Neighborhood businesses struggle through Lowry Ave. reconstruction

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In North Minneapolis, on what was once Lowry Avenue, sits Maxwell’s Corner Deli, currently facing an expanse of dirt stretching from Interstate 94 to Girard Avenue. Because the entire street has been completely torn out, at a first glance one might not realize there was ever a major transit corridor there at all save for the small businesses that now appear forgotten in the dust of construction.

If you didn’t care about your shoes and were nimble and adventurous enough to hobble through the dirt to get to Maxwell’s Corner Deli you would likely find Adel Hamid working alone no matter what day of the week it is. Since the reconstruction of Lowry Avenue began in May this year, his business has slowed to half of what it was before and he has had to cut his staff down. “There used to be three of us,” explained Hamid, “But now I can’t afford it.”

In October 2004, Adel and Amy Hamid bought Maxwell’s Corner Deli. In March 2006 they had made their last payment and thought they could finally start to breathe again. Then in May, Phase I of the Lowry Avenue Corridor reconstruction began. Hamid stated he discovered the plans for Lowry two weeks before in a neighborhood newspaper. He had heard that maybe one side of the street would close and then another, like the reconstruction of East Lake Street in South Minneapolis. But no one said the whole street would be closed. “Now no one walks by here,” said Hamid, gesturing toward the window and the rough terrain beyond.

Candice Washington, the owner of Ms. Cali-Style Gift Baskets and Balloons at 1112 Lowry Avenue, is experiencing similar difficulties. In February of this year Washington opened her business of gift-basket design and custom party decorations after getting laid-off from Northwest Airlines. She chose the location because of the convenience for her clients who live in the area, the volume of foot traffic, and its proximity to the Hospital. “It started out real good,” said Washington, “the grand-opening was wonderful.”

Washington explained that she was not aware of the project. “I came to open up the shop one day,” said Washington, “and the signs were up that the road was closed . . . They said they put notices out but that was a year ago and I wasn’t here a year ago.” Now her business is down to about one or two people a day. She is trying to get loans and help from family members. Still, she is not sure she can make it through the reconstruction.

Maxwell’s and Ms. Cali-Style are among the several small businesses in the area that are suffering financially due to the Lowry Avenue Corridor Project. Unfortunately, “this is a group of businesses that has little voice,” explains Tait Danielson, Hawthorne Area Community Council’s Executive Director. These are small businesses with owners that don’t have time to deal with the situation. There is no business association for the area under which they can unite to act on their common situation.

The Lowry Avenue Corridor Project is a two-phase project implemented by Hennepin County in efforts to improve the livability of the surrounding neighborhoods. After an initial review of Lowry Avenue in 1999 it was concluded that a revitalization plan was necessary. A plan was developed with input from seven public meetings in 2001, a Technical Advisory Committee, and a Community Advisory Committee. In 2003 the City Council approved it. Phase I began in May and is scheduled for completion this November.

“The Lowry Corridor is an urban renewal project that will bring additional people and dollars into the area,” said council member Diane Hofstede. Ultimately, the project will be a complete infrastructure overhaul from Interstate 94 to Theodore Wirth Parkway. The goal is to catalyze revitalization of the area by concentrating commercial spaces around transit nodes, improving access to jobs, offering mixed-income housing, and installing on-street bicycle lanes, wide sidewalks, and landscaped boulevards.

Although the project has been well supported, Danielson is concerned about the process and its effect on the businesses and the neighborhood. In contrast with the process involving the reconstruction for East Lake Street, another Hennepin County Project, there were only meetings and discussion about whether to do the reconstruction, but not how it would be done, he said.

However, reconstructing one lane at a time has its implications. As Hofstede explained, this strategy adds an additional 30 – 50 percent to the cost of the project. It would extend the length of time for the reconstruction and require the sewer to be ripped out twice.

“There were discussions with all parties” about closing the road in order to facilitate a faster reconstruction, stated Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglein, who represents the district. “It (having one lane open at a time) would double the time,” he said. This way the county can “get the pain out of the way as soon as possible.”

Despite the intended goal to revitalize the area, some of the currently existing small business may not have the opportunity to enjoy the new and improved Lowry Avenue. Danielson described the scenario, saying that at the beginning of the reconstruction project you could walk along the area and see all the businesses open, but as Phase I continues, they have limited their hours or eventually stopped operating altogether. As a whole, “many of the businesses seem to be getting closer and closer to saying, forget-it,” he said.

Hofstede is more positive about the impact of the project. She said the city and other agencies have programs and business assistance that they are encouraging people to take advantage of. “By and large” she said, “although they (businesses and residents of the area) are struggling, there is a great deal of hope and they are looking forward to a speedy completion of the project.”

“We haven’t forgotten about the businesses,” said Stenglein, “We hope they can hold on because the result will be a very nice Lowry.” He added that there is a loan fund available to the businesses.

“We, as a community, have a responsibility to help these businesses stay open throughout the construction, so they don’t close their doors as a result of a project we created,” said Danielson. He suggested that this requires the residents’ continued support of these businesses and innovative efforts by the city and the county to alleviate the financial strife the project has caused.

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