A tale of two East African marketplaces

While two East African shopping centers want to expand in Minneapolis, one is proceeding with its plans and the other came up short in its latest attempt to gain approval.
The Minneapolis Planning Commission last month approved a 9,000-square-foot addition for the 51,000-square-foot Karmel Square on the 2900 block of Pillsbury Avenue South. But last week the commission denied an application to expand the Village Market at 912 E. 24th St., citing serious traffic and parking issues associated with the site in a residential area.
For nearly two years, Village Market owner Omar Sabri has wanted to expand the 75,000-square-foot shopping center by 8,800 square feet to accommodate the growing center.
In 2014 the commission denied a similar expansion application, citing concerns over traffic and parking congestion from the mall’s increasing popularity in a residential neighborhood. Since then, Sabri has attempted to mitigate those concerns, according to a city planning staff report, which recommended approval.
Despite the staff recommendation, the planning commission cited a groundswell of traffic-related complaints from residents who live near the mall. The mall is south of the Interstate 35W and I-94 interchange and two blocks north of the Abbott Northwestern Hospital campus.
“I just think we need to start saying the more appropriate space for this would be in areas designated for more high-intensity commercial uses,” said City Council Member Lisa Bender, who serves as the council’s representative on the planning commission.
While some community members and mall tenants have testified in support of the expansion, others who live and work in the neighborhood say the mall has become too popular for its own good.
“I don’t want the mall to go away,” Marge Anderson, who has lived just blocks from the site for more than 26 years, told commissioners at a Nov. 2 meeting. “I just think (any expansion) is going to increase the amount of people coming to this area when we already have major issues with parking and traffic.”
Others say the Village Market serves as an important economic and community center for the East African community.
“This is where we all come together, sit at our coffee shops, frequent our businesses,” Sadik Warfa, a mall tenant, said at the meeting. “More than 300 East African families live in this neighborhood and their livelihoods depend on the mall.”
In 2001 the city approved land use applications for Sabri to convert the former manufacturing warehouse into an indoor farmer’s market-style shopping center, which today features more than three dozen businesses ranging from tailors and clothing stores to coffee shops and restaurants.
In 2004 Sabriwon approval to convert the property to a mixed-use development, even though the property is zoned for light industrial use, according to a city planning report.
Minneapolis Council Member Abdi Warsame, whose ward includes the Village Market, said he is working with stakeholders to solve long-term livability issues related to the mall’s presencein the neighborhood.
“The tenants, neighbors and customers of the mall are entitled to an environment that is safe, a building that is well maintained, and meets city standards,” Warsame said in a statement.
The Karmel Square expansion was approved Oct. 19. That mall, owned by Basim Sabri (a relative of Omar Sabri), was built in 2005 in the Whittier neighborhood, one block north of Lake Street and just west of I-35W. The approval comes after Karmel Square recently constructed an on-site, paid parking structure to alleviate off-street parking concerns.
Karmel Square’s expansion is a reflection of its popularity and success as an incubator for small businesses, Robert Speeter, attorney for the mall owner, told planning commissioners in October.
“It’s been a greatly successful place for people to get their businesses started,” he said.
An expansion in customer base is behind the growth of ethnic shopping centers in and around the Twin Cities, said Dave Brennan, co-director of the Twin Cities-based Institute for Retailing Excellence at the University of St. Thomas.
“If you look closer at these ethnic or multi-ethnic malls, one of the things you’ll discover is they originally are (opened) to meet the need of their specific communities,” Brennan said. “But once they have become established there is a broader base of people who become interested in exploring what they have to offer in terms of retail goods and services. And then you see the additional traffic and sales follow.”
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