West Broadway in North Minneapolis has never been a place of haunting beauty where you’d send out-of-town visitors to gasp at the sights. Even in its 1950s heyday, it was a fairly standard midwestern artery of two- and three-story brick buildings. Still, it was lively, with busy groceries, butcher shops, dry cleaners, movie houses and restaurants. My family favored Moy’s, a Chinese eatery that I notice has relocated way beyond I-494.
And, of course, that’s been one of West Broadway’s ongoing problems — the migration of businesses and people to the suburbs. That vector of abandonment was the result of a multitude of events and forces: removal of street cars in 1954; uneasiness with a burgeoning black population; white flight; aging of the housing stock; riots in 1967 and 1969; bank red-lining; increasing isolation, as I-94 and I-394 cut the area off from the rest of the city; crime, drugs; foreclosures, and most recently a devastating tornado.
But don’t get me wrong. West Broadway isn’t the worst street around. Though you’ll find boarded-up houses, derelict commercial buildings and vast empty lots, you can also see some pleasant tree-lined blocks and boring-looking but bustling suburban-style shopping centers. But waves of gentrification and urban revival seemed to have passed it by.
So, when Metropolitan Council Chair Susan Haigh and some local officials took a tour of Livable Communities sites on West Broadway, I tagged along. “Tour” is a bit of an exaggeration since we made only two stops. The visit was partly designed, says Met Council spokesman Bonnie Kolledge, “to give the chair an opportunity to see what’s being done.”
Livable Communities, in case you didn’t know — and I sure didn’t — is a federal grants program, administered by the Met Council. It provides dough to help cities put up affordable housing, improve access to travel and promote walkable development — mostly by remediating land or buildings with some kind of environmental damage. The idea is to stem sprawl and cut down on car usage, which increases pollution and dependence on foreign oil. In the 17 years since the program began, says Haigh, the Met Council has given grants to about 90 cities in its seven-county empire.
The first showplace (or show-off place) was Gateway Lofts, a new 46-unit apartment house, sitting almost at the Robbinsdale border. The developer is Alliance Housing, which usually renovates single-family homes on sites scattered throughout Minneapolis. Financing came from a batch of government agencies, foundations and Bremer Bank. Previously, the triangle-shaped lot held a run-down gas station; but a $74,000 grant from Livable Communities went to mitigate the toxic bleach left behind.
The units are tiny — 338 square feet for a studio and 594 square feet for a one-bedroom. But the windows are huge, filling the rooms with sunlight, and all the units have dishwashers and extra heaters that residents can control.
Mike Schmidt, who has lived in the building with his partner Steve Bartkowiciz since its opening last January, proudly showed us their one-bedroom apartment, which was jam-packed with memorabilia and art work. He’s impressed — as was Susan Haigh — by the fact that he can walk to his job at U.S. Bank. “You caught me during my lunch,” he said, which he had come home to eat.
They should both be impressed with the rent, too. His unit goes for $440 to $800 a month, depending on income. That better than meets the typical standard for affordability (a rent equal to no more than 30 percent of an income that is 60 percent of the region’s median — now about $82,000 in the Twin Cities).
The building also has free underground parking, a feature usually available only in luxury condos. (Actually, people in luxury condos have to pay for it.) Only a few residents use it because public transit is available just outside the door, said Troy Kester, the Northside development manager for Alliance. I had to wonder why the developer bothered since each spot cost $16,000 to build. But Kester pointed out that if residents saw their fortunes improve and bought cars, they wouldn’t immediately move out to find a building that did have a garage. And, I imagine, having underground parking keeps the building from being stereotyped as a low-income project. Maybe a smart move.
For our second stop, we moved on to 1101 West Broadway, a two-story commercial building on the southwest corner of Emerson Avenue built in 1929. Back in the day, as I recall, it housed a Piggly Wiggly supermarket, much favored by my grandma. In the interim, it fell on hard times, eventually coming into the city’s clutches as a tax foreclosure in 1992. After standing vacant and boarded up for 10 years, the Ackerberg Group, a developer, in concert with a credit union and Emerge Community Development, a non-profit job training and placement service, put a proposal together to renovate the building.
The project cost about $4 million and required a new roof, an elevator, new electrical, new storefront and plenty more. Livable Communities paid $100,000 for cleanup of debris and mold, among other things. The place opened in 2007, and what once was home to drug-dealers and prostitutes became a stylish building with giant windows outside and exposed brick and beams inside.
“We were able to breathe life back into this historic building and into this corner of the neighborhood,” says CEO Stuart Ackerberg, who is also the founder and chairman of Catalyst, a group of private-sector “social entrepreneurs” who aim to bring back downtrodden neighborhoods by investing in them.
The theory, he says, is that improvement in one building can stimulate the owner of another down the block to improve his. And you can see some evidence of that. A dental office across the street, for example, installed decorative sunburst grillwork for its windows. The 1101 building “signaled a change,” said Ward 5 Councilman Don Samuels, who came on the tour.
There’s more going on than these two buildings. The city’s school board opened its new headquarters at 1250 West Broadway just yesterday. And Catalyst itself has completed several projects on West Broadway, most notably the 5 Points Building and Arts Plaza at Penn Avenue, which houses KMOJ-FM, an African-American station. You can recognize the place because the bus shelter in front looks like a flowerpot, and yes, has giant metal flowers coming out of the top.
According to Erik Hansen, principal project coordinator for CPED (the Department of Community Planning and Economic Development), the city has purchased land on West Broadway where it turns north, possibly for a mixed use development, and it’s helping the Capri Theater acquire property for expansion. Emerge is renovating the North Branch Library on Emerson, and, well, the list goes on and on.
“A lot of talented people are putting work into it,” he says, “but it takes time.” Years, apparently. The library re-do, which begins this fall, has been in the works for five years.
And these developments seem like little Monopoly hotels placed on a very long street. To make a difference, they’ll have to connect up with more housing and businesses to make a truly livable community. But those businesses cannot survive without more daytime population, says Ackerberg. If the neighborhood could attract office buildings and retail, their workers could populate the streets and patronize restaurants and other retail outlets.
But appealing to those employers and businesses takes a lot of heavy lifting. To get Anytime Fitness to open an outlet on West Broadway, says Barbara Johnson, city council president and long-time North-sider, “we had to write a letter pleading with them.” The effort succeeded, and the place is due to open in a couple of weeks.
Not every effort is successful. Ackerberg labored for three years to lure a restaurant to 5 Points. “We wanted a sit-down place where people could get a healthy meal instead of fast food,” he says. But there were no takers. Restaurateurs weren’t sure that there would be enough diners during the day.
And, of course, there’s the Northside’s lingering and sometimes justified reputation for high crime.
Of course, what would really help West Broadway make a comeback is a pot of money — Ackerberg suggests $20 million to $30 million — to fix up the commercial buildings on the street. Most, while worth preserving, need a tremendous amount of updating to meet contemporary safety and aesthetic standards. Their owners, however, don’t have the resources to do the job. There are funds to build affordable housing and money to help small businesses launch, says Ackerberg, but almost nothing to fix and renovate the buildings needed for the businesses that can revive a neighborhood.
Says Johnson: “West Broadway is the only commercial corridor in the city that hasn’t been redeveloped.” Her message: It’s time we paid attention.