It’s been two years since the murder of George Floyd and the unrest of 2020. So long that I almost forget what the corner of Lake Street and 27th Avenue used to look like. What had once been one of the densest, most striking corners in South Minneapolis – the retro Town Talk Diner, the ornate façade of the IOOF building, and even the distinctive red awning of the liquor store – is almost impossible to imagine now, as today the corner seems mostly vacant.
But one of the old buildings still stands: the century-old Coliseum building.
“After the unrest we began to reach out to the community to understand the status of things, and where might there be opportunity for recovery,” explained Taylor Smrikarovna, the director of Property Development at Redesign, Inc. (formerly Seward Redesign), an economic development corporation that’s been working in the neighborhood since 1969.
During the unrest, fires were set in many of the buildings on the corner, and the Coliseum did not escape. Fires burned the interior and triggered extensive water damage in fighting the blaze. Two years ago, the massive, three-story brick complex was slated for the wrecking ball.
“Once things were settled and secured, we assessed all the properties to see which could be saved,” said Smrikarovna. “We approached the (Coliseum) owners. They wanted to demolish it, but we knew it could be saved, because the building wasn’t in that bad a condition.”
Thanks to their timely intervention, the building isn’t going to meet the same fate as the burned-out neighbors that once stood across Lake Street. If everything goes according to plan, the Coliseum building will instead experience a renaissance. The large complex is set to become a small-business incubator focusing on Black-owned businesses, and might even become a model for improving long-standing wealth gaps in the Twin Cities.
A century of history
What’s known today as the Coliseum, poised to survived a near-death experience, is more than a hundred years old. It was built in 1917 by E.B. Freeman, a retail entrepreneur who ran an eponymous department store on the first floor until World War II, back when the neighborhood was a thriving part of industrial Minneapolis, sandwiched between the Minneapolis Moline tractor factory and the bustling Milwaukee Road rail yards, both of which employed thousands of people from the neighborhood.
As described in Iric Nathanson’s thorough column on the topic, his son took over after a brief interlude with an outside owner, and ran the place for another generation until 1975, when it finally closed due to sweeping economic changes.
By the 1990s, things went a bit downhill. For a while, the building housed the Podany Furniture warehouse, before a foreclosure led to it being rechristened the “Coliseum.” A 1990s-era redevelopment installed a Denny’s, while a Latino health clinic and a ballroom that once housed the Tapestry Folk Dance Center were elsewhere inside. Even in 2019, the building had seen better days, though it was recently put on the National Register of Historic Buildings. In the expensive application, the various additions and sections of the complex are detailed for posterity.
I used to go there as a teenager for contra dancing; the vast, bouncy wood floor was ideal for folk dancing, though these days the dances have moved a few blocks down Minnehaha Avenue.
Redesign Inc., one of the oldest community development corporations (CDCs) in Minneapolis, has been working in the area for a half-century. It began as an effort to prevent late-1960s urban renewal programs from bulldozing dozens of blocks of the then-downtrodden Seward neighborhood homes, but community activists pushed instead to use the funding for rehab and restoration of neighborhood’s historic homes (Milwaukee Avenue is the most inspiring example of Redesign’s early work). Since then the organization has helped to rehab, fund, and incubate dozens of buildings and businesses in a large swath of South Minneapolis.
The latest work might be the biggest leap yet, representing a new direction for the group. Like many local CDCs that began as neighborhood affairs, growth and change to the funding model has meant gradual expansion of the mission. Especially following the murder or George Floyd on a Chicago Avenue sidewalk, and the local and global mass protest against police killings that followed, Redesign seems to be doing far more than most organizations to actually change their approach.
“We’re really focused on this idea of expanding who owns property making sure that Black-owned businesses are a part of the ownership,” said Andy Hestness, Redesign executive director.
If you look at the wealth gap persistent in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro, with one of the widest Black-white divides in the country, the roots often lie in access to real estate. People of color, especially Black Minnesotans, are far less likely to own homes or properties than white people.
That should change with the new Coliseum plans.
“People will share in the revenue streams and wealth-building potential of real-estate ownership,” explained Hestness, who’s non-profit will own a smaller-than-usual percentage of the building going forward. “We’re taking that skillset of property development and assembling financing and working with for-profit businesses. That is all a little unique, something we’ve been exploring with another projects along the Lake Street corridor.”
Someday soon, Redesign won’t even own any of the property; they’ll have passed the deeds on to their partners, and moved along to other projects. Examples of other efforts in the neighborhood include the Elite Cleaners building and the US Bank building nearby, both of which are Redesign projects in the works. In doing so, they’ll have saved a key historical landmark of a devastated corner, and created a more equitable legacy for Lake Street.
According to Smrikarovna, they are working with Black-owned businesses to renovate the property into a “community commercial center,” including first floor retail with offices above. The bright orange Redesign, Inc. “now leasing” sign is already up on the corner, in the background a new set of vinyl murals committed for the exterior.
Given how transformed the corner has been in the past two years, with the burned-out husk of the MPD 3rd Precinct not far away, the honorary gate to Gandhi Mahal still standing on 27th Avenue, it’s a remarkable achievement.
“Construction is expected to last a year, and we’ll be open for people to move in September of 2023,” said Smrikarovna. “We’re hoping to have a big block party, and bring everybody back.”
Well, everybody except for the Denny’s. I have it on good authority that they’re not coming back.