Traffic a concern at bustling Karmel properties

Expansion could make congestion worse, neighbors say

WHITTIER — A proposal to increase the use of two shopping centers and a multifamily residential building all catering to the city’s Somali immigrant community is intensifying concerns over traffic and parking within a several-block area on Whittier’s south end.

Property owner Basim Sabri proposes to enclose some open, canopy-covered spaces at the two malls, expanding the floor space of Karmel Plaza, 2910 Pillsbury Ave., and Karmel Square, 2940 Pillsbury Ave, by about 700 and 800 square feet, respectively. Previously approved work to expand Karmel Plaza’s first floor by about 4,500 square feet and construct a third-floor self-service storage facility was ongoing in June.

Sabri also plans to add apartments and new common areas within the existing footprint of Karmel Village, 2848 Pleasant Ave. S., situated across the Midtown Greenway from the malls.

The City Planning Commission was briefed on the plans at a May 26 Committee of the Whole meeting, although no formal applications for the projects had been submitted as of press time.

Whittier Alliance Executive Director Marian Biehn said neighbors applaud the success of the malls, bustling shopping centers that double as social hubs and draw immigrant families from across Minneapolis and the state, “but the parking and traffic issues that impact the broader neighborhood do need to be addressed.”

City Council Member Robert Lilligren (6th Ward) said “traffic counts show that what is historically a very low-traffic area … now has traffic counts that are much more like a commercial corridor.”

“We have had concerns expressed by police leadership in the 5th Precinct about the inability of emergency vehicles to access the area because of the traffic,” Lilligren added.


Un-permitted work

In interviews, the concerns of neighborhood leaders and residents focused less on the malls’ tenants and customers than Sabri, who has had a contentious relationship with the Whittier Alliance. Some contend he is not just expanding the space for his existing commercial tenants — work for which he has city approvals — but adding new commercial spaces that could draw even more traffic.

Senior City Planner Janelle Widmeier said she visited the site in mid-June and counted 12 instances where it appeared newly constructed commercial space did not connect to existing tenants, work that would violate a Planning Commission directive.

The perception that Sabri has a “build first, ask permission later” approach to development was shared by Biehn and Lilligren. Both Karmel Plaza and Karmel Village are among the few properties on the city’s guided compliance list, meaning they face intense scrutiny from multiple city departments, said Brad Carter, a development coordinator with Minneapolis Development Review.

“There’s been various un-permitted work even since this project’s been in the program,” Carter said. “We haven’t really corrected the behavior of the owner out there.”


Delays

Sabri initially declined to comment for this story, but agreed to an interview when he was spotted in the malls’ parking lot. He did not deny that he sometimes starts work without the required permits.

“If I’ve got to violate (city ordinance), I will, and build without a permit, because the city delays,” he said.

Sabri said he spent “approximately a quarter-million dollars” on a project to reverse the flow in and out of the Karmel Square and Karmel Plaza parking lot, adding automated ticket machines to the Pleasant Avenue entrance and a parking attendant booth to the Pillsbury Avenue exit. He also rented a nearby surface parking lot with about 100 spaces that is reserved as off-site parking for the malls’ tenants.

He said he was “very sympathetic” to neighbors’ traffic concerns, but added “it’s not a parking problem.”

As evidence of city foot-dragging, Sabri shared a series of e-mails dating back to September he said documented his unsuccessful efforts to create no parking and commercial loading zones on nearby streets. But city spokesman Matt Laible responded that such requests were a low-priority during winter months, adding that while Public Works was directed in May to change some signage, action was delayed because of Sabri’s “outstanding debts with the City” only cleared as of June 16.


No free parking

Mahamed Cali, executive director of Somali American Community, recently agreed to show a visitor around the Karmel malls, where one of the nonprofit’s offices is located. Cali translated a reporter’s questions as well as the responses of customers and business owners, but he was the only one who agreed to be named for this story.

Asked about neighborhood parking concerns, many said the malls needed a short-term parking solution for quick visits, an alternative to the $1-per-hour parking in the mall lots. Metered parking on the street might help, suggested one businesses owner.

Meters came up in a neighborhood meeting Cali mediated between neighborhood residents and mall tenants that was also attended by Sabri, Biehn and Lilligren. Most rejected that solution, preferring instead to ask Sabri to provide the first half-hour of parking for free. That change has not been made.