Local leaders look to curb violence in Warehouse District

Under Fire: A Special Report on Gun Violence

City leaders are implementing a holistic plan to improve public safety in the Warehouse District, an area that has been a hotspot for gun violence after bar close on the weekends. 

The Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District (DID) recently released an assessment from the Responsible Hospitality Institute (RHI) outlining ways to improve downtown’s late-night atmosphere. 

Steve Cramer, president and CEO of the DID and Downtown Council, called RHI’s a report a “roadmap” for local leaders, who have begun regular meetings to realize RHI’s recommendations.

City leaders hope the group’s recommendations, which range from promoting better business practices to reconfiguring roads, will enhance safety in late-night venues and on the streets of the Warehouse District, 

The 1st Precinct, which includes downtown neighborhoods, had 35 shooting victims in both 2015 and 2014, a 25 percent increase from 2013, according to Minneapolis police records. Over the same period, violent crime, including homicide and aggravated assault, was up nearly 20 percent. 

These are the trends that local leaders hope to reverse now that they’ve begun to realize some key goals from the assessment.

Can changing traffic patterns reduce crime?  

RHI put a particular focus on 1st and Hennepin avenues near the Warehouse District where nightclubs, bars and restaurants line the streets. It’s the streets themselves that need to change, according to the report. 

MPD closes the two thoroughfares near 5th Street during peak bar hours on the weekend, which is also when crimes like aggravated assault and robberies most often occur, according to MPD crime data. The practice, started years ago to manage crowds, RHI says, has made finding ways to leave downtown “unpredictable” during bar close, when patrons leave en-masse only to find traffic jams or pedestrian-packed blocks.

Joanne Kaufman, executive director of the Warehouse District Business Association, is part of an implementation committee following the report and will be the first to say 1st Avenue needs to change. 

“At midnight to 2 a.m., it becomes a different place. I don’t feel safe when there’s no traffic. I feel like it almost makes it more scary,” she told the Journals in December. “Everybody agrees there’s a problem.”

Council Member Jacob Frey, whose ward includes the Warehouse District, said 1st will be reconfigured later this summer, with the current proposed configuration switching the bike lane, now located next to the curb, with the parking lane, which is open for cars during rush hours. Steve Kotke, director of the Minneapolis Public Works Department, said they are also looking to have pop-up parks, café seating or other uses to temporarily replace parking.

The changes are similar to RHI’s recommendation that 1st Avenue have a more active, multi-use sidewalk to make room for more pedestrians and place-making efforts. Kotke said the reconfiguration would better accommodate valet zones or cab stands, which could ease crowds during bar close and reduce time when patrons would be vulnerable to crime.

Tom Hoch, president and CEO of the Hennepin Theatre Trust, said getting more eyes is key. The Trust began using metal-detecting wands and searching bags in its Hennepin Avenue theaters (the Orpheum, State and Pantages) a few months ago much like downtown’s nightlife venues.

“Really the best thing to do is have more people on the street. The more people we attract downtown, the safer we are,” he said.

Other takeaways from the report include adding a nightlife association that could mentor businesses in adopting best practices, training security staff and sharing information on problem patrons or promoters. RHI says this would reduce risky practices and level the playing field between bars in paying for security efforts, such as hiring off-duty cops. Kaufman said she is working to form such a group or find room within existing organizations.

It’s these new strategies that the city hopes to use to shake up its existing policies.

“I think we’ll end up seeing different approaches than we see today,” Cramer said.

Business owners take security into their own hands

On a warm night Ken Sherman isn’t afraid to work his nightclub’s doors on the corner of 5th & Hennepin. 

He co-owns The Exchange nightclub and the Lumber Exchange Building. He also  heads Citizens for a Safer City, a loosely affiliated group consisting of the partners behind the Pourhouse and Exchange, among other citizens. Sherman got the group together last year to voice their concerns against crime and advocate for security efforts. 

“Our hope was by starting that organization that it would be a vehicle for other concerned citizens and, more importantly, other establishments in downtown Minneapolis to reach out to us when they saw what we accomplished and say ‘I’d like to help in making Minneapolis a safer city,’” Sherman said.

The group’s other function was to collect stories and evidence — mostly videos — of unlawful behavior in order to campaign for a requirement for parking lots to maintain their own security and more vigorous police enforcement, among other goals. 

“[Citizens for a Safer City] is really an idea that we invite people downtown and we have a responsibility to satisfy a reasonable expectation of safety,” said Augie’s Cabaret owner Brian Michael, one of Sherman’s security partners. 

Sherman and Michael have started a joint effort to aggressively enforce their rights as property and business owners through a security team that trespass unwanted patrons who they witness causing disturbances or committing crimes. Their security teams will then report them to nearby police. 

Michael said they want to train other venues in downtown Minneapolis to do the same, though, he added, not everyone can afford it. 

“Through this collective group that we’ve organized, we’ve got some real traction in the way that we address [crime],” he said. 

Ben Quam, general manager of The Exchange, said their corner with Augie’s has also seen success with a valet zone in front of the nightclub, which they started as a six-month trial, but have since extended through at least the end of the year. With the closing of Hennepin on Friday and Saturday nights, the service has been vital. 

“It’s such a huge thing for us,” he said. “On a microcosm of our block it’s been really neat to see show things have changed.”

Beyond that, the nightclub has its cameras registered with the 1st Precinct and has also tried keeping its kitchen open past the usual 10 p.m., a move that some city officials think could help stagger the rush at bar close. Like other businesses that have tried, they found the money wasn’t there. 

With the success of their partnership, several members of the group are also optimistic about a possible nightlife association.

“I think it’s going take all the club owners coming together. We need a village mentality,” said L.A. Nik, who participated in RHI report discussions and is affiliated with Citizens for a Safer City.

Sherman hopes to see his efforts replicated. 

“We did what we did on our little corner to make it safe. If other people were to say, ‘that’s great, how can we expand it?’ It would be great,” he said.