A Major Complex

Four new proposals for the Sears Building come before the City Council this month

Since its closing in 1994, the Sears complex at Lake Street and Chicago Avenue has presided solemnly over the modest economic renaissance of its south Minneapolis environs. Yet the building itself--at 1.9 million square feet, the second largest in the state after the Mall of America--has stubbornly resisted those same forces of revitalization. Too historic to be torn down, yet seemingly too large to redevelop, the Sears building has instead been content to hang, albatrosslike, around the city's neck.

"If you look at Lake Street, everything's booming except that one area," notes Jim White, senior project coordinator at the city's department of Community Planning and Economic Development (formerly the Minneapolis Community Development Agency). "So we'd be tickled to get something done there."

But exactly what will get done is still unclear. After years of false starts, developer interest in the massive, 75-year-old structure is cresting again. At present, White explains, his office is considering four new proposals for redeveloping the long-derelict property. One plan, proposed by Ryan Companies, developer of the heavily subsidized downtown Target store, would include a medical research lab, senior housing, and a Sheraton Hotel; another would feature a glass atrium overlooking an indoor soccer field; and yet another housing and retail plan was proposed by Basim Sabri, the Minneapolis real-estate developer at the center of the Brian Herron extortion scandal.

White says that while all the plans remain in flux--the final proposals will be forwarded to the council's community development committee on October 14--the reconfigured Sears building will almost certainly resemble one of the four concepts introduced to neighborhood residents and business groups this summer. "It's not a bait-and-switch, where the neighborhood will end up with a jail or a nuclear waste dump," White promises. "They're going to get roughly what they're looking at."

Yet there is cause for skepticism. The Sears complex also has a long history of derailing even the best-laid plans. In 1996, a Chicago developer's plan for a shopping center on the site fell apart after the city declined to offer $8 million in subsidies. And in 1998, the then-MCDA helped a group headed by Calhoun Square developer Ray Harris purchase the building. When financing for that plan failed to materialize, the city was forced to buy Harris out for a total cost, according to White, of about $3.5 million. White contends that these previous redevelopment schemes foundered because of the difficulty of arranging financing for what's estimated to be a $115 million project. "It was like trying to drive from here to L.A. with a gas tank full of peanut butter," he says.

Having been twice bitten by previous stalled redevelopment plans, one might expect the city to be thrice shy about plunging forward with yet another, especially considering how ambitious current contenders may seem. According to Ward 8 City Council member Robert Lilligren, however, the city will likely choose a developer by the end of the month. "The bottom line is, this has to go," he says. "There's a lot of community expectation. So as a city it's important to have something happen there."

While Lilligren won't comment on the specific merits of the proposals, he says that each of the four relies mostly on private money. "It's a component of more difficult economic times that the development community understands that there needs to be a higher level of private investment," Lilligren says. Since the city will likely sell the site to the chosen developer, he adds, Minneapolis wouldn't be left holding the bag for yet another failed scheme. "The worst that could happen is that we'd be left with the site again if there's a major default."

According to White, city leaders should jump-start the long-awaited development as soon as possible: Although the city has already secured a mix of state bonding and federal empowerment-zone funding for the project, the state money could begin evaporating if some sort of redevelopment isn't underway by next year. "Frankly, it's like a U.N. process," White says. "But there's a lot of money lined up, and that's not bullshit. Hopefully, it's doable."

While the city contemplates its options, the Sears complex has at least one unexpected use: Last week, Frank Theatre began a production of the 1937 musical The Cradle Will Rock in the empty building, scheduled to run through October 26. "It's amazing what a part of the neighborhood that building is," says Frank artistic director Wendy Knox. "The neighborhood's fought so hard for something, anything, to happen, instead of just letting it sit there. I just thought, well, something should happen here."

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