The man who voted to close Nicollet

There are few urban-planning sores as ugly at the Kmart blocking Nicollet Avenue at Lake Street. Nic-Lake is Southwest’s version of downtown’s Gateway District — “slum removal” that gave way to a bleakscape, fueling dreams of what renovation, not demolition, might have wrought. Generations of Minneapolitans have wondered what the hell the City Council was thinking back in 1976.

Keith Ford knows. For 38 years, he’s had to live with voting for it.

After the climactic 10-2 vote closing Nicollet, Ford — then a 31-year-old Council majority leader — declared it “a major breakthrough” for inner-city neighborhoods: “I have 34,000 people in my ward who won’t have to drive to the suburbs.”

Today, the 70-year-old Ford says, “I think it’s a mistake what we did — but not for the reasons people are saying.”

After a long career with city and nonprofit developers, the recently retired Kingfielder insists Nicollet’s closure didn’t kill off economic development. “The street was dead,” Ford says. “And if you look at Eat Street, it is in better shape now than it was then.”

Then again, Nicollet south of Lake remains raggedy, in precast concrete instead of porno-theater brick.

The Council’s 1976 error, Ford says, was accepting traffic plans that kept the flanking avenues, Blaisdell and 1st one-way pairs that could successfully absorb Nicollet’s traffic.

“The most powerful person back then was the traffic engineer,” Ford notes. “Kmart wanted a plot large enough, and planners said ‘Fine, we’ll put the traffic on 1st and Blaisdell.’ We should’ve said ‘not fine.’ We should’ve said ‘1st is too narrow a street, let’s make Nicollet the thoroughfare.’ But at the time, traffic counts were king.”

The record backs Ford up. Two months before the May 1976 Council vote, city coordinator Thomas Thompson told the Minneapolis Star, “Nicollet Avenue has by far the least traffic on it. First Avenue South and Blaisdell Avenue have the most. So we perceive that Nicollet is the street to close.”

In a way, you can trace the fiasco back to 1953, when the city made 1st and Blaisdell one-ways. Just a year before the final street car run, these “in-town highways” made a postwar auto boom sort of sense. When 35W opened in 1967, the city should’ve then killed the one-way pairs, especially on 1st and Blaisdell, which are narrower than Park and Portland. (It didn’t help that there’s no southbound exit or northbound entrance at Lake.) But as Ford notes, “people loved their one-ways” — especially traffic engineers extrapolating car counts.

Could 1976’s Council have held firm if it had embraced this primitive form of traffic calming? The city created the redevelopment district in 1972 — before Ford was elected — but four years later still lacked a tenant. Dayton’s declined to build a Target; the Minneapolis-based retailer instead opened its first hometown store at Hi-Lake in 1976. Herberger’s opted out. Montgomery Ward made Nic-Lake one of three finalists, but went to Rosedale and Knollwood instead.

By the 1976 vote, the city had spent $9 million on the Nicollet-Lake Redevelopment District, with the stillborn development racking up half a million dollars a year in bond interest.

A neighborhood group claimed Kmart could get by with as few as 3.9 parking spaces per 1,000 store feet, which might have allowed Nicollet to stay open. But Kmart had all the leverage, insisting on 5.5 spaces, the same number as Minnehaha’s Target.

That supply proved as absurd as traffic department’s claim that 80 percent of Nicollet traffic would return to the avenue on the roadblock’s other side.

Still, Ford insists, “We were not desperate, we were thrilled about getting Kmart. There were a lot of poor folks over there. It had a chance to be the first discount store in the city anywhere in the country.” (Target announced its Hi-Lake plan after the city created the Nic-Lake zone, but opened two years before Kmart did.)

Ford asks younger and newer residents to imagine the 1970s Minneapolis. The city’s population was in freefall — down 10 percent during the ’60s and ultimately, 15 percent more in the 1970s. “White flight was going on like crazy. Three of the four Hennepin-Lake corners had condemned second floors with billboards covering them. There were no large groceries between Uptown and Minnehaha. The only pharmacy in the [Nicollet-Lake] neighborhood was gouging people in Horn Towers,” the 500-unit public housing complex that opened in 1971.

“There were a lot of loyal Democrats in those towers,” adds Ford, a DFLer who had served in Gov. Wendy Anderson’s administration and won his two two-year terms after the city switched to partisan elections.

These days, does he ever wander into his neighborhood Kmart? “I’m not their target customer,” Ford says with a small grin. “But the evidence that Kmart works is still there. They closed their store in the Hub in Richfield, but they are still at Nicollet and Lake.”

David Brauer, a former Journal editor, lives in Kingfield with his wife and two kids.