that time the intersection of Nicollet Avenue and Lake Street was the only corner that showed any promise."
Beginning around 1890, a "steam motor line" was built from 12th Street to Nicollet Avenue, then to 31st Street and out to Lake Calhoun. "Part of this trip was through prairie grain fields," according to a newspaper account. Around the same time, a streetcar line was built on Fourth Avenue from downtown to Lake Street. It was the first in the city to be "electrified." A "Selby-Lake interurban line" was added in 1905, according to the Tribune. Aside from connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul across the river, it created a great commercial interest in Lake Street. It was paved by 1910, with streetcar tracks running down the middle of the boulevard.
Lake Street's growing pains have periodically distressed the city ever since. In June 1927, for example, the Minneapolis Tribune reported an effort to repave Lake Street. There was, predictably, a fight on the Minneapolis City Council over money for the project. But in August 1927, according to the Minneapolis Star, the repaving of Lake Street from Hennepin to 29th Avenue was approved at a cost of $237,850.50. A year later, the mammoth Sears tower was built. For several years it remained the largest retail complex west of the Mississippi River. Over the next three decades, Lake Street flourished for blocks near the intersection of Chicago Avenue and Lake, thanks almost solely to the Sears complex and the streetcar lines--from both Minneapolis and St. Paul downtowns, all the way to Excelsior on Lake Minnetonka--that led to it. Commercial development boomed.
This changed almost overnight in 1954, when the legendary Minneapolis-St. Paul streetcar line was torn up. The General Motors Company gave money to municipalities across the nation for major road reconstruction and offered discounts to cities for buses the company had built. The end of the streetcar was the beginning of the era of the automobile. (The head of the local company that ran the streetcars had once worked for the bus division started by General Motors.) And with it came urban decay. Lake Street was a notable victim.
A September 1954 story from the Minneapolis Tribune heralded a project called "Lake of Light." According to the clipping, 335 light fixtures were to be installed between Hennepin and 29th Avenues, over a six-month period. The project was to cost $237,000, and was part of a million-dollar effort to revitalize and widen Lake Street. "Transition of Lake Street from a 'boulevard of shadows' into the longest stretch of fluorescent lighting in the world will begin next week," the clip says. "The street will be bathed in an almost glareless bluish gray light which will make details of traffic, pedestrians and buildings sharp and clear. There will be nothing else like it."
Before-and-after photos published in the Minneapolis Star in May 1955 show cobblestones, rail tracks, and streetlamps replaced by glistening pavement and towering fluorescent lights. The "after" picture, notably, features no traffic and no pedestrians. It was the last time anyone tinkered with Lake Street, until now.
By the late 1960s, Lake Street had slipped into a haze of empty storefronts, struggling auto dealerships, and petty crime. In 1968, students at the University of Minnesota undertook a study of Lake Street and came to the conclusion it was "ugly." "Lake Street looks like Reno, Nevada," one student told a group of businessmen, citing bumper-to-bumper traffic, empty sidewalks and boarded-up windows. "You have to have a drawing card if you want people to come here, and aesthetic harmony is a good one." According to the Minneapolis Star, the business gathering gave the students applause and $500 for their efforts.
So began a protracted battle to get a grip on Lake Street. In 1969, something called the Greater Lake Street Council was formed to "halt the deterioration some businessmen felt was afflicting Lake Street." By 1972, newspapers reported that Lake Street's "'dollar volume per square foot" was $30, compared to $56 in downtown Minneapolis and $100 at Southdale Mall in Edina--the country's first enclosed shopping mall, built in 1962.
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.
"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.
Still, he welcomes the project. "You only do this once every 50 years, so you survive," he says. "It will not look like Southdale. It will not look like Calhoun Square. This will look like a neighborhood that has wonderful businesses serving Allina, Wells Fargo, and shoppers from all around. There has been this perception that Lake Street is a dangerous place, and we want to change that, pull people from the Mall of America."
Across the street, the Midtown Exchange is selling million-dollar lofts. "The genesis of this project was that we wanted to make traffic flow better," says Wolf, who has sat on a number of "subcommittees" regarding the project. "Now maybe it is about upscaling. But nobody wants it the way it was." Wolf concedes that he can afford to think that way. His has a big enough business to weather the economic storm. Many merchants in the neighborhood, he knows, are about to get pushed out. "As far as the immigrant community, what are the county and Smith Parker supposed to say?" he asks. "They care? Of course they care. Is it lip service? Maybe. But how can they show they care beyond lip service?"
Just across the street, Miguel Hernandez would settle for lip service. No one, he says, has come to offer him assurances that Marisquería El Nayarita will make it through the long spell of construction. The thought of 18.5 percent loans leaves him shaking his head. The project will go on hold after November, when winter comes, then pick up again in the spring. Hernandez knows now that Lake Street, the main route to his business, will be torn up for the next three years.
"This is not business for me," he says, looking out the window. "I believed this was an opportunity, but this is not it. My landlord says the rents will go up when it's all done. I guess you could say that got me kind of down, because I was just hoping to make it through, and that's it. But sometimes I wonder: Who is this all for?"