More than 20,300 cars a day drive through the eastern entrance to W. Broadway, passing a Taco Bell, a Wendy's, and two ramshackle buildings alongside the enormous facade of Kemp's dairy plant.
Nearby, a chain-link fence on a bridge over I-94 and a strip club offer an uninviting entrance to the neighborhood.
Once among Minneapolis' most important thoroughfares, W. Broadway is still waiting for a revival to take hold.
City officials and developers are targeting empty spaces along the North Side corridor as debates are playing out at City Hall and in the local neighborhoods about whether those are the kind of fixes Broadway truly needs.
Already, the city has poured $14.3 million into the area over the last five years and several new projects are underway. But many of the challenges facing the area highlight why the neighborhood has struggled. There is little consensus on what to tear down and what to preserve, and some economy-rattled community leaders are growing frustrated with the slow pace of progress.
While Kemp's wants to bulldoze the vacant structures, an old White Castle and Vietnamese market, to expand its parking lot, critics contend that would make the neighborhood even less friendly. Council Member Blong Yang is leading an effort to have the city designate the White Castle a historic structure, slamming shut the chance for a new parking area.
"The last thing we need is more surfacing parking lots," said Alissa Luepke-Pier, a planning commissioner who lives in north Minneapolis.
In the blocks to the west, rows of rundown shops — including a tax service, barbershop, DVD store and grocer — sit opposite a Burger King, a shopping mall with a large parking lot fronting the street, and a dilapidated car dealership with broken windows.
Tim Baylor, who owns a McDonald's in the shopping center, has unveiled plans to tear down the stores west of Cub Foods through Emerson Avenue N. and build a massive development over those three blocks with 254 luxury apartments, 86,000 square feet of commercial space, 45,000 square feet of office space and 679 parking spaces.
"I've been on the avenue for 16 years and haven't seen anything happen — I'm just trying to make it happen," said Baylor, who acknowledged that his team of investors has not developed projects on a similar scale.
He said they have agreements with more than half of the 22 property owners and hope to break ground in a year.
Luepke-Pier and others worry the project will damage the historic character of Broadway.
But Yang, who represents the neighborhood on the council, said the city should reward people who want to come in and take on these types of projects.
When he looks at the storefronts on Broadway, Yang said, he tries to take a more personal view of preservation efforts: "I'm just saying to myself, 'If it was gone, would I miss it?' "
Soon after taking office, Mayor Betsy Hodges described appealing and inviting urban thoroughfares as a priority, inviting citizens to imagine Franklin Avenue as an American Indian cultural corridor, E. Lake Street as a destination for food and culture, and Broadway as a retail and residential route linked by streetcar to downtown.
She and city leaders are already working on a revival of Nicollet Mall downtown after Minnesota legislators approved $21.5 million in May for renovations.
Yet Broadway has struggled to land the same turnaround that Lake and Franklin did years ago, which was buoyed by community leadership and immigrant entrepreneurs.
W. Broadway community and business leaders cite myriad obstacles, such as being too disconnected from the rest of Minneapolis, a foreclosure crisis and recession that forced thousands from the North Side, and a 2011 tornado that wiped out many properties that sit empty today. Meanwhile, private businesses have been slow to invest in the area, leaving too many nonprofit operations that lack the vibrancy of a retail hub.
"It could be made a much stronger priority by the city," said north Minneapolis developer Stu Ackerberg.
There is some hope at the 47,000-square-foot auto dealership, where developer George Sherman has plans to turn much of the building into a workforce center occupied by the state's Department of Employment and Economic Development.
Seeking return to past glory
A City Council committee that oversees development will discuss the possibility of granting tax breaks for the project Tuesday.
Minneapolis leaders also recently approved plans to collect fees from business owners to improve promotion of the street, tidy up the area and enhance public art, decorations and greenery. It would be the second-largest of the city's 14 improvement districts, behind downtown.
Broadway once brimmed with small businesses and a streetcar system that transported thousands of people there to buy shoes, pick up meat, watch movies, eat lunch and go to department stores like Woolworth's.
The area's vitality began slipping away when the streetcars were removed in the 1950s. Race riots the following decade prompted many residents — and much of the wealth — to flee to the suburbs. Buildings emptied out, strip malls and parking lots arrived, and fast food joints replaced neighborhood restaurants.
These days, underused spaces along Broadway remain a problem — one that is most striking on the block from Girard to Irving Avenues, near the gleaming new headquarters for Minneapolis public schools.
Though the city still regularly pitches the site to developers and businesses, the northern side of the block features a chicken wings shop and a line of tax-forfeited, empty buildings. Residents defeated a plan to build a county social services hub there in 2011.
To the south, a machine parts factory sits by a row of buildings that are unoccupied on the first floor. Minneapolis housing staff tried to buy the buildings but could not agree on a price with the owner.
The city has poured $14.3 million into Broadway over the last five years — leveraging that for an additional $60.7 million from other government and private entities — spending money to buy land and pay for store facade improvements. That has paid off in cases like the CommonBond apartment development, slated to open soon.
Tornado's effects still visible
Vestiges of the tornado that swept the North Side three years ago remain at the corner of Penn and Broadway, like the large, empty lot that once housed the Fire 'N' Ice fast-food restaurant. Across the street, another tornado-stricken building remains empty.
"I don't think it generates a lot of confidence when you stand there and see all those vacant parcels or buildings that have not been put back in service from a tornado that happened years ago," said Ackerberg, who owns the Five Points building there.
The development on the Fire 'N' Ice site — expected to break ground next year — will feature 103 apartments and 17,000 square feet of commercial space.
All these developments might mean little, some advocates say, if the entryway to Broadway does not become more inviting. The bustle of the condos and restaurants in the North Loop largely fades after 10th Avenue N. on Washington Avenue, and the half-mile up to Broadway has few signs of life.
"There's nothing that says, 'I want to go further down this road,'" former city housing director Tom Streitz said.
Maya Rao • 612-673-4210