Franklin Avenue developer will bring her talents to struggling West Broadway

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Seven years ago, Minneapolis officials set out to rebuild the sagging economic fortunes of the city’s four major commercial corridors: Central Avenue Northeast, Franklin Avenue South, East Lake Street, and West Broadway Avenue on the North Side. Today, they can say with some accuracy that they’re three-fourths of the way home. To finish the job, though, they’re going to need some help.

Significant stretches of Central and Franklin avenues have been reborn with the combined energy of immigrant business owners and innovative projects by private developers. And with the opening last spring of the Midtown Exchange, once-moribund East Lake Street has become a regional attraction. Only on West Broadway has the effort lagged.

Despite a population with significant purchasing power (some $191 million annually, according to city estimates) and sufficient density to support a large commercial district, West Broadway remains an economic wasteland—few jobs, little private investment, and only a handful of promising businesses. “West Broadway is not responding to this work over the years,” said Eric Hanson, senior project coordinator for the city’s Community Planning and Economic Development agency. “Something is not working in West Broadway and we have to intervene.”

Estimated property values have risen citywide by about 100 percent between 1999 and 2005, Hanson told the City Council’s Ways and Means Committee on Monday, and West Broadway properties have increased in value by about 120 percent. But that increase is dwarfed by property values on Central Avenue, for instance, which have risen by more than 200 percent during the same period.

Financial institutions have taken note of this disparity, as well. In all of 2005, Hanson noted, banks approved only 24 loans to small businesses in the area. By comparison, Linden Hills in Southwest Minneapolis saw more than 100 small business loans approved last year. “The city needs to step in and help offset that,” he said.

They’ll get some help from a few of the city’s more innovative developers, including Master Development, the Ackerberg Group, and the American Indian Neighborhood Development Corporation (AINDC).

Theresa Carr, executive director of AINDC, which has transformed the Chicago Avenue-East Franklin business district over the past decade from a crime-ridden and poverty-stricken no-man’s land to one of the city’s most charming commercial nodes, said the organization is anxious to see if it can replicate its success on the North Side.

The key, said Carr, is to rebuild with an eye toward public safety. “If you don’t feel safe, you can’t have a high quality of life.”

At Franklin and Chicago, AINDC reduced crime through “environmental design,” open spaces and courtyard areas that encouraged pedestrian traffic and discouraged criminal activity. Then the organization worked to change the mix of businesses, bringing in businesses—like a supermarket, drug store, bakery, and health clinic—that met the neighborhood’s basic needs. Those enterprises gradually forced out what Carr called “dirty businesses” and those companies that were struggling because of poor management.

An art gallery gave the new business district an air of sophistication that brought visitors in from around the Twin Cities, and a new restaurant helped to “bind the community together.”

The firm also built a space for the Police Department and county probation department, providing the neighborhood with a visible police presence that also discouraged crime.

But there are significant challenges awaiting the organization on West Broadway, where it hopes to turn a vacant furniture store and fast-food joint into a new $20 million retail complex called Broadway Business Center. For starters, the North Side is a very different community from the one Carr worked with for so many years on Franklin. It’s leaders tend to be ordained ministers (the Urban League’s Clarence Hightower, City Council Member Don Samuels, former State Rep. Randolph Staten, and others) and much of the organizing happens around churches rather than in a more secular business climate. There is less density on West Broadway than on Franklin, making business start-ups a riskier proposition. The property tends to be over-priced. And the avenue itself does not lend itself to shopping.

“It behaves like a highway,” Carr explains. “I’m not afraid of getting shot on West Broadway. I’m afraid of getting rear-ended.”

Still, she’s excited about the opportunity to bring her and her organization’s expertise to bear on the challenges facing West Broadway. And the city couldn’t be more pleased to have a partner with the track record of AINDC. Together, they may just have a chance to rebuild one of the city’s great avenues and give the long-suffering North Side something to cheer about.

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