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Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey said the city will continue to pursue a public market for East African businesses in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, despite the departure of the project’s main supporter from the City Council.

Council Member Abdi Warsame championed the idea to build a market during his re-election campaign in 2017. More than two years later, he and Frey announced the mall would be built on a city-owned parking lot in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, the heart of Warsame’s ward and the city’s Somali community.

Last week, Warsame was unanimously chosen as the next director of the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, a move that will remove him from his council seat. Frey said the project, called Africa Village, would move forward. Neither Warsame’s departure nor vocal opposition from some business owners and neighbors have deterred the mayor.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey

“Warsame has been a partner, but the vision came from community,” Frey said last week. “And this vision is bigger than me, it’s bigger than Abdi.”

Warsame’s appointment, which still needs City Council approval, will force a special election for his Sixth Ward seat. The incoming council member will play an important role in the project, Frey said.

“When I look at the Ward Six election, am I thinking about someone that’s going to help me carry this project forward? The answer is you better believe it,” he said.

Only one developer submitted a response to the city’s request for proposals: Sherman Associates, the company that owns and overhauled the Riverside Plaza housing complex across from the market’s planned location, known as Lot A.

The company’s proposal called for a 10- to 12-story building with 165 affordable-housing units, a 70,000-square-foot public market, a community clinic and 300 underground parking spaces. The market would be operated by a nonprofit or cooperative, with a nonprofit buying the market from Sherman Associates within seven to 10 years, according to Valerie Doleman, vice president of marketing and communications for Sherman.

In all, the development would be about 350,000 square feet and tied to the corridor that runs through Riverside Plaza.

“The key objective … is to create a strong physical and cultural front door to the community of Cedar-Riverside,” the proposal said.

City officials are reviewing the proposal, and the City Council is expected to select the developer early this year. The project would break ground in spring of 2021 and be completed in 2022.

Despite early opposition to Africa Village, Warsame continued to laud the project as a driver of economic growth and entrepreneurship for the East African community.

“Africa Village wasn’t about one man,” Warsame said when he was selected director last week. “It was about the community, and the community will continue finding ways to be better.”

In an e-mail, Dave Alderson, the co-executive director of the Cedar Riverside Community Council, said the race to fill Warsame’s seat “promises, as usual in this precinct, to be a lively event.”

“I’d like to think that a new [council member] could breathe fresh life into our contention that the entire Lot A process has been stacked against this community from the outset,” Alderson said.

Tim Mungavan, executive director of the West Bank Community Development Corp., said people in the neighborhood want to hear more from the city now that the deadline for submitting proposals had passed.

“This project, it’s a long way from being a done deal,” he said. “My guess is that it will continue going, but it probably will be hurt somewhat by Warsame leaving the council.”

At Warsame’s request, Frey included $50,000 for Africa Village in this year’s budget. In coming months, city officials will gather feedback during neighborhood and business organization meetings. Frey said that while a project as large as Africa Village will always come with pushback, the public wants it.

“It’s going way better than I anticipated,” Frey said. “I’ve been impressed by the support and what I believe we’ll be able to deliver.”

Staff writer Marissa Evans contributed to this report.