Mixed emotions on East Lake Street

For some Lake Street businesses, the construction has been a road block for customers. Others have weathered the work.

Photo by Jeremy Stratton

Reactions to road reconstruction run the gamut

Along some blocks of Lake Street, businesses that line the jagged rim of road that has been ripped up appear marooned in the middle of a deserted island.

Discarded pipelines, scrap metal, and other debris are strewn about, while tractors, trucks, and heavy machinery are an everyday sight. In some cases, a treasure hunt is afoot as people dig for bricks from a subterranean cobblestone road.

The upheaval is part of a $30 million project to revitalize the aging commercial corridor that runs from Dupont Avenue South to the Mississippi River. Both the roadway and sidewalks are being reconstructed in several stages over a three-year period that ends in 2008.

Some business owners and property owners are embracing the project, seeing it as an opportunity to transform an ailing thoroughfare into a major artery. Others, however, raise concerns about the economic burden it imposes on small businesses, as a result of declining sales, steep tax assessments, rising property taxes and other associated costs.

What’s going on?

In Longfellow and Cooper, construction began in April of this year on the “east segment” — Lake Street from 36th Avenue South to West River Road. The work is familiar to locals — the same project began on the “west segment” — 36th Avenue South to Hiawatha — last year and will get the finishing touches this summer.

In the east segment, two of four lanes of traffic are shut down, but traffic is still flowing in both directions. Metro Transit buses are detouring down 31st Avenue. By mid-June, a blacktop road surface had been laid on the north side of Lake Street, along with concrete curbs, gutters and sidewalks across 41st–46th avenues — according to schedule, said Don Shaffer, project manager with Hennepin County. Grading had begun between 36th and 41st avenues, where pavement and old streetcar tracks have been unearthed and the water main will soon be repaired. Depending on weather conditions, construction of most of the eastern portion should wrap up by mid-November, said Shaffer.

Generally speaking, the finished roadway will resemble the old one, although parking will change due to the bump-outs, where the curb will jut out six feet into the street to shorten pedestrian crossings. However, “Most of the changes will take place behind the curb,” said Shaffer. That work includes new streetlamps, planters, bike racks, landscaping, signage and utility work.

Although Joyce Wisdom, executive director of the Lake Street Council, said she’s looking forward to the finished product, she regretted the strain on some local businesses — particularly those that rely heavily on walk-in customers, like beauty and nail salons.
Other places can count on regular customers to make it through the dirt, said Wisdom, who attends weekly meetings about the ongoing construction with Lake Street business owners and city and county officials. “The impact is there,” she said. “Some of it has been worse than others. Everyone is dealing with it in different ways.”

Ward 2 Council Member Cam Gordon said it’s crucial that community members continue to support local businesses, even after the work of tearing out and rebuilding the road winds up. “I think there’s a more consistent look,” he said. “It’s improved [and] enhanced. I hope the businesses will do well.”

Bad for business

On the corner of 38th Avenue South and East Lake Street, postcards depict the demolition surrounding the Blue Moon Coffee Café. “Come see our exhibit of road construction equipment!,” they say, among other humorous invitations that make light of the construction that has taken a toll on business. For the first time in 13 years, the Blue Moon started losing thousands of dollars last spring, after the western segment construction began nearby, said owner Lisa Berg.

By June, sales were down as much as 30–40 percent. Although Berg is trying to stay optimistic, “Today, I’m not feeling positive about it,” she said, sitting on a bench in the sun-filled café. “I’m trying to think of the business as dormant.”

At Mini Motors, a 38-year-old used car lot at 3612 E. Lake St., owner Bob Anderson pointed to seven cars that look like they have a “bad case of the measles,” as he put it. One windblown day in late May, cement spray that construction workers used to seal the sidewalk landed on the cars, leaving gold flecks all over them.

Anderson said he’s not sure how much it’ll cost to get the gunk removed, but it’s not the end of his problems; customers have been nonexistent. “Basically, I’ve been out of business for two years,” he said.

Mark Enderlein, a co-owner of River Lake Racing at 3617 E. Lake St. for 33 years, said he’s not thrilled by the construction, either. It has led to a lack of parking, and it’s hard to get in or out of the area. Even if rebuilding Lake Street is beneficial in the long run, when it comes time to pay assessments that might be as much as $35,000, “I don’t think we’ll make enough money from our cute sidewalks,” he said.

Peggy Schmidt, who owns the Minnesota School of Barbering and the property at 3615 E. Lake St., said her elderly customers have stopped visiting the shop because of the treacherous pathways leading to the door. At one point, her water was temporarily shut off. “Before, you couldn’t get here from the west. Now, you can’t get here from the east. That’s killing us,” she said. “Just drive up and down Lake Street and you’ll see the battle scars.”

One example can be found a block away, at 3537 E. Lake St., where It’s A Dog’s Life Doggy Daycare closed on May 24. Carol Westrum, who owned the doggy daycare, said the construction was detrimental for her bottom line. She went from watching 13–18 dogs regularly to 9–12 dogs, which meant that she was basically working for free.
“Papa John” Kolstad, who owns Mill City Music and the building at 3920 E. Lake St., has been an outspoken critic of the reconstruction. He also serves on the Metro Independent Business Alliance for Small Business.

Kolstad, who is contemplating leaving the city he’s lived in for 30 years, said it feels like nobody cares about the small businesses on Lake Street. “The inequities here are enormous,” he said. “It’s not good public policy, harming the very people it should be helping.”

Business as usual

Not all small businesses seem to be suffering, however. At East Lake Animal Clinic, 4104 E. Lake St., Office Manager Valinda McCarter said everyone in the office is just as busy as usual, mainly because they operate on an appointment basis. Occasionally, clients arrive late because they had to park far away, but for the most part, “We’re doing OK,” she said.

Similarly, the outdoor patio at the Longfellow Grill, 2990 W. River Pkwy., is still crowded. General Manager Dave Gomez said he’s thankful for the community’s ongoing support. “We’re feeling pretty good about the construction,” he said. “I’ve been told nothing will hold people back from our sweet potato fries.”

Places such as American Rug Laundry, Leviticus Tattoo & Body Piercing, The Craftsman and El Norteno all claim to be holding their own. Adam McClary, who manages The Craftsman, said the restaurant might be losing some customers who come from a distance, but overall, it hasn’t affected business much.

John Erickson, who lives in an apartment on Lake Street and has worked at East Lake Liquor, 3916 E. Lake St., for seven years, said he’s a fan of the streetscape improvements. “I like it. I think it looks nice,” he said. “Before, there were lots of potholes. Now it looks more modernized and not so rundown.”

Ward 6 Council Member Robert Lilligren said business owners demonstrated a rare shift when they asked for high-quality streetscape enhancements and voluntarily formed special districts to maintain them. “People suddenly believed if they made Lake Street a nice place, good things would happen,” he said.

Wisdom reiterated the importance of patronizing businesses during the construction. “While we’re continuing to expand the market for Lake Street business owners,” she said, “it’s critical for the local communities to spend their money on Lake Street.”

last revised: July 2, 2007