After two years of having the street in front of Mim's Cafe torn up for rebuilding, owner Mahmoud Shahin admits he should be relieved.
But despite the imminent reopening of Cleveland Avenue in St. Paul's St. Anthony Park neighborhood, the massive light poles and electrical boxes the city has stuck in front of his restaurant have soured his mood.
"They replaced three beautiful trees with the ugliest things ever," said Shahin, who gave up being a physics professor to take over Mim's in 1996. "I think it's become personal."
The Cleveland Avenue reconstruction project, from Como to Larpenteur avenues, has sparked plenty of neighborhood angst. Much of it has been directed at Ramsey County, which is rebuilding the county road, for the loss of 160 mature trees.
Shahin said he wasn't one of those people. If some trees were in the way of replacing old sewers or utilities, he said, he understands. What he doesn't understand is why first a fire hydrant, then a couple light poles and electrical boxes had to go in front of Mim's Cafe — the only business on the block — and its arbor-covered patio.
The city, in charge of that part of the project, has refused to move the eyesores even a few feet farther down the block, Shahin said. He's even offered to pay $10,000 to offset the cost. He said he believes officials became angry with his continued requests.
"Basically, it became a reality that cannot be changed," Shahin said of what he called shifting city arguments — first citing code, then cost — as the project's completion drew closer.
St. Paul traffic engineer Randy Newton disputes Shahin's characterization.
With a joint city/county project, Newton said, making changes on the fly is neither simple nor easy. As time went on, officials felt more constrained by the need to finish much of the project in time for the Minnesota State Fair.
While possible, Newton said, changing the plan "was never [going to be] easy." Now, it's become even more difficult and expensive.
"I don't think he understands all that would go into it," Newton said of Shahin, whom he has spoken with several times. "I certainly feel for him. But I don't think we've been inconsistent."
Newton added: "At this point, it's essentially set in stone."
Shahin doesn't believe that. Neither do neighbors and customers like Jon Schumacher, the former head of the St. Anthony Park Community Foundation. Shahin, who returns to his home in Palestine several times a year, is a generous and involved member of the neighborhood, Schumacher said.
And Mim's Cafe is "an intersection" of students and staff at the nearby University of Minnesota St. Paul campus and longtime residents who live nearby, he said.
"I don't know why the city is being so obstinate," he said. "For two years, he has been in the worst possible place because of the Cleveland reconstruction. And he's never complained. He told me, 'I live in Palestine, I get how things work.'"
Schumacher added: "I don't know if it's a power play, or it's a personal thing. Would a different owner in a different situation have had more luck with the city?"
City Council Member Mitra Jalali, who represents the area, voiced frustration Friday with what she described as poor communication between city and county planners and residents.
"I just think that more proactive dialogue is needed [on such projects]," Jalali said. "My takeaway is that we needed to know about problems sooner — whether that was the number of trees, or light pole and electrical box location. Are we helping to ensure that everyday people who are impacted by this are included in every way?"
When asked what options remain for Shahin, Newton said he could choose an artistic wrap around the electrical boxes to make them more attractive. "To date, we have not heard from the owner about interest there," he said.
Shahin said his response to the city was: "Please, don't do that," adding, "I still hope they'll make changes."
If not, he said, "I'll sue."