When the Minneapolis Society for the Blind moved to 1936 Lyndale Ave. S. in the 1940s, there wasn’t yet a freeway and streetcars still rolled by on Lyndale. Today Vision Loss Resources stands on increasingly valuable land. The nonprofit commissioned a study that envisions a 24-story tower on the site, and in mid-March a consultant started marketing the property for redevelopment.
While a new tower might catch the eye, eyesight isn’t necessary to appreciate the current building.
There is a test kitchen where people with damaged sight can relearn their way around the kitchen, adding tactile marks to teaspoons and microwaves. People can search the web with a refreshable Braille keyboard, play a hand of cribbage, learn smartphone audio functions, or learn to cross the street by listening for the direction of traffic.
“People don’t like to talk about losing their vision. It’s terrifying and frightening,” said Dr. Kate Grathwol, president and CEO. “It’s freaky, but so is much of life. We’re here to help you. Get over it, and get on with your life.”
Looking back and letting go
To support the organization — many services have sliding scale fees and are not covered by insurance — an onsite packaging and light manufacturing facility serves clients like Caribou Coffee, 3M and Thymes, funneling all of the proceeds back into the nonprofit.
When the Minneapolis Society for the Blind was founded in 1914, such hands-on work aimed to provide good jobs for the blind and visually impaired.
“At the turn of the last century they were often shuttered. Family didn’t want them to go outside because they’d be injured,” Grathwol said.
Today’s mission is more ambitious, with participants riding tandem bikes on the Greenway, living independently, woodworking and bowling at Memory Lanes. Full-time students in intensive rehabilitation — perhaps someone who lost vision in a car accident and will return to work — can stay in nearby apartments that look like any other apartment, without “whiz-bang” technologies for visual impairment. Adaptive tech is expensive and the real world doesn’t always have it, Grathwol said.
“Our job is to teach you to be able to go anywhere you want and function at a super high level,” she said.
“I try to be as independent as I can,” said Hazel O’Day, age 87, who had a little sight when she was young.
O’Day bakes by listening to the oven temperature beeps, and washes her clothes by attaching dots to the machine settings. She walks with a friend every day. She attaches jewelry in plastic bags to the coordinating outfit. She writes her grocery list in Braille, her friend sends in the order, and the delivery comes to her door. She tries to encourage the people she meets, especially older people.
“They can do things they don’t think they can do,” she said.
Gadgets like clip-on vibrating pads and wristbands can signal the door and the phone, writes Hopkins resident John Lee Clark, who was born deaf and gradually became blind during adolescence. But at home, he doesn’t want to carry around any tools or devices. One woman sprayed a rose fragrance out the window to call her husband indoors, he said, and another woman preferred a signal using fans.
At Vision Loss Resources, one support group debated the best way to put toothpaste on a toothbrush: Some use a finger as a guide, others squeeze it directly into the mouth.
“There’s always another way to do it,” Grathwol said.
Grathwol herself experienced low vision as a child, and she remembers wondering how on earth she ran into the neighbor’s large Chevy. But her eyesight improved as her body built up more melanin, and when her vision dramatically improved at age 12, she spent an entire summer on the front porch reading books.
Grathwol relates her story in The Way We See It, a book of local essays by friends of Vision Loss Resources. Contributors include Southwest Minneapolis resident Juliette Silvers, who called the FBI and television stations in 1970 when she discovered her account at the New York Bowery Savings Bank had been emptied. A guard “handling” her and other blind customers’ accounts had been helping himself to their cash, she said, and the incident changed the bank’s practices.
Book contributor Robert Anderson describes the “messy business of going blind by slow degrees,” watching his view from the bus become a jumble.
“Lately I’ve begun to explore giving up the struggle of trying to make sense of what I see and relaxing into not seeing, accepting confusion and trusting in what my other senses and intuition tell me,” he writes. “I’ve discovered there’s an ease, a serenity in letting go.”
Vision Loss Resources operates a second location in St. Paul, and a new site isn’t yet determined. The relocation comes at a time when demand for services is projected to grow. Fewer than 10 percent of legally blind people are totally blind, according to the center.
“The fastest-growing population of people with visual impairment are over the age of 65,” Grathwol said. “We all know that 10,000 baby boomers a day are turning 65. So part of the reason for us to be moving on is to find a space where we can serve more people more easily.”
A panoramic view
A predevelopment study by Cushman & Wakefield suggests the two-acre site could hold a 24-story building with 350 housing units and enclosed parking. A concept designed by ESG Architects shows a three-story building along Lyndale Avenue with a tall structure rising next to the highway.
“The pursuit of a project like this for a developer is a big deal, it takes a lot of resources,” said John Breitinger, executive director at Cushman & Wakefield, who is working on the project with Director Jeremy Striffler. “So we wanted to do enough of the predevelopment work to give people in the development community confidence that something great could happen here.”
Target, CVS and Walgreens already have a presence nearby, he said, but the site could hold a similar large retailer or two smaller retail bays, perhaps up to 20,000 square feet.
“The truth is that the retail market is going through a very profound change, so we don’t really know what will be viable there,” he said. “It’s got everything going for it as a retail site, and we hope that will be the case.”
The L-shaped parcel for sale includes space home to Vision Loss Resources, Contract Production Services and DeafBlind Services Minnesota.
The site is zoned C2, a Neighborhood Corridor Commercial District where city guidelines allow four stories or 56 feet in height and a permit process to seek taller structures. Under the Minneapolis 2040 plan for growth currently under review by the Metropolitan Council, the site would allow buildings of 2-10 stories.
“It’s a terrific site. If somebody does do a concrete tower here, it will have wonderful views in all directions of the city lakes, downtown. It’s on the bikeway, it’s in a good pedestrian neighborhood,” Breitinger said.
Investments have touched the three other corners of Franklin & Lyndale in recent years. Across the street at the former Theatre Garage site, a 113-unit project is under construction, joining the new 75-unit Modi apartments on Lyndale. Mortimer’s and the Wedge Community Co-op are remodeled, Catalyst Mental Health opened in a long-vacant building, and the former Rudolph’s Bar-B-Que is now slated to become “Cheers,” billed as a restaurant with entertainment and local brews like Gluek Beer.
Grathwol said she’s fielded lots of calls over the years from groups checking to see if their site is for sale. Vision Loss Resources’ current structures were built in 1917, 1958 and 1972, and the last was considered state-of-the-art for its time.
“But the world has changed, and so has the neighborhood,” she said, describing the site as a beautiful, stranded asset. “This is a large parcel, and the city needs housing.”