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What’s next for Nicollet & Lake? Lesson from the Kmart fiasco is to prioritize sidewalks

The understandable impulse to “open up” Nicollet Avenue, simply because the street has reappeared, should absolutely not mean inviting speeding cars into an otherwise calm neighborhood.

Bill Lindeke

It’s both amusing and tragic that one of the main jobs of urban planners in the 21st century is to undo the mistakes of urban planners in the 20th. Maybe that’s the way it goes with decisions with generational impact, shifting tides of governmental philosophy, and the short-term calculus of politicians running for reelection.

In Minneapolis, the current example could not be more poignant. Planners in 2023 are finally undoing a mistake made 45 years ago in 1978. At long last, the Lake Street Kmart — a longtime urban design laughing stock because it’s an antiquated big-box store directly on top of what would be a key intersection — might be ready for the wrecking ball. The city has finally released proposals for what to do with the space, once the great mistake is gone.

A big-box urban debacle

The Lake Street Kmart (as it’s known throughout the city) will go down as one of the all-time Minneapolis urban planning blunders. To transform what was once a central south Minneapolis intersection into a desolate, massive big-box store parking lot is the kind of heel turn that’s thankfully rare.

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The story of the Lake Street Kmart is a typical case of good intentions and bad ideas. The intersection of Lake Street and Nicollet Avenue had long been a major Minneapolis destination, where two of the highest-traffic streetcars in the city came together. Nicollet ballpark, home of the Minneapolis Millers for decades, brought crowds to one corner until the 1950s. The rest of the intersection relatively thrived with commerce until the 1960s, when shopping malls and suburbanization uprooted the old ways of doing business.

Minnesota Historical Society
Nicollet Baseball Park
Enter tax-increment financing (TIF), a powerful tool for urban development that was legalized statewide in the early 1970s. Minneapolis elected officials quickly deemed the buildings at Nicollet and Lake to be blighted, allowing them to seize the properties and redevelop them with tax subsidies. Buildings like the former Northwestern Bank building, which had devolved into a billiard hall, were slated for removal. Same with the President Café.

The intersection was one of the first chosen for a large-scale project led by city planners intent on competing with suburban shopping malls (aka “the ’dales”). The 1972 vision was rather wild: an elaborately linked complex with ample parking and large-scale branding dominating the intersection, ideally forming an urban mall on a scale that Minneapolis didn’t see until Calhoun Square was completed a mile to the west.

The urban mall never happened. The city bulldozed all the properties at the intersection, and then lost the financing for redevelopment. Instead, the corner sat vacant for years. (It’s a familiar story for anyone who knows their Block E history; the exact same thing happened there in the late 1980s.) By the time you got to 1976, a sense of desperation had set over the Minneapolis City Council. They’d razed a key commercial corner in the heart of south Minneapolis. Something had to be done, and anything would do.

City of Minneapolis
Renderings from the 1972 City plan.
Enter the Kmart Corporation. They promised to build a modern big-box store in the city — a highly sought prize — and their one little inconsequential condition was this: They must be allowed to eradicate Nicollet Avenue altogether, and replace it with an elephantine surface parking lot, literally paving over what was once a key corner. The City Council caved, and Kmart was given a 99-year lease.

Since then, of course, the Kmart has sat there gathering dust. It finally closed in 2020 due to the gradual spiraling around the economic drain following the merger with Sears, which has long been primarily a real estate company rather than a retailer. Forty-odd years and many sweeping social and political changes later, the city regained control over the Kmart site. It’s been a long time coming, but demolition of the long-loathed store is finally impending.

And yet, then came a treasure called Eat Street

Today, it’s one of the city’s all-time weird spots. Nicollet Avenue comes to an abrupt and inelegant halt at 28th Street, just where the Midtown Greenway trench sits. The backside of the Kmart was for a long time home to a massive community mural depicting a battleship attempting to obliterate the people, a rather blunt assessment of the situation and relationship between City Hall and the Whittier neighborhood.

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Bill Lindeke
Mural on the former Kmart site.
One of the great ironies of the original Lake Street Kmart mistake is that there was a silver lining. Disconnecting Nicollet Avenue from the regular street grid, the Kmart ensured that the historically commercial street would retain low traffic levels. By being amputated, it escaped the attention of city and county Public Works departments. Unlike most other key Minneapolis corridors, Nicollet Avenue was never “improved” by engineers with extra asphalt and turn lanes, whittling away at the sidewalks and ruining walkability.

The result was a neglected neighborhood of historic mixed-use buildings that, through careful custodianship and entrepreneurialism of dozens of small business owners, grew into a small-scale Minneapolis treasure. By the time Nicollet Avenue made it to the 1980s, its mix of small businesses and diversity of restaurants and cultures gave it the name “Eat Street.” It remains a must-see (and must-taste) spot for tourists and locals alike.

My guess is that, if the original “urban mall” plans for Nicollet Avenue had come to fruition, the street would have been transformed into the kind of “traffic sewer” you find on Hennepin, Central or a dozen other old streetcar streets in Minneapolis. Gems like Quang’s, Christo’s, Rainbow Chinese and the Black Forest Cafe might never have achieved their now-legendary status.

So now what?

After years of legal wrangling, the city of Minneapolis finally has site control over the coveted Lake Street Kmart property. Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED) released its initial, abstract renderings of the property’s future this week for public comment. There are three schematics, and not a lot of detail, but the public can now see outlines of the reemerged intersection.

Two key variables seem to be in play; the first is the general layout. Should the footprint of open park space be vertical or horizontal? Should there be a pedestrian walkway at a diagonal through the block?

(Without more design details about what kind of parks and buildings would exist, these seem like vacuous questions.)

The second decision involves the connection with the Midtown Greenway, the nationally famous off-street bike trail that runs in an old railroad trench along 29th Street, just behind the walls of the old Kmart. Currently, the Nicollet Avenue on-ramp forms a unique pinch point where the trail narrows considerably. The reconstruction of the avenue and bridge offers an opportunity to fix that problem, and there’s an open question about where exactly the ramps should be located.

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Through a survey, CPED has released two series of renderings. Spoiler: In my opinion, they’re all fine. The key principles will be in how the details work out: What kind of parks and land use will emerge here? What will the specific street layouts be like?

Above all, I believe Minneapolis planners should prioritize the sidewalks, making sure that the walkability of future Nicollet Avenue is absolutely top notch. Design speeds for cars on the street should be 20 miles per hour (or slower), and the key bike connections should be seamless.

This is important because Nicollet Avenue and the Eat Street corridor is wonderful precisely because of the great sidewalks and slow travel speeds. The understandable impulse to “open up” Nicollet, simply because the street has reappeared, should absolutely not mean inviting speeding cars into an otherwise calm neighborhood.

The other piece of advice is that the frontage along the Midtown Greenway should be as active as possible. This is a great opportunity to create a Jane Jacobs “eyes on the street” environment, connecting the sometimes isolated Greenway to the city. I’m slightly leery of the park proposal depicting  that key piece of land as “green space”; it should be somewhere with lots of activity, a vibrant focal point along the city’s best bike route.

Anyway, you can take the survey and send public comments to the city at your leisure. Whenever the Kmart finally gets demolished, I’ll be there watching and wearing a party hat. It would be really hard for city planners to do any worse now than they did in 1976. The future of Nicollet and Lake looks bright.