In an area booming with new housing plans, a venerable North Loop car parts merchant is feeling squeezed
Howard Chanen sometimes speaks in car metaphors. Of his job, he said,
"It's just a vehicle to make a living at." It's a natural habit, given that the
53-year-old owner of Northern Auto Parts has worked with car parts since he was 10.
His father started the business -- a giant indoor scrap yard just north of the county's garbage incinerator -- in 1946. Chanen took over the reins at 24, after earning a business degree from the University of Minnesota, when his father fell ill.
Chanen's line of work is going out of style. He remembers when more than a dozen scrap yards lined Washington Avenue. Now, he's the last one Downtown.
Northern Auto Parts, 643 N. 5th St., sits in one of Downtown's heaviest industrial pockets, but neighborhood dynamics are changing. New condo projects are going up left and right, and there's talk of a new ballpark being constructed a few blocks east of Chanen's warehouse.
The trend toward residential development is putting aspects of Chanen's business at odds with neighborhood leaders in North Loop and city officials. The City Council put brakes on his plans this summer to make use of new on-site, car-crushing technology. The new crushers would have allowed Chanen to save on costs associated with hauling car hulls away from the scrap yard, he said.
Currently, the scrap yard can load up to eight junk cars on a flatbed. The new crusher would have allowed for up to 24 crushed cars to be hauled away.
Northern Auto hasn't been in the car crushing business for about a year. Without the car crushers, it is less efficient. "It's costing us about $15,000 to $20,000," Chanen said. "We're operating on about one-third of the efficiency we could. We can't sell as many auto parts."
The scrap yard would have processed about 500 cars a month with the new crushers. Currently, it handles about 100.
The City Council rejected the expansion in a 10-2 vote this summer. In some respects, the opposition to Northern Auto Parts' expansion is a bellwether for North Loop. Heavy industry is increasingly at odds with developers and neighborhood forces working to shape a residential enclave Downtown.
"I don't think that the people who are buying the [condo] units over here really know what they're in store for. This is still the Wild West here at night," Chanen said. "This is not Lake Calhoun over here. ... The thing that's irritating to me is that those of us who have been in the neighborhood for more than 50 years, we're handcuffed, and the new people are slowly creeping in and expanding."
Well-heeled opponents Chanen has faced opposition from the North Loop Neighborhood Association -- a new group of Warehouse District residents led by former Orono mayor Jim Grabek.
Grabek, along with developer Kit Richardson appealed a city Planning Commission decision that would have allowed for the on-site car crushers. Grabek declined to comment for this story, and Richardson did not return phone calls.
Chanen said he wants to know what the plan is for the neighborhood.
"I'd like to see people being straight with us as to what the real agenda is around here. You've tied the hands of those who've supplied jobs and paid taxes. Now we're the ones that are slowly but surely going to get squeezed out of here," he said.
Alan Higley, vice chair of the North Loop Neighborhood Association, disputed the notion that neighborhood leaders have some sort of "elitist agenda" to phase out industrial uses and turn the area into another Edina.
The neighborhood group worked to ensure new development and land uses match city plans for the area. There's been an effort to reach out to all residents and businesses to create a comprehensive plan, said Higley, a Downtown resident for eight years.
"There's a place for everything," Higley said, adding the neighborhood's industrial uses are critical to the city's infrastructure. "The trick is there has to be a plan. The plans that have been developed so far ... indicate there's a better use for some of the immediate area around the proposed ballpark and transit station."
Chanen insists Minneapolis must have a place for a Northern Auto in its midst.
"The city needs somebody like me to want to do this. Plain and simple," he said. "We have all sorts of abandoned cars all over the place. People call us everyday, 'Please take our cars.'"
Many also rely on the business for cheap spare parts.
"People come here with their last dollar in their pocket and they've got to fix their cars as cheap as they can," he said. "It's a hardware store. It just happens to be full of auto parts."
The 100,000-square-foot warehouse has thousands of hollowed-out car hulls with piles of scattered auto parts covering the floors.
Northern Auto acquired the indoor space in the 1970s and became a model for a relatively aesthetically pleasing scrap yard, Chanen said. "I'm not your typical scrap operator -- the picture of the guy in coveralls," he noted.
The business employs 12 workers.
Although times are getting tougher for Chanen, he has no plans to sell right now. The business has been good to him over the years, providing for his family in Minnetonka.
His two college-aged daughters have no plans to follow his footsteps in the family business. Chanen said he even needs to remind them to get their oil changed.
For now, Chanen is focused on his work, though he's not particularly sentimental about the place.
"I hope to stay here and make a living. At the appropriate time, the land values will make it attractive to make a change. If you get a stadium up here, it's going to expedite things a lot faster. I can't imagine us being here in 10 years."
At the same time, he's skeptical about some visions for development.
"There's the practical world that has to go on within the city -- then there's the vision of creating Michigan Avenue in Chicago. This is not Michigan Avenue or Lake Calhoun. ... It really becomes a tragedy when people who have put their whole life into a neighborhood as a merchant and suddenly you get new factions coming in that have greater profile. There's no consideration given to history, longevity."