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Everyone agrees the former Lake Street Kmart’s gotta go. Here’s why reconnecting Nicollet could still take years

City officials want to realize a number of public benefits as they shape redevelopment of the nine-acre site: ‘Once you get into the details … there will be trade-offs.’

The old Lake Street Kmart
The former Kmart building’s current, temporary occupant — the U.S. Postal Service — has a lease through at least the end of June, but city officials are confident they’ll be out by July.
MinnPost photo by Kyle Stokes

Everyone, from south Minneapolis to City Hall, seems to be on the same page about what should happen to the former Lake Street Kmart store: raze it.

Nicollet Avenue should be reconnected through the city-owned property and across the Midtown Greenway. Residents of the surrounding neighborhood and city officials want the area redeveloped with some mix of housing, greenspace, retail options and new transportation connections, according to results of city-run surveys unveiled this week.

So why will the project still take the better part of a decade to complete? Because the redevelopment effort only looks straightforward until you dive into the specifics, city officials say.

“Once you get into the details, there will be some things to decide — and there will be trade offs,” said Kelsey Fogt, a senior transportation planner with the city’s Department of Public Works, after a presentation to the City Council on Tuesday.

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There are some definite next steps in the works. The former Kmart building’s current, temporary occupant — the U.S. Postal Service — has a lease through at least the end of June, but city officials are confident they’ll be out by July; that would mean contracts for the building’s demolition could be done by early 2024.

Construction to link Nicollet Avenue over the Greenway trail could begin sometime in 2025, according to the city’s presentation.

But once the nine-acre site is ready for development, what should the city put on the land? In an online, city-run survey of 2,545 nearby residents, more than 70% of respondents said the area needs a grocery store. Solid majorities of the respondents — who came from the Whittier, Phillips West, Lyndale and Central neighborhoods — said the area also needs “gathering spots” and entertainment opportunities.

Another 40%-plus of respondents said the area lacks a place to buy household goods. During in-person feedback sessions, city officials said some commenters hoped to see “moderate or low-cost goods, replacing Kmart with a retailer that provides the same or similar goods.”

Both in the street design and the development of the site itself, survey respondents also prioritized improving walkability, bikeability and transit connections. The city asked online survey respondents to rank their top three choices of “experiences” that would make them spend more time in the area. More than two-thirds of respondents selected something the site conspicuously lacks now: “trees, landscaping, greenery.”

“It seems like our wants and dreams are all very similar, and that might make it slightly easier,” said council member Lisa Goodman. “Once you get into the specifics, that might be a different story.” 

The challenge will be to prioritize “as many objectives as one can” on the property, said Rebecca Parrell, a project supervisor with the city’s Community Planning & Economic Development department.

The dead end of Nicollet Avenue where it meets the rear of the former Lake Street Kmart and the Midtown Greenway.
MinnPost photo by Kyle Stokes
The dead end of Nicollet Avenue where it meets the rear of the former Lake Street Kmart and the Midtown Greenway.
“Eight or nine acres can’t get it all done,” Parrell said. “We can’t solve every problem. It can’t be everything to everyone.”

Parrell said the city can’t simply leave the decisions about how to use the site to the eventual developer: “We have viable public benefits we want to achieve,” including the creation of new affordable housing and first-floor retail along Lake Street and Nicollet Avenue.

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The city’s 2021 project expectations document lays out more of these “public benefits” the city wants in the new project: a “high-quality pedestrian environment,” ADA-accessible connections to the Midtown Greenway, space in the new development for small, locally-owned businesses and other strategies to “prevent the involuntary displacement of existing businesses and residents.”

“If you just sell it to the highest bidder, they’re just going to build what the market will provide their highest return on,” Parrell said, which “doesn’t give you as many public benefits as we would like to see.”

The Nicollet Avenue street reconstruction project itself is also likely to raise thorny questions all its own. (See: the debates over the redesigns of Hennepin and Bryant avenues in which on-street parking and transit lanes, among other design choices, became flashpoints for controversy.)

Fogt noted that the decision to sever Nicollet Avenue in the 1970s to make way for the Kmart development was likely made in haste.

“I want to make sure,” Fogt said, “that we have the right amount of time, the right amount of conversations to be able to hear what people need from the new street.”