Calhoun Square works toward a comeback

Local owners launch outdoor market, events and art installations


Under new local ownership, Calhoun Square will host everything from puppet shows to wrestling matches this summer. 

The calendar is getting full: An outdoor market on Girard runs every Friday. In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre will perform a children’s matinee Saturday mornings in June and July. Prime Time Wrestling will put on a monthly pro wrestling show in the vacant lot at 1301 W. Lake St. Artists can set up shop for free on Girard each weekend. Musician Jake Grafenstein has become a Saturday night staple. The Twin Cities Mobile Jazz Project will return in late summer. And Rock the Block is Saturday, June 13 with live music, food trucks and drinks.

“It’s a good reintroduction to Calhoun Square and the vibrancy that used to be in there,” said Marketing Manager Brian Trinh. “We’re on the right track to create it that way again. … This is more than what the public has seen from Calhoun Square for a while.”

It’s not uncommon for Trinh and other staff to roam the mall and ask people for suggestions. That’s how they landed Prime Time Wrestling — the owner works out at LA Fitness. They ran into him at the gym, and they started bouncing ideas off each other. 

Kristy Schwintek of Blush by kay said she’s noticed the events help bring in traffic. She’s looking forward to a new nail salon opening at the mall.

“I’ve seen a lot of people leave, and now it’s starting to fill up again,” she said.

A handful of tenants have opened in the past year, including Libertine (now featuring “vinyl brunch” every Sunday), Peoples Organic on Hennepin and Arc’teryx on the first floor. Forthcoming tenants include a nail spa and the Italian restaurant Parella, opening in Figlio’s old spot in July.

More than 20 Calhoun Square Market vendors include Untiedt’s Vegetable Farm, the beekeeping chocolatier Mademoiselle Miel, gourmet canned food from Gracie’s Pantry, and handcrafted jewelry from Serendipity Accessories. Food trucks at the market include Tru Pizza, Foxy Falafel and The Cave Cafe. 

Thanks to its proximity to the mall, the market on Girard can go on rain or shine, continuing into the winter months as well. 

“As we get into October, if the weather does turn nasty, we move inside,” said Ed Smith, market manager. “Very few farmers markets have that luxury of being able to move inside at a moment’s notice.”

“I’m excited about the market going in there,” said Scott Engel, executive coordinator of the CARAG neighborhood. The city always intended for Girard to provide a public improvement as part of the development, he said.

Engel said he’s also glad the vacant Lake Street lot next to the mall will see more activity this year.

“The previous developer never used it,” he said. “It was pretty bleak.”

Calhoun Square was built in 1983, and it’s long been a source of scrutiny.

“Depending on one’s perspective, Calhoun Square either saved Uptown or, as stated by one resident, ‘killed the soul of Uptown,'” states the Uptown Small Area Plan, adopted in 2008. “Calhoun Square is the largest building and development in Uptown and it is centrally located, so the health of the area is linked to its successes and failures. Calhoun Square is an interior mall — a successful model for retail development in the early 1980s, but a less successful model now.”

The Ackerberg Group, a real estate firm based near Lake Calhoun, purchased the mall in 2014 after losing the bid to national buyers in past years. In an interview at the time of the purchase, Stuart Ackerberg said he wanted to buy the mall in order to have more control over perceptions of Uptown. Retailers often wondered why Calhoun Square wasn’t working, he said.

“If we could control that property, we could control our own destiny,” he said last year. “It’s the most dominant property, historically, in Uptown.”

A colorful 30-year history has evolved at Calhoun Square.

The founder of Magnetic Poetry kits got his start at the mall, selling his first 100 sets in three hours.

Calhoun Square lost its “mayor” in 2010. John Kihslinger, who died of leukemia, tracked all the goings-on while selling hats and sunglasses. 

“If it happened in Calhoun Square during the past 20 years, John Kihslinger probably knows about it,” stated the Southwest Journal in 2009. “…Janet Jackson and Jimmy Jam catching dinner at Figlio on a Saturday night, a man leading a cow through the mall, a guy jumping into a giant sandcastle display, bubble bath in the fountain, people from all walks of life doing all sorts of things — he’s seen it all from his kiosk, Seasons in Calhoun.”

Another mall authority is artist Jeff Gauss, who started selling artwork at Calhoun Square in 1999 as part of Artistreet, where artists paid about $100 to join a weekend “indoor street market.” 

Gauss’ Magnetic Originals retail store doubles as his studio. He specializes in tiny paintings that function as magnets, and he’s made nearly 50,000 of them at Calhoun Square. His fine art “MicroDoodles,” displayed alongside a magnifying glass, have earned the People’s Choice award at the Minnesota State Fair. He’s looking forward to a contest with a half-million prize for the winner.

“If I could win that contest, then I’d guarantee myself a spot in this mall forever,” he said.

Despite the lengthening history, Gauss sees customers surprised to discover a mall tucked inside Hennepin & Lake.

“Sixteen years ago, everybody knew there was a mall in here,” he said.

Under local ownership, Gauss is betting on more visitors in the coming year. 

The Ackerberg Group plans to convert the corner entrance at Hennepin & Lake into a new retail space, moving the entrance east down Lake Street. 

As part of the mall’s reinvention, there is an expanded common area and more charging stations — staff noticed customers scrounging for outlets and decided to add more.

The company is also soliciting ideas for vacant retail spaces via Crowdsourced ideas include clothing retailers Zara and Uniqlo, a fresh produce mart, and a painting and wine studio.

New artwork has arrived at the mall in the past year. Colorful umbrellas line the ceiling, art wraps the columns, and 600 hand-blown glass globes hang at the Hennepin Avenue entrance near Dogwood Coffee and Kitchen Window. The globes, called “Uptown Borealis,” were created by Northeast artist Dan Mather. The color-changing piece carries the potential for interactive apps controlled by voice, music or motion. 

The Hennepin History Museum also launched a new mini-museum in the former Bay Street Shoes window display.

“It’s really exciting to see all the changes,” said Manager Chris Bitzan of Knight’s Chamber Clothiers, who said the mall had been pretty dead for a while. He thinks evening traffic has picked up a bit, and said food trucks and annual events like the fall Coffee Festival bring in more people.

“I think it’s going to help really turn this area around,” he said.


The Calhoun Square Calendar

 —Calhoun Square Market, every Friday on Girard from 3-7 p.m.

— Prime Time Wrestling, every fourth Saturday of the month May thru September from 5-7 p.m. A free pro-wrestling show in the vacant Lake Street lot next to Calhoun Square.

— In the Heart of the Beast children’s matinee, every Saturday in June and July at the first-floor atrium, 10 a.m.-12 p.m. First show at 10:30 a.m., followed by craft for kids to “create and take” a puppet, with a second show at 11:30 a.m.

— Rock the Block, Saturday June 13, 2-10 p.m. in the lot next to Calhoun Square. 21+ event with food trucks and bands Quietdrive, Hope Country, Viva Knievel and Black Market Brass. Sponsors include Coup d’état and Stella’s Fish Cafe.

— Groovin’ on Girard, every Saturday from 3-6 p.m., featuring live music by Jake Grafenstein

— Artisan market on Girard every Saturday evening and Sunday morning/afternoon. Artists can set up for free pending staff approval.

— Twin Cities Mobile Jazz Project, every Saturday in August, 6-9 p.m. on Girard