Neal St. Anthony
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Sam Olbekson probably is the busiest architect on E. Franklin Avenue.

And this stretch of Franklin Avenue, in the low-income Phillips neighborhood, is better known for aging, frayed-edge, low-slung buildings than architectural wonders.

However, Olbekson for a decade been one of the visionary drivers behind an emerging “American Indian Cultural Corridor” that has quietly resulted in more Indian-oriented housing, stores, eateries and art galleries, as well as unrelated developments on an upticking commercial artery.

This stretch of Franklin, from Chicago Avenue to Cedar Avenue, also positively impacted recently by folks with Scandinavian, Hispanic and African roots, is on the mend from the depths of 30 years ago. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was best known for tough bars, vacant storefronts and street crime.

This is all close to home for Olbekson, 48, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, who grew up in the neighborhood, and spent summers with relatives on the northern Minnesota reservation.

Olbekson, son of a single mom, was once featured, at age 4, in a 1975 Star Tribune article about poverty in Minneapolis. Growing up, he never lived in any one place, and was often with cousins, for a complete school year until the eighth grade at Folwell School.

Olbekson was a good math student and he loved to draw.

“It was a way for me to cope and be creative,” he recalled.

At Minneapolis Roosevelt High School, an admiring teacher told Olbekson he was smart and should consider becoming an architect. He didn’t know what that was.

He wrote a paper at Roosevelt about homelessness and how architecture and design could help. He was chosen to go to a summer camp at Cornell University for aspiring architecture students before his senior year. He won a scholarship to the Ivy League university where, in 1994, he became the first American Indian architectural graduate in its history.

His senior thesis was about the redesign of the Minneapolis American Indian Center (MAIC). Fittingly, he has produced the plans for a $15 million overhaul that could begin as early as 2021. Olbekson can remember one of his uncles roofing the new MAIC in 1974-75.

After college, he worked construction before earning a master’s degree in urban design from Harvard University.

Olbekson, who works for Cuningham Group as an architect as well as his own Full Circle firm that focuses on Indian projects in Minneapolis, reservations in Minnesota and around the country, also is chairman of the MAIC and the Native American Community Development Institute, also on E. Franklin.

He’s designed several new and refurbished housing projects along the Franklin corridor. He uses Full Circle as the vehicle for a lot of the Indian projects because he can take his time and charge next-to-nothing for his work.

“The thing that makes my heart sing is seeing people gather, listening to their vision, building community and a building that makes them proud,” Olbekson said. “The cultural corridor, including outdoor spaces, is based on a shared vision. It’s not just a building. Culture emerges from the process of us working together and includes traditions, food, music and art.”

Those are the starters of an improving economy that can be seen from the under-construction Mino-bimaadiziwin housing project at Cedar and Franklin, developed by the Red Lake Band of Chippewa and designed by Olbekson. It extends to the Anishinabe-MAIC outdoor plaza, the refurbished NACDI headquarters, including an art gallery and small restaurant and other projects in which Olbekson has been involved.

“Sam has a passion for the work and he is very artistic and he listens, develops consensus and develops the concepts to design,” said Tom Hoskens, 70, a veteran Cuningham architect who has worked on projects for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe for nearly 30 years and with Olbekson around the country for the last decade. “Sam also is a great designer. Every tribal building tells the story of a tribe’s vision. They want the story brought forward to make them proud of their past. Sam shows that in buildings and landscape.

“And we are looking for other Native American architects and designers. We’ve always been community minded. And we are happy to do pro bono work to advance those ideas.”

Olbekson lives in south Minneapolis with two daughters who have never had to move during grade school.

Modest by nature, he calls himself just “one piece” in the work on Franklin that includes African-rooted businesses, as well as Scandinavian developments, such as the National Norwegian Center in America.

“This is about neighborhood transformation,” Olbekson said. “There are many other people involved.”

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.