Grad students learn city planning and design through Minneapolis’ former Kmart site

13 May 2024

Regarded by some as one of the worst planning decisions in Minneapolis history, the former Kmart site in south Minneapolis has a long and storied history. Since the late 1970s, the department store and its parking lot have blocked Nicollet Avenue near Lake Street. 

On Thursday, Minneapolis City Council gave its stamp of approval on a tentative design plan that would transform the controversial site

City officials and community members are daring to dream of what the future might hold for the space. But the site also serves as a great lesson and learning opportunity for the next generation of urban planners. 

In February, a group of five Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs graduate students took second place in the American Planning Association design competition for their work developing a plan proposal for the former Kmart site. Their proposal was one out of 20 school submissions, but for these students, the project was personal because they live in Minneapolis. 

One of the students on the team, Greg Olberding, often bikes by the empty lot of the former Nicollet Avenue Kmart site. 

“I see how it has divided a neighborhood,” he said. “You look at this opportunity that’s before us and you think, this doesn’t come up very often where a city has an opportunity to make an intervention that will immediately and drastically improve the entire surrounding area, provided they do it right. And if we can have even a tiny little role in helping to steer that in the right direction … that would just be amazing.”

Olberding worked alongside peers Annika Johnson, Jem Thompson, Holly Leaf, and Aaron Osowski, to develop a 20-page-long proposal for the site. The team’s comprehensive mixed-use redevelopment proposal included housing, retail, parks and public spaces. The entire project was informed through community engagement, said Johnson. 

Johnson spent much of their childhood in Minneapolis. They remember going to the Kmart in their youth. 

“Although it had its complications … I think it still served a really good purpose for the people who lived around there,” Johnson said. “That’s actually one of the things that the community brought up was that even though this Kmart was not a great plan, it kind of happened out of necessity. It still provided all of these goods for the neighborhood, which now they don’t really have.”

This aspect of the site is acknowledged in the student’s report.

Humphrey School Planning and Design Team, from left: Holly Leaf, Greg Olberding, Jem Thompson, Aaron Osowski and Annika Johnson. Credit: Supplied

Between 1920 and 1950, the intersection of Nicollet Avenue and Lake Street boasted small-scale storefronts catering to both working-class and affluent residents, according to the report. Post World War II, however, much of the population fled to the suburbs and the area was impacted by the loss of local streetcars. The 1965 construction of Interstate 35W displaced residents, including much of south Minneapolis’s Black community, and further contributed to the decline of this commercial district. Efforts to revitalize the area resulted in the creation of the Nicollet-Lake Development District Plan in 1972, which sought out Kmart as a key player in the development. 

“However, despite these early challenges, Kmart operated profitably for years, paying low rent and providing much-needed access to basic life necessities for community members,” the student report reads. 

The city purchased a large parcel adjacent to the Kmart in 2015 and purchased the Kmart property two years later. The department store was one of the many businesses damaged during the civil unrest following Goerge Floyd’s murder in 2020. Kmart terminated its lease shortly after. The City of Minneapolis took possession of the site, with the intention of reconstructing Nicollet Avenue and revitalizing the intersection. 

Plans to demolish the Kmart building were hastened in October when the property was destroyed in a fire. Today, the site remains an empty lot. 

This history informed much of the project, team member Leaf said. 

“We looked at replacing the function of the Kmart, so that’s why we included – along with the mixed use – a lot of different parcel sizes,” she said.  “We included small storefronts for local businesses, but also had some large scale retail grocery stores to replace some of those big-box store amenities in the neighborhood instead of just focusing on one particular type of storefront.“ 

The students started the project in mid-September. The due date was Feb. 9. This left the students a relatively short period of time to come up with a plan for a very complicated project, said Thompson. 

The team’s comprehensive mixed-use redevelopment proposal included housing, retail, parks and public spaces. Credit: Humphrey School Planning and Design Team

“If we had more time, we would have easily filled it,” Thompson said. “I don’t think that there would ever be a point where we’d be like, ‘OK, we’ve covered everything.’” 

The student’s project was happening in tandem with city engagement over the site. There are three phases to the city’s process and, while the students know the city and council have access to their report, they don’t know what will ultimately come of it. 

But one of the main things students returned to that they learned in the process was the importance of community engagement. 

Johnson noted, community engagement often takes longer than anticipated. 

“You’re moving at the speed of trust and Minneapolis has a long way to go with that. In my opinion as a communication person, the slower they go – as long as they’re consistently working with community – that’s OK if it takes longer,” they said. “A lot of the communities surrounding this area have been ignored or not included, whether intentional or not, in large city planning.”

Winter Keefer

Winter Keefer is MinnPost’s Metro reporter. Follow her on Twitter or email her at [email protected].

The post Grad students learn city planning and design through Minneapolis’ former Kmart site appeared first on MinnPost.

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