Crowding scuttles plans for Somali mall expansion in south Mpls

Asad Cabdullahi MataanBy Asad Cabdullahi Mataan

Local Somalis had high hopes for the expansion of a Somali mall in south Minneapolis, after the owner proposed adding nearly 9,000 square feet of space and expanding the parking lot.

But one by one, the mall’s neighbors showed up to testify at a Planning Commission meeting late Monday that the mall had already caused many traffic and parking problems in the area.

City planning commissioners voted down the expansion Monday night, calling on the developer to further study how it would affect traffic. City planners had supported the project.

The crowded mall is the latest example of a problem throughout the city: balancing the needs of neighborhood businesses with complaints that their customers overwhelm the streets. The debate continues even as city leaders push for more people to walk, bike and take public transportation.

Parking and traffic issues have struck the mall at E. 24th Street and 10th Avenue S. particularly hard in recent years. Somali-American shopkeepers even raised the matter to Mayor Betsy Hodges when she visited last month.

Cars park where there are no designated spaces, often boxing each other in and sometimes even blocking the mall’s entrances as East African immigrants stream in to drink tea, watch soccer, log on to computers, have their hair cut, and buy dresses, scarves and rugs.

“We’ve outgrown the mall,” said developer Basim Sabri, who advises the mall’s owners: his brother and nephew. “There is more demand.”

After commissioners described the lack of a traffic management plan as a sticking point, Sabri said Tuesday the owners would come back to the planning board with a study.

He said that more Somali immigrants want to open shops there and others want to expand. Before they moved in, the area had vacancies and crime, he added.

“They made it a prosperous place,” Sabri said.

The plan would connect the Gulet Deli and Grocery with the rest of the building and build the addition over a tiny parking lot, while adding 16 parking spaces elsewhere.

Many Somali immigrants stepped up to support the project before planning commissioners on Monday, but opponents said that Village Market, as the mall is known, was never designed to support so many visitors and businesses. It has invited noise, illegal parking, littering, crime, dangerous driving maneuvers and loud music. Some said they had seen ambulances struggle to weave through.

“It is your duty to recognize this mall for what it is — a site in desperate need of attention, not in need of expansion,” wrote Aaron Lockridge, vice president of the Midtown Phillips Neighborhood Association, to the city.

The association voted last month to oppose the project, saying there was inadequate consideration of parking, traffic flow, zoning violations and other concerns.

The Planning Commission did approve a rezoning plan that would allow for extra parking spaces, along with a bid to replace an alley.

Council Member Lisa Bender said theirs wasn’t an easy decision. Even if 100 parking spaces were added, she said, “it’s not even the point. The point is the traffic impact on the neighborhood.”

Somali-Americans who do business at the mall say their customers cannot come in.

Halima Ahmed said Tuesday that she had circled the block for 15 minutes while waiting for a space to open up. She noted that East African women like her need long dresses, and this is where they come to buy their clothes.

“We don’t get them from the Mall of America,” she said.

The site is close to bus routes, but patrons still drive, sometimes staying all day to watch a soccer game. A plan by Eagle Management, the owner, to install a pay booth at a parking lot entrance could change that.

Eagle’s Omar Sabri told commissioners they had already seen the benefits of paid parking at Karmel Mall, another Somali shopping center in south Minneapolis that is owned by Basim Sabri.

But while serving sambusas, a Somali stuffed pastry, at his cafe in the mall, Farhan Osman said that fixing parking and traffic should come first — then the expansion.