Scramble in Loring Park as a city block vacates for Dominium apartments

Dominion Developers, which wants to replace Jerusalem Cafe with apartments, was supposed to help the restaurant relocate. Instead, owner Sal Azem has days left to pack up his nearly 40-year-old restaurant.

Dominion Developers, which wants to replace Jerusalem Cafe with apartments, was supposed to help the restaurant relocate. Instead, owner Sal Azem has days left to pack up his nearly 40-year-old restaurant.

An elaborate new behemoth of a construction project is bound for Loring Park.

Dominium Development envisions transforming the corner of West 15th Street and Nicollet Avenue into a 184-unit, six-story apartment building with underground heated parking, clubroom, fitness center, and commercial space on the first floor. To do it, it has to plow through a row of small businesses and a handful of existing apartments.

Longtime businesses lying in the wrecking path include Nicollet Grocery, City Wide Artists gallery, and the iconic Jerusalem Cafe. All have to move out, per their landlord's order, by Sunday.

Tenants are scrambling, even though the Minneapolis Relocation Policy says the developer is supposed to finance and physically help them relocate.

The relocation policy applies because the city council has agreed to assist Dominium -- with $29 million in tax-exempt housing bonds -- for a project that would displace people. The closing of the sale triggers tenants' eligibility for the cost of moving, finding replacement housing or commercial space, and the difference in rent for at least two years.

The problem is, the private purchase agreement between Dominium and landlord Barry Anderson requires that the building be delivered empty. And if tenants move before they've gotten a notice establishing that elibility, they lose their benefits. 

The sale still hasn't been finalized. The relocation process hasn't been triggered. And tenants, who have just three days left to get out, feel their rights have been sabotaged from the start.

Sal Azem, owner of the 38-year-old Jerusalem Cafe, served customers through August 31. The day after, as he sat in his darkened restaurant, diners who hadn't heard the news were still trying to squeeze through the door.

The restaurant was his only livelihood. According to the relocation plan Dominium submitted to the city with their bond application -- which cites the guidelines of the federal Uniform Relocation Act -- the developer should have offered Jerusalem Cafe a new home at least 90 days before he's required to move out. As it were, he has no new restaurant, no movers to help him transplant a kitchen full of equipment, and no promise of how much compensation he will ever receive.

"I'm guessing if I find a different place, we're talking another two or three months for the buildup, and that's a lot of loss," Azem said. "I'm sitting without an income for two or three months."

Dominium hired Dan Wilson of Wilson Development Services to carry out its responsibility to tenants. It wasn't until August 31 that he scheduled meetings with Azem, as well as Nicollet Grocery's Zane Abualzain, to take stock of their businesses and calculate moving costs.

Even so, Wilson showed up unannounced a day early, during the lunch hour. Azem kicked him out, and Abualzain said Wilson walked through while he wasn't there. The incident further soured the business owners' impression of the relocation process.

Abualzain is going to rent a storage space and spend the weekend muscling everything out himself. That's a stark difference, he said, from what the city's relocation policy provides.

"[Wilson] promised he'll move everything for me, promised he's going to find a new location, he promised a lot of things," Abualzain said. "All I have are promises."

Wilson said he and Dominium are doing the best they can, blaming the tenants' predicament on the landlord.

"Dominium doesn't have a project, and the owner already said, 'Get out,' so that's an issue," Wilson said. "It creates a hardship that certainly is real."

While he typically tries to "pick businesses up the way we find them and put them back down someplace else in a functioning position," he said, that just isn't possible now. However, Dominium has offered residential tenants an advance on the cost of moving and their first month's rent. And Wilson said he's tried to reassure everyone that they could still be eligible for compensation in this case after they move.

That's worked out so far for residential tenants Caleb and Dakota Timmerman, who found an apartment on their own and received checks from Wilson last week.

Another, Travis Plank, received an email saying his funds would be available only after he vacates. Because his two roommates have already moved out, leaving him to pay the rent of his three-bedroom apartment alone, he can't afford to sign a new lease. He said he doesn't have anywhere to live after September 10.

According to the city's relocation policy, none of these tenants are required to move until 30 days after they've been provided suitable replacement homes, and 15 days after Dominium has paid two years of rental assistance.

Landlord Anderson declined to comment on his deal with Dominium to deliver the building empty. Dominium wouldn't answer questions about the terms of the purchase agreement either, but did provide a statement saying it had nothing to do with communications between Anderson and his tenants. 

"Unfortunately, some difficulty arises for tenants because of timing. While residents have been notified of a need to vacate by September 10th, Dominium does not have project funding from the City of Minneapolis," according to the statement. "Until Dominium acquires that funding, residents cannot access displacement benefits."

Teqen Zéa-Aida, a city council contender for the Ward 7 seat, found himself in the unique position of losing both his City Wide Artists gallery space and his apartment upstairs.

The "magic" of his gallery space is irreplaceable, he said. "People would see me, a lone man of color, working at my deak at one o'clock in the morning. I was there projecting beauty and culture and contemporary art related to the people and the struggles of the neighborhood."

Zéa-Aida has no delusions of stopping the sale and preserving the block. He said he wants only to be treated fairly in the process. So far, he hasn't recieved any relocation assistance because, he believes, Dominium and landlord Anderson have adopted a purchase agreement that makes following the city's relocation rules impossible.

"The lack of consideration toward small business, which as we know is a massive issue in Minneapolis, is being demonstrated right there on 15th and Nicollet," he said.