Africa Village seeks developer designation to move forward

Cedar-Riverside’s Africa Village project stalled due to COVID. But under a new City Council member, the project is still moving forward.

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Photo Courtesy of ESG Architects

A rendering of Africa Village, a cultural mall plan including retail and affordable housing in Cedar-Riverside.

Lydia Morrell

The long-debated Africa Village, a cultural mall plan including retail and affordable housing in Cedar-Riverside, waits to move forward under City Council member Jamal Osman.

The city still has to give developer designation, or exclusive rights, to Sherman Associates, the only developer who bid on the project more than a year ago. Then, the project can move into further stages, such as soliciting public bids from investors and hosting further public discussions.

The city of Minneapolis originally slated to go through public discussions last summer and start construction by this spring, but COVID-19 pushed the timeline back.

The Africa Village project has been in the works for years and includes a public market, a small-business incubator, 165 affordable-housing units and a clinic. Former council member Abdi Warsame spearheaded the mall and led past public comment efforts steeped in tension.

Since then, Osman was elected to the Ward 6 seat. He said he is highly supportive of the project but wants to seek extensive community feedback before proceeding.

“This will be centered around the community, this is where they live and do business, and it’s very important to engage and make sure however we plan it … this will have a positive effect,” Osman said.

Sherman Associates has preliminary drawings of the site but is waiting for the designation to continue planning, said CEO George Sherman. He said the next steps after the designation are getting public bids and neighborhood feedback.

The public engagement period could stretch from six to 18 months, Sherman said, allowing enough time for the developers to put together a financial package and fully understand the neighbors’ vision for the site.

Russom Solomon, owner of the neighboring Red Sea restaurant, said previous efforts to plan out Africa Village were rocky because Warsame and project leaders didn’t meaningfully engage with the neighborhood. He said he thought Osman understood the importance of engaging with community members in development conversations, so he was more optimistic about upcoming conversations.

“The reason why the approach was wrong is they were bringing people from outside to give input about the neighborhood,” Solomon said. “How can you call outside people who don’t live there, who don’t work there, to come and decide the fate of a neighborhood?”

Discussions over the future of the African mall have been divisive. In one meeting in a gymnasium, Warsame asked neighbors to move to different sides of the room if they supported the project or not. Eventually, protesters shouted him and Mayor Jacob Frey out of the room.

Tim Mungavan, director of the West Bank Community Development Corporation, said that safety and parking were two of neighbors’ main concerns.

“The danger of the development is that either it could remove all of that parking or even if it were replaced, make it prohibitively expensive for existing businesses, in which case they would be unable to continue to survive and therefore, dramatically change the character of the neighborhood,” Mungavan said.

Mungavan added that the neighborhood already has two African malls. He said residents are concerned that another mall would attract the same crime and drug trafficking that the other malls have received.

“The management of those malls has been problematic,” Mungavan said.

Sherman said the plan includes two levels of underground parking with about 200 spaces.

If the project moves forward, Sherman said it would be owned by a nonprofit, which hasn’t been determined yet.

“We’ll have a community discussion about making sure that the community-owned the mall … [represents] the best interest of the tenants in the mall,” Sherman said.