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Minneapolis plan to reopen Nicollet Ave. at Kmart site inches forward

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Redeveloping Nicollet and Lake
City of Minneapolis planners are taking the first steps to try to redevelop the area where a Kmart store, built in the 1970s, blocks off Nicollet Avenue at Lake Street.
Jon Collins / MPR News

It's been almost four decades since Marilyn Lindstrom has been in the drug store that used to be at the intersection of Lake Street and Nicollet Avenue along with rows of other small businesses. 

"They always had little donuts, a Tom Thumb type of donut machine going there, and the smell always went out onto Nicollet Avenue, so you could hardly walk by there without going, 'Oh, donuts. I have to have one,'" said Lindstrom a longtime resident of the Whittier neighborhood in south Minneapolis. "It was just a really busy corner, and it was really full of life and character."

That drug store and nearby commercial buildings were taken down in the 1970s. They were eventually replaced by a Kmart store and a surrounding sea of parking spaces that blocked off Nicollet Avenue between Lake Street and 29th Street.

"The most striking thing about that area is it's lack of a feeling of place. It used to be lined with small businesses and many buildings and today it's kind of a wasteland of parking."

A plan presented before the Minneapolis Planning Commission Thursday represents a  step in reversing that closure, by seeking to give the city the authority to purchase property in and around the Kmart site from voluntary private sellers. 

Ward 10 City Council Member Lisa Bender said reopening the iconic street is the highest priority of her first term in office. 

"The most striking thing about that area is it's lack of a feeling of place. It used to be lined with small businesses and many buildings and today it's kind of a wasteland of parking," Bender said. "I think there's an enormous amount of support for redeveloping the land." 

Some of Bender's constituents are skeptical that the city will be able to make any headway in reopening the street. Bender said creating the legal framework for the city to purchase the land is an optimistic step. 

"I've been saying it's now or never," Bender said. "I would say our staff is working really hard on this right now, if we're not able to get the private landowners to sell within the next year I would say or two, it's worth putting a pause on spending city resources on someone who doesn't want to sell."

Mayor Betsy Hodges said in her inaugural address that she'd like to see the city's population surpass 500,000. The massive redevelopment around the Kmart site would give the city the chance to emphasize values that are more in vogue today.  

"This is absolutely an opportunity to link our development with our transportation system, to really prioritize walking, to really emphasize local shopping, local business, those are the values I've been hearing," Bender said. "But again, these are things that will be part of the conversation in envisioning what should be in this new part of town. 

Heading up the effort to reopen the street is David Frank, transit development director for the city of Minneapolis. 

The city is in negotiations with the owners of the sites, as well as Kmart and the nearby grocery store, which have leases on the site.  

"The reason we're doing this redevelopment plan and bringing it forward now is so we're ready if we or a friendly and coordinated party can get site control of the different pieces of land and the store leases -- so we have this in place," Frank said. 

Frank said any more detailed plans for redevelopment would only start to be shaped if the city or a friendly partner successfully acquires the sites. Today's briefing at the Planning Commission is only a preliminary step. 

The full Minneapolis City Council is scheduled to consider the proposal on April 25.

The city doesn't have the right to use eminent domain to acquire private property for redevelopment projects, Frank said. This plan only provides the legal framework for the city or another friendly entity to purchase the private land from voluntary sellers. 

The city may have the right to use eminent domain in cases that involve the public right of way, which could apply to Kmart, although Frank said that option isn't currently on the table, and that it would need to be part of a completely separate process. 

Frank said the plan gives the city the authority to purchase property in a larger area than just the Kmart site so the city has flexibility to integrate any redevelopment into other nearby projects. The site is close to the Midtown Greenway and close to proposed expansions of bus rapid transit and streetcar lines. 

"Reopening Nicollet, as beautiful a dream as it is, is largely a transportation issue," Frank said. "There's a lot of coordinated transportation projects happening very nearby or right in the project area."

There's a lot of excitement about the prospect of reopening Nicollet Avenue at the neighborhood level, according to Marian Biehn, executive director of the Whittier Alliance. But the real question is what will take Kmart's place. 

"There are four neighborhoods, for all the neighborhoods that corner is a real center of commerce and transit and neighborhood health," Biehn said. Reopening Nicollet Avenue "will unify it, but how it's unified is another question."