Community works to move forward after Nicollet fires

LYNDALE — Less than a week after a pair of fires at 34th Street  & Nicollet Avenue left numerous low-income residents stranded and destroyed two businesses and a new mural, the neighborhood came together to talk about moving forward.

At the regular Lyndale Neighborhood Association (LNA) meeting Feb. 25, five days after the fires, residents talked about what the corner would look like with a coffee shop, a small grocery store or something else.  

“We spent quite a bit of time just having people put their ideas out for what could happen at that corner and what’s the neighborhood need,” said LNA Executive Director Mark Hinds.

The first fire started around 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 20 in a building at 3343 Nicollet Ave. S. that housed retailer Jojo Urban Clothing, a bakery being converted into a pizza parlor and a vacant space. A second fire that appeared to be unrelated to the first started at a rooming house next door at 4:20 p.m.

The 3343 Nicollet building, which had a mural painted on its south side in September, was completely ruined and demolished later in the day. Low-income families who lived in the rooming house were vacated and sent to a Red Cross center. That building is still closed and several windows are boarded.

Hinds said the neighborhood started working with the owners of the properties right after the fire to figure out what would happen on the sites.

The loss of 3343 Nicollet was particularly significant because volunteers from the Lyndale and Kingfield neighborhoods put in roughly 1,000 hours painting its mural. The mural depicted the building’s original use as a grocery store and was a precursor to a large mural event planned for July.

“For a lot of people in the neighborhood it makes it even more personal because they were there. They helped paint the tomatoes. They helped do the lettering on the sign,” Hinds said. “You can always have empathy for anyone who goes through that kind of thing, but I think it touches people in a different way when they’re really invested in something at a site and then have a fire happen.”

This summer’s event, Walldogs on Nicollet, is still on and will involve the painting of six to 10 murals along Nicollet Avenue from Lake Street to 46th Street. Professional sign painters from throughout the nation, known as Walldogs, will lead the efforts.  

Hinds said he was concerned that finding sponsors for the event would be more difficult without the mural, which was a great selling point because people could see a real example of what’s to come.

Sarah Linnes-Robinson, executive director of the Kingfield Neighborhood Association (KFNA), said the neighborhoods were excited to showcase the mural when the pros arrived.

“We learned a lot doing that mural,” she said. “It’s disappointing to have the Walldogs come to town and not be able to show them that piece. But I guess that’s one of the risks of public art.”

Linnes-Robinson said the mural was a great amenity while it was up and it put a stop to graffiti problems that plagued the building’s south wall.

At least one of the building’s businesses, Jojo Urban Clothing, is planning to reopen in the area.

“We’d like to stay in that same area and hopefully we’ll be able to take our clientele with us and everyone will find us at our new spot,” said the store’s co-owner Stacy Elkins.

Jojo survived several burglaries last summer and fall and Elkins said it was growing in popularity before the fire.

“In my opinion, we’ve been doing really well, so it’s really disappointing to lose [the store],” she said.   

Hieu Ho, who co-owns the demolished property with wife Samantha Ho Cao, said he planned to stay in touch with Elkins as plans were developed for a new structure. The owners of the bakery business did not have insurance and probably would not be starting anything new in the near future, he said.

Ho said he was looking forward to working with the neighborhood on a new building and was interested in purchasing the neighboring rooming house if it became available.

Ho Cao runs a salon business that she and Ho said might also work well at the corner.

Hinds said the redevelopment process would take months of work with the city, community and property owners.

“With new construction, you always face different hurdles,” he said.

The cause of the fires, which occurred on the same day as a large fire at 1201 Washington Ave. S. Downtown, was still under investigation as of press time.  

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or [email protected]