Kmart Continues To Serve And Divide A South Minneapolis Community

The Lake Street Kmart was always fraught with controversy. As the anchor for a largely-unrealized urban redevelopment project, the discount store’s awkward location physically blocked a major Minneapolis commercial thoroughfare and separated the community from its downtown core. But it also provided necessary goods at competitive prices for local residents. For over four decades, Kmart and Minneapolis had a love-hate relationship.

Before it closed last June, the Minneapolis Kmart was the retailer’s last store in Minnesota and only one of a handful of Midwest Kmarts that remained open for business.

Back in 1976, the city of Minneapolis approached Kmart as an anchor for its long-stalled Nicollet-Lake Development District project. But Kmart demanded an expansive parking lot. After a few years of heated discussions, Minneapolis officials allowed the discount retailer to build its store right on top of Nicollet Avenue. It led to a permanent road closure and traffic was redirected onto neighborhood streets. It changed the city’s logical street-grid pattern in the established South Minneapolis community.

Kmart never lived up to its early hype or commercial potential. The store’s presence did little to entice additional large-scale local retail projects. 

The Minneapolis Kmart, dubbed “the Mistake on Lake” by city planning officials years after its opening, refused to leave or relocate. The retailer reported that it was one of the company’s most profitable stores and its lease didn’t expire until 2053.

Last March, after decades of negotiations and wranglings, the city finally acquired the Kmart property. In May, Kmart initiated a Lake Street store closing sale just as COVID-19 gripped the city and the world.

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was murdered at the hands of city police officers just 2-1/2 miles southeast of the Kmart store.

The cries and demands for justice evolved into heated demonstrations, leading to widespread property destruction throughout the Twin Cities. Located just a few short blocks north of the Fifth Precinct police headquarters, the nearby Kmart, in the midst of its liquidation sale, became one of the numerous area businesses that was either heavily damaged or destroyed.

On May 28, the Kmart was compromised and its sprinkler system was activated. The store was left in a drenched and damaged state, ripe for mold development. The building was emptied, cleaned, and closed. Any salvaged merchandise was donated to local businesses.

The Kmart was tagged with “vulgar graffiti” during the protests, as one community member stated. A project, spearheaded by Source MN, led to the installation of 18 large colorful murals, painted by local artists, on the building’s exterior. Phrases such as “Let the healing begin,” “No healing – no change,” “Remember – Honor – Forgive,” and “Love Your Enemy,” along with images of George Floyd and civil rights heroes graced the wooden boards.

A coalition called “Save the Boards to Memorialize the Movement” formed as a means to preserve the historic artwork and its messaging. The city has reportedly taken possession of the murals and the boards are being stored for safekeeping.

Two local post offices were destroyed during the unrest that followed George Floyd’s death. In an effort to properly maintain local mail service to the area’s beleaguered residents, the Postal Service leased much-needed space within the vacant Kmart building. The lease between the city and the Postal Service runs through July 31, 2022.

“The building needed a lot of work to house Postal Operations,” says Nicole Hill, Communications Specialist for the USPS. “Our contractors worked for nearly 5 months to prepare the building for Postal use. Any service you may find at your average station is offered to our customers at this facility.” The new Lake Street Minnehaha Temporary Station welcomed its first postal customers on November 16.

However, the usage of the former Kmart delays the long-awaited plan to reopen Nicollet Avenue. City Council President Lisa Bender says big plans for the area can be implemented once the Kmart building is removed.

“Plans…call for mixed-use, multi-story development. Development has the potential to bring new jobs, quality housing for a variety of income levels and retail options to the area. As the development takes shape, City staff will be working with the surrounding community to incorporate the community’s vision into the goals and objectives for the site. Public investment in the 35W Transit Access project and green crescent connection to the greenway will also provide enhanced pedestrian, bicycle and transit access in the immediate area.”

Bender says that Nicollet Avenue’s reopening “will reconnect neighborhoods, reestablish the city street grid and set the stage for new development on 10.9 acres of land currently home to single-story retail buildings and surface parking lots.”

Despite its critics, the Lake Street Kmart was the only discount store in the immediate area and filled a need for nearby lower-income residents. The store sold affordably-priced merchandise and still carried some fresh food lines that other Kmarts dropped years earlier.

Kmart’s hulking parking lot often appeared empty but it was not reflective of the business that it actually generated. Lake Street Kmart shoppers tended to walk and ride public transportation to the store.

When Kmart opened its Lake Street store in March 1978, it joined the roster of ten other Kmart stores in the Twin Cities area. It was also one of 1300 other Kmarts located throughout the country.

Kmart was not the city’s first choice for the Lake Street urban renewal project initiated in 1972. But it ended up being the only retailer willing to invest in the area. One local official involved in the project decried that “Kmart was the best the city could do.”

When Minneapolis decided to purchase 37-1/2 acres of aging and distressed properties as part of its proposed Nicollet-Lake Development District, it did so without a developer in place. The plan that envisioned numerous commercial and residential projects, connected by skywalks, was never realized.

Minneapolis city officials grew concerned over white flight and decided that the proposed Lake Street commercial district could be an answer. They felt that Minneapolis needed to become more “suburban” in order to remain competitive with other growing outlying communities.

But without a developer, the cleared property sat barren for several years. As tax rolls declined and bond interest payments accrued, the city needed to complete the project it had hastily started. The vacant land was costing the city thousands of dollars in revenue every day.

A new, carefully thought out redevelopment plan for the Nicollet-Lake area would be beneficial. The area needs reinvestment opportunities along with expanded community resources, especially after last May’s unrest.

The We Love Lake Street Recovery Fund, under the auspices of the Lake Street Council, has already distributed $5.5 million in grants to over 300 impacted area businesses and has continued to accept donations. The Council, founded in 1968, engages, serves, and advocates for businesses in order to ensure the vitality and prosperity of the entire Lake Street corridor.

The damaged Target
store, frequently mentioned in media reports, is located roughly 2-1/2 miles east of the former Kmart. The Target was rebuilt and reopened on November 10.

On March 8, the eyes of the world will be focused once again on Minneapolis as jury selection for the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin gets underway. The other three officers involved in the case will be tried together later in August. 

There will likely be increased tension throughout the South Minneapolis community, the Twin Cities, and the country. On Friday, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz signed an executive order that will activate the Minnesota National Guard in advance of Chauvin’s trial.

Kmart’s Lake Street store closure was inevitable. There are less than 30 Kmarts currently operating across the country and even more company store closures were announced last week.

Once the Postal Service vacates its space and the former Kmart building is removed, automobile and pedestrian traffic will be restored and communities will be reconnected for the first time in decades.

45 years ago, one Minneapolis city official argued that the Lake Street Kmart “could help save the city.” This statement is now far more complicated.