City developing work plan to reopen Nicollet

Written in red capital letters on the top left corner of a huge whiteboard in City Council Member Robert
Lilligren’s City Hall office is his top priority: “Re-Open Nicollet.”

The declaration has survived on the always-changing board since the start of Lilligren’s 6th Ward term two years ago. It’s a goal he is still working hard to meet, he said.    

“It will be reopened. That’s clear,” Lilligren said. “It’s when.”

Lilligren leads a group of city staff and elected officials that has met quarterly during the past couple years to figure out how to go about reopening Nicollet Avenue. The road was sliced between Lake Street and 29th Street amid a storm of controversy in the mid-1970s to make way for a large Kmart
development, which now includes a SuperValu grocery store. The county recently joined the city’s group, and Lilligren hopes the team will have a planning process, or work plan, for reconnecting Nicollet in place by mid-year.

“Instead of just talking about reopening Nicollet, we’re talking about how and putting a real plan in place,” Lilligren said.

The Nicollet work plan will map out the city’s course in opening the street. Factors such as developing a community-engagement process and — the tallest hurdle — gaining control of the site, will be part of the plan, Lilligren said.

The city’s closure of Nicollet was never a popular decision, but sprang from desperation in tough financial times (see sidebar). The split has remained a contentious issue among area residents ever since; blamed for causing blight where it was supposed to erase it.  

“To me, it’s kind of one of the big urban mistakes we’ve made in the city,” said Council Member Ralph Remington (10th Ward), who has been meeting with the city’s work group. “When that corridor opens up, it will be one of the most expensive areas of real estate.”

Earl Netwal, a former Council member who represented neighborhoods just to the north of the Lake & Hennepin area when the city approved the Kmart decision, said the move cut a transportation artery to and from Downtown.  

“It was devastating for south of Lake Street because it just took all the traffic that had been the economic backbone of the businesses along the street … it destroyed the business viability for probably 30–40 different businesses that had been prosperous and thriving on the street,” Netwal said.  

But Netwal, who was opposed to closing Nicollet, said the development hasn’t brought all bad news. It had an unintended benefit: the creation of the highly developed Eat Street strip to the north. Eat Street’s isolation has allowed it to grow into its own district, and reopening Nicollet now could hurt the new area, he said.

“Now I wonder if through traffic up and down Nicollet may create a whole new series of issues and problems that aren’t there now,” he said.

Whittier Alliance Executive Director Marian Biehn said that’s a concern but thinks the new eclectic mix of restaurants and businesses are embedded well enough in the community to thrive if Nicollet were opened.  

Mark Hinds, executive director of the Lyndale Neighborhood Association, said he’d like to see some of the same success south of Kmart.

“None of that development and prosperity that’s happening on the north end of Nicollet has made its way down here at all,” Hinds said.

Lyndale’s strip of Nicollet seems “forsaken” by the city, Hinds said, because “everyone says they’ll get back to it after they reopen
Nicollet.”

Some business owners on both the south and north sides of Nicollet have grown impatient and frustrated with the lack of progress at the
intersection.

“We’ve been here for 18 years and we keep hearing ‘yes there’s an effort being made toward opening
(Nicollet)’ and then nothing happens,” said Elizabeth Trumble, co-owner of Old Arizona, a center for performing and media arts at 29th Street and Nicollet.

Trumble said she thinks reopening Nicollet would reduce crime and spur development.    

She participated in an earlier city-run community process to develop a plan for Nicollet that took place just before Lilligren was elected to the 6th Ward. A plan was developed, but control of the Kmart site proved to be an issue, so nothing was carried out.  

Lilligren said that wouldn’t happen this time. Gaining control of the site — which city property records state is owned by Harland Batrus Et Al and leased by Kmart owner Sears Roebuck & Company — needs to happen before the community is engaged, he said.

“Until we have some assurance of site control, I’m really unwilling to bring this to the community for a very broad community discussion because it builds expectations,” Lilligren said. “I want to build people’s expectations that it will open and have it open.”

Lilligren said city staff members have been in touch with the property owners and Kmart representatives about their intentions. A spokesperson for Sears Holdings Corporation confirmed that, but declined to comment any further.

 Kmart is a successful store that could be reconfigured — likely with city support — at the same site,
Lilligren said.

“A discount retailer like Kmart is, I think, welcome in the neighborhood,” he said.

A new Kmart could be built before the old one is demolished, he said.

Mayor R.T. Rybak has expressed enthusiasm for reopening Nicollet and incorporated the project into the city’s five-year capital improvement plan. Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman said the county, which owns Lake Street and plans to eventually redo the section near Nicollet as part of the I-35W Access Project, definitely wants to be a part of the discussion.

Even with support from his colleagues, the mayor and the county, moving forward will take time, Lilligren said.

But he won’t clear his top priority from his white board.

“Although we haven’t bulldozed Kmart yet, there is progress and it’s real progress,” he said. “It’s incremental progress, and that’s how we make progress in government.”

 Nicollet: The making of controversy  

The story of Nicollet Avenue’s split is one of desperation, according to former City Council Member Earl Netwal, who represented neighborhoods just north of the Nicollet & Lake Street intersection in the mid-1970s.

Here’s how it happened:

To combat blight around Nicollet Avenue and Lake Street in the early 1970s, the city created a plan to completely redevelop the area.

Nicollet &  Lake became one of the city’s first Tax Increment Financed (TIF) districts, land was assembled and buildings were razed.

Many developers were interested in the area initially, but a recession hit, making them unable to get lease commitments. Developers pulled out and the property sat vacant for two years, forcing the city to dip into its GeneralFund to service the tax increment. 

“It was a big bleeding sore in the city’s fiscal side” Netwal said.

After shelling out $2 million from the General Fund, pressure was building to fix the problem. Kmart came to the table with a “big box” store concept that required cutting Nicollet and said the design was the only one the company would build.

“The belief and hope was that a new development there would stimulate significant development in the whole area,” Netwal said.

Amid protest from neighborhoods and some city leaders (Netwal included), the project was approved. The development was built in 1977.

Shortly afterward, the community painted a mural of a battleship pointing guns at the neighborhood on the building’s backside, displaying in huge color how residents felt about the development and the conflict that still exists.