The hot spot

Lyn-Lake has become a magnet for new businesses

When rent on John Meegan’s Top Shelf tailoring business at the corner of Hennepin Avenue and Lake Street went from $185 a month in 1979 to $6,500 in 1998, it was time to move.

Meegan wanted to keep the business in the neighborhood where he would raise his family. There was a neat old home-turned-business on Lyndale Avenue a block south of Lake Street for sale. It was only two blocks from his home.

But there were concerns. Lyn-Lake was a neighborhood in transition and it had its fair share of drug dealers, pimps and rowdy bars. Would clientele looking to buy a nice dress shirt or tailor their expensive suit navigate the neighborhood?

“We saw this building and we had an opportunity to buy it, but a lot of people said this is going to be a sketchy area, ‘your customers may not want to come here,’” Meegan says. “I said we have to take a chance.”

The experiment worked, and Top Shelf is today a tailoring destination in the Twin Cities.

Owners like Meegan and those of It’s Greek to Me, the Jungle Theater and Falafel King have worked hard to improve the area over the last 20 to 30 years, and now they’re seeing the fruits of their labor.

More than 14 businesses since last summer have opened in Lyn-Lake and existing owners can feel the momentum.

“Now Lyndale and Lake is starting to march,” Meegan says. “Things are definitely improving.”

Among the new faces to the area are Stewart and Heidi Woodman, who will re-open Heidi’s restaurant at 2903 Lyndale Ave. S. Their popular 50th and Bryant restaurant burned down in February.

Huge Improv is planning to open a 100-seat, long-form improv theater at 3037 Lyndale Ave. this fall. A Ducati motorcycle dealership opened at 28th and Lyndale in February and TruStone Financial Federal Credit Union opened across the street in May.

The Uptown Bar, which closed its Hennepin Avenue doors last fall, is eyeing the site of the former Lyndale Theater, 2934 Lyndale. The Uptown Bar’s Real Estate broker, Jeff Herman, confirmed a report in Finance & Commerce stating that the bar had signed a lease at the building. He declined to comment further.

“We’re thrilled to death with the new people coming,” said Deen Braathen, owner of Opening Night Framing Services & Gallery, which has been at 2836 Lyndale Ave. for a decade. “It’s exciting because, in other words, it’s become desirable enough that new money is coming in, with new ideas and innovative young people.”

Crack, orange cones and financial collapse

The Lyn-Lake intersection looks nothing like the way Meegan and Jungle Theater founder Bain Boehlke remember it from 20 and 30 years ago.

Meegan, for 30 years, has lived just two blocks from Top Shelf, 3040 Lyndale Ave. S.

“Two blocks from here we had rows of crack houses and problems that were so bad that if I wanted a prostitute I could just cruise a few blocks down 31st Street and if I wanted drugs I just had to walk [outside],” says Meegan — not that he partook in those activities. “I had two young daughters and when I was raising them there would be days we would be ducking behind cars with bullets flying past our heads. So the neighborhood was ripe for change.”

Boehlke in 1990 had just returned from Arizona where he worked at a theater. During a break, he made a trip to Puerto Vallarta that inspired him to create a jungle-themed theater.  

He had no money and no actors. He saw two empty storefronts next to Thurston Jewelers on the 700 block of Lake Street and told the owner he wanted to use them for a theater. The owner loved the idea, and let him use the space. Boehlke rented an apartment above the theater, sharing a floor with some interesting neighbors.

“An Indian drag queen lived up there from Red Lake and some drug addicts, some [heroine] shooters, were up there,” Boehlke says.

Boehlke, however, found the grittiness of the neighborhood to be romantic. He would start a theater in a place that no one would expect one.

So with 100 folding chairs and a few actors who also rented apartments above the space, Boehkle began to put on plays.

“They came in droves, and it was just a huge success,” he says.

A decade later he moved the theater to an adjacent spot on Lyndale Avenue. The theater company bought a troublesome bar and has since turned the space into a charming location to see a play.

By the late 1990s and early 2000s, Lyn-Lake was turning from a crime-ridden neighborhood into a unique and vibrant intersection.

“There had been a steady influx of people putting their money where there mouth is, trying to build the corner, and then we got blasted,” Meegan says. “Following 9/11 and what happened during those years coupled with construction — two-and-a-half years of having all of the streets ripped up.”

Crews reconstructed Lyndale Avenue and the western part of Lake Street in 2007. In 2008 they did the east side of Lake Street. At the same time, the economy tanked.

“When that process was going to happen they warned businesses all up and down Lake Street: ‘You better be prepared to lose 50 percent of your sales,’” Meegan says. “And that was not a conservative figure. That was very realistic. A lot of good businesses went out.”

A new era

Following the construction, Meegan and other business owners rallied together to remind people of the vibrancy of the neighborhood.

In 2009 they brought back the Lyn-Lake Street Festival, a festival that had been an annual event until 1999. Businesses pitched in and this May they put on a second festival.

Last winter Meegan collected money from 25 businesses and hung lights on 88 trees in the area in an effort to attract people.

“Roughly, we have a corps of 25 businesses on this corner that when we want to create some activity or a project, they all put money on the table and help,” he said.

The silver lining of the street reconstruction is that the new streetscape has been attractive to business owners. Trees, benches and signage have made the area warm and inviting.

“That’s made a huge difference in the quality of the neighborhood,” said Stewart Woodman, the chef of Heidi’s.

Starting this year, all Lyn-Lake businesses will all be chipping in for these services. The City Council on Aug. 20 passed a first-ever budget for the “Lyndale-Lake Special Service District.” A similar district Downtown has earned praise from community leaders.

This means that all the area businesses will combine to pay $140,000 to maintain the landscape, light all 200 trees and clear snow from the sidewalks in 2010 and 2011.

New business owners cited several reasons to move to Lyn-Lake, including ideal buildings, construction of condos, strong existing businesses, several transportation options and its proximity to Hennepin and Lake.

Huge Executive Director Butch Roy said it’s been the buildup along Lake Street from Hennepin Avenue that made the area more desirable.

“It’s always seemed like there was a strange division between the Lyndale section of Uptown and the Hennepin section of Uptown and things were drifted apart,” he said. “And now it doesn’t. It feels like its coming back together again, finally.”

Mark Hinds, executive director of the Lyndale Neighborhood Association says the development of Lyn-Lake has been positive for the community.

“I think Lyn-Lake right now is a really desirable place to run a business, because I think you really do have that kind of eclectic mix of shops, restaurants and bars that people around here want to visit and want to go to, and we would really like it to stay that way, and we’ll be as supportive as we can to continue that,” he said.

Whatever the reason for its resurgence, Meegan said he’s glad Lyn-Lake is remaining unique and getting business owners who care deeply for the community.

“I think that what defines Lyndale and Lake — and this is very clear — is that you can walk in and out of the doors of 80 percent of the businesses on this corner and always see the owner inside,” Meegan says. “It’s an owner-operated intersection, and that makes a difference. People like to know the names and see the faces.”