Biz buzz :: Construction costing Elliot Park businesses

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August 30, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott

For Elliot Park businesses, street improvements come with a price

True to its motto, Band Box Diner can turn “grease into a feast.” But the Elliot Park gem can’t make much out of the road construction that’s transformed its streetscape into a scarred industrial zone.

The throw-back diner is one of the businesses standing to benefit from a sweeping, 15-block reconstruction of Chicago Avenue South — if only it can survive through to the project’s completion.

“It’s kind of like, if you have a half hour for lunch, and then you get lost for 45 minutes, what are you gonna do?” says Brad Ptacek, who has operated the diner for the last 13 years.

Ptacek’s breakfast joint, housed in a kitschy red-and-white building that dates back to 1929, has never been easy to find. Its location at an odd triangular intersection adds to its cache as a hidden neighborhood treasure. But now, he says, the place is nearly impossible to access. The pavement has been stripped completely away at the intersection of Chicago Avenue and East 14th Street, just a few feet from the diner’s entrance. And several “Road Closed” signs are positioned around the building.

The area, in Ptacek’s words, looks like “the end of the world.”

The first day construction began, on May 3, Ptacek says “it took about $200” out of his sales. Now, almost four months later, he’s on the verge of closing shop. Hours have fluctuated as he’s scrambled to cover the necessities.

“I closed yesterday morning because I had to empty out my piggy bank and go pay my property tax,” he said.

He’ll stay open as long as he can, hoping to stretch through the road reconstruction, which the city estimates will wrap up in mid-October. Chicago Avenue will open at the same time MnDOT opens the Interstate 94 freeway overpass in the same area.

At nearby Alex Used Car Lot, 1619 Chicago Avenue South, co-owner Tom Belowski is also hurting.

“We’ve lost several thousand dollars over the construction ‘cause we can’t get people in and out of here,” Belowski says. “We noticed it right away, from day one.”

Both Belowski and Ptacek welcome the improvements, which 
they say the street needs, but they begrudge what they consider a lack of compassion from the city. Ptacek says there have been some screw-ups with street markings near Band Box. Belowski wishes 
East 17th Street could 
have been left open. Both 
would like a break on their property taxes.

This summer’s construction is the final phase in a badly needed facelift for a stretch of Chicago Avenue between 8th Street South and East 28th Street. The road south of Franklin Avenue was rebuilt in 2008 and 2009. Streetscape amenities — lantern-style light fixtures and tree plantings — for that section are scheduled for this year. North of Franklin, reconstruction began May 3 of this year, with the additional streetscaping coming in 2011.

“The reconstruction is gonna help, whether anyone wants it or not,” says David Fields, a staff coordinator for Elliot Park Neighborhood, Inc. (EPNI) “Chicago Avenue was just terrible. And this is going to make it much better, and the businesses should know that.”

Fields says the businesses were given considerable notice prior to construction and had many opportunities to offer their input. The neighborhood group has been busy trying to engage the community in the construction project for over a year and a half. He also pointed out that the Department of Public Works always sponsors a series of community meetings whenever they undertake a road construction project.

Along with Public Works, EPNI sent out notices to all property owners along Chicago Avenue in the fall of 2009, alerting them to a series of community meetings that fall and winter with representatives from Public Works.

Band Box Diner, because its address is not technically on Chicago Avenue, was not on that list. “But Brad certainly knew about it,” Fields says. Aside from the area nonprofits, the only business to proactively engage with the neighborhood group was Allied Parking, which owns a lot in the area.

“So they had their chance, let me put it that way,” Fields says.

Jeff Handeland, a Public Works engineer who took the project over in November, said he’s held four public meetings himself, and that a handful of meetings occurred before that during the design phase and prior to the assessment public hearings.

Handeland confirmed that some area businesses, including Alex Used Car Lot, did call with concerns when construction began. After a few meetings, he said he arranged to have custom orange signs placed in the area making it clear that specific businesses are still open.  

Public Works is open to visit with any business in the area, Handeland said, “to see if there’s anything I can do as project engineer to modify the configuration of things.”


