Neighborhood group helps renovation

by Max Rust

Joel Torstenson remembers when Cedar Avenue was called “Snus Boulevard.”
The West Bank road was so named because of the Norwegian immigrants who spent time there chewing “snus” — Norwegian for “snuff.”
Torstenson, a retired Augsburg College professor who moved to the West Bank in 1939, also remembers Dania Hall, a four-story building used first in 1886 by Scandinavian immigrants as a community center.
The hall offered meals, folk dancing and theater.
“Cedar Avenue was the vibrant village in the city, and Dania Hall was one of the centers of Cedar Avenue,” Torstenson said.
Now a new generation of immigrants and area residents are turning the boarded-up building into a community center. The Cedar Riverside neighborhood has decided to renovate the building, putting half of its Neighborhood Revitalization Program funds toward Dania Hall.
In mid-August, workers from Flannery Construction began readying Dania Hall for the renovation that will create retail and office space, as well as restore the building’s centerpiece: a horseshoe-shaped balcony that hangs over a dance floor and theater stage.
The renovation should be completed by spring or early summer.
Gar Hargens, an architect with Close Associates who is working with construction crews on retaining the building’s original design, said efforts to renovate the building are 20 years old.
“Each time,” he said, “we’d design it, have neighborhood meetings, maybe hire a contractor, get some developers, get all set to go, then have a gap in the financing.”
Usually it was a million dollar gap.
But this time the neighborhood decided to fill the gap, using $1.5 million of their $3.1 million Neighborhood Revitalization Program funds. The NRP allocates city development money to neighborhood projects.
The rest of the $2.7 million project will be financed by state and federal funds and by the Dania Hall Group of Minneapolis, the project developers.
Since the Dania Hall is a historical building on the national registry, the project qualifies for tax credits as long as it is restored to its original design.
Peter Goelzer, a West Bank architect who once headed the West Bank Business Association, said the redevelopment will bolster business in the area.
“One of the worst things you can have as a business community is a boarded-up building,” he said, explaining that when once-boarded buildings are renewed, surrounding businesses often refresh their looks as well.
Goelzer said he was at first skeptical that others in the neighborhood would not think using the NRP funds for the renovation was a good idea. But that’s not the case.
“This is one project that the community supports because of the immense benefits that will come out of it,” said Abdullahi Muhammad, editor of the Somali Observer and president of the Somali Committee for Cultural Development.
Muhammad said he knows of several people with business projects who are interested in using space in the building. While no tenants have yet been signed, many people have suggested that a restaurant on the ground floor that extends out onto the lot adjacent to the building would be a good idea. The constant flow of restaurant-goers, Goelzer said, would help deter some of the drug dealing that occurs on the avenue.
John Ockenden, a Minneapolis man who frequents the West Bank, suggested a sandwich shop, saying there are no places to get a good sandwich on the West Bank.
But residents will have to wait until spring or early summer when the project is complete, and much work is needed before then.
A 1991 fire torched the hall’s ceiling; water damage has made the wooden floorboards buckle up.
Bob Laidly, superintendent of construction on the project, said the workers are progressing from the top of the building down.
A new roof is in place and work crews have removed lead, asbestos and pigeon droppings.
Occasionally, workers will find antiques like old bottles from when the building was occupied by a pharmacy and stamps with the word “opium” written on them, presumably from the 1960s and 1970s when the hall was used by counterculturists as a place to party, listen to music and organize anti-war efforts.
Torstenson, who still lives on the West Bank, said the project should be a good asset to the neighborhood.
“My hope is that the Dania Hall restoration will become an impetus to the revitalization of this village,” he said.

Max Rust covers communities and welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3227.