Jump-starting development

Stevens Square pushes for change on its section of Nicollet

STEVENS SQUARE — Something happens along Nicollet Avenue when it leaves Downtown, crosses Highway 94 and enters the Stevens Square neighborhood.

Nicollet Mall is one of Downtown’s major commercial and transit corridors, and further south the Whittier Neighborhood’s Eat Street is a vibrant mix of ethnic restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses. But in between, pedestrian traffic drops off on Nicollet Avenue and vacant lots interrupt the streetscape like teeth missing from a smile.

“In the middle, a lot hasn’t happened in the last 10 years,” said Barb Jacobs, chairwoman of the Stevens Square Community Organization (SSCO) board of directors.

Now, Jacobs and others involved making a push for development think momentum may be building on their stretch of Nicollet Avenue.

This month, Maxfield Research was to begin a 90-day market research study on Nicollet Avenue between Highway 94 and West Franklin Avenue, examining what types of businesses could locate in the area. SSCO funded the study with a grant from the city’s Community Planning and Economic Development department.

SSCO Executive Director Steven Gallagher said neighborhood leaders hope to capitalize on planning for the intersection that began last year, when Stevens Square was one of five neighborhoods selected for Mayor R.T. Rybak’s Great City Design Teams project. A team of architects and urban designers helped neighborhood stakeholders develop a collective vision for the future of Nicollet Avenue.

Gallagher said SSCO would act as a “facilitator” in further development talks, bringing property owners and city officials to the table. It did just that on Dec. 20, when property owners from all along Nicollet Avenue joined city planners in the SSCO offices just prior to the launch of the market study.

“They generally don’t talk too often, so bringing them together was rare,” Gallagher said.

David Crockett represents the owners of the former Johnson Meat Co. site, a vacant lot at the intersection of Nicollet Avenue and West 18th Street. Many, including Crockett, see it as a key piece in the development puzzle.

He predicted the Johnson Meat site would support a “classic mixed-use development,” pairing housing with retail and office space.

That would certainly mesh with neighborhood goals laid out by the Great City Design Team. Co-chair Destin Nygard said mixed-use development could draw more people to the neighborhood during daytime hours, when pedestrian traffic tends to die down.

Nygard said the plan created by the design team also called for a shared parking space to accommodate new businesses and free up land for further development. Another objective was to attract a grocery store, a long-held neighborhood goal, he said.

Crockett was involved in the design team process, and he said that type of comprehensive vision was necessary for a project to move forward.

“We’re not interested in creating an island of development in the midst of some vacant and underutilized properties,” he said.

Bob Marshall, who owns a small mall kitty-corner from the vacant lot, argued that the city should to take a lead role in that type of large-scale transformation, possibly with incentives for development.

“The neighborhood has so much potential, being close to Downtown, and yet it’s not a priority for the city,” Marshall said.

City Council Vice President Robert Lilligren (6th Ward) said he would encourage the city to keep a wide range of development incentives on the table, including the creation of a “redevelopment zone” or the use of tax-increment financing.

When asked if any momentum was building behind development, Lilligren said it was still too early to tell. He said the “jigsaw puzzle” of various property owners along Nicollet Avenue remained a major hurdle, especially to the kind of comprehensive redevelopment many hope to see.