Veteran Downtown jeweler moves to St. Louis Park

In a move reflecting a shifting customer base, Bergstrom Jewelers is decamping to St. Louis Park, leaving its Downtown home of 87 years for The Shops at West End. Store owners say they hope to be settled into the new, larger space by the first week of November. A moving sale at the current location in the Plymouth Building, 
12 South 6th St., runs through Oct. 15.

“We started to sense some pushback from customers about coming Downtown,” said Bergstrom president Bob Zagaros. “It has to do with parking. It has to do with traffic.”

Bergstrom said a customer study revealed that the majority of Bergstrom shoppers live west of Downtown.

“People would make comments like, ‘Can’t you fix it now so we don’t have to come back?’” Zagaros said. “[Online customers] would find out we’re Downtown and they’d call and say, ‘Don’t you have another location?’”

“If you’re gonna go to a ballgame or to dinner or a club, Downtown’s a great place to go. But, you know, our customers are just hesitant to shop here.”

The move reflects a growing threat that The Shops at West End pose to Downtown businesses.

“It’s close enough to Downtown, and you can park for free,” explained Andrea Christenson, a retail broker in Cassidy Turley’s Minneapolis office.  


Gentlemen’s shoe store to open in City Center

Allen Edmonds, the high-end men’s shoe retailer, has opened its first Minneapolis boutique in the skyway level of City Center.

The Wisconsin-based business specializes in handcrafted shoes, leather goods and “gentlemen’s accessories” (think cufflinks, billfolds and fancy pens). The shoes are produced in ateliers in Port Washington, Wis., and Lewiston, Maine, via a 212-step process. According to the Allen Edmonds website, the Minneapolis location will be the shoemaker’s 28th store in the nation.

Local architect Jim Dayton has designed the space. Dayton describes the aesthetic as a sophisticated men’s den, with lots of leather accents and flat screen televisions broadcasting sports.

The boutique opened Aug. 26. According to a spokesman, in each of the first three weeks, the store will donate 10 percent of proceeds to a charity, first to Family & Children’s Services, then to United Way and finally to the Minnesota Orchestra.


Saloon Hotel falls to bed bug infestation

The Saloon Hotel, which occupies the upper two floors of the Saloon Bar, at 830 Hennepin Avenue, has been officially closed for a month now, according to co-owner Jim Anderson.

Formerly known as Hotel Amsterdam, which catered mostly to a transient Downtown community, the Saloon Hotel officially became a hotel catering to gay men when Anderson and his business partner John Moore bought the bar in 1980.

“To be honest with you, the bed bugs were more than we could handle,” said Anderson.

He said the hotel has battled an infestation for over a year, adding that the bad word-of-mouth, coupled with the high costs of exterminating an old building, “was disastrous to our business model.” Anderson said it took running heaters at 160 degrees in each room to kill off the pests.

The bed bugs are now gone. But the business won’t return. The Saloon is open to selling or leasing the space to a new business, but no plans are on the horizon.  


Another Block E giant has fallen

The Downtown Hooters has officially closed shop, bottoming out from a downward spiral that began last February, when Block E Realty sued the restaurant’s owners for failing to pay rent.

In March, Twin Wings of Minneapolis filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Then on August 23, according to news reports, owners converted the case to Chapter 7 liquidation.

Twin Wings officers Steven and John Marso signed the liquidation conversion. The Marso brothers also operate a Hooters in Burnsville, which remains open.

That makes two Block E closures this year, after GameWorks shut down on March 29.

But the Downtown complex has had some sunny news this year, as well. Kieran’s Irish Pub, which moved into the former Bellanotte space just below Hooters in mid-March, has been welcomed as a change of course for a complex previously dominated by suburban chains. The pub has been packing happy hours all summer.

Some observers welcomed the closure.

“Good riddance,” commented Council Member Lisa Goodman (7th Ward). “I don’t think Bob [Lux] is concerned about a deadbeat company that doesn’t pay its rent leaving.”

In April, Downtown developer Bob Lux announced his plans to purchase Block E from its original Chicago- and then Washington D.C.-based owners.