Proposed ‘Africa Village’ mall stirs heated controversy

Photo by Adb The Cedar-Riverside neighborhood where the proposed Africa Village will be located.

Many Cedar-Riverside residents fear gentrification, neglect of other needs

The project, known as Africa Village, was the focal point of Minneapolis City Councilmember Abdi Warsame’s reelection campaign for Ward Six. Warsame has sought to make good on his promise of delivering a mall to the Cedar-Riverside community, but he has been met with opposition from members of the community who are concerned about the development.

Over the past year, Warsame has held a number of community forums to build support for his proposed Somali mall. Warsame is a vocal critic of Omar Sabri, the owner of Karmel and Village Market, businesses heavily patronized by the local Somali community.

He alleges that Sabri has mistreated his tenants. In order to give Somali business owners another option, Warsame proposed the development of another mall in Minneapolis.

“The mall idea came about during his election and it put him over the top,” explained community activist and Cedar-Riverside resident Burhan Israfael Isaaq. “He [Warsame] talked about establishing a mall, but it was assumed it would be on Hiawatha, not in the neighborhood.

“This is purely his idea. He has sidestepped and ignored what is already there. He is presenting himself as a savior,” said Israfael Isaaq.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey has been a supporter of Warsame’s proposal and attended a forum held at Brian Coyle Community Center on Aug. 30. The pair were soon interrupted and drowned out by protesters opposed to the mall. The large crowd was made up of residents, youth, and the Somali Mothers of Minnesota, an emerging nonprofit organization dedicated to community causes.

“You put the cart before the horse,” said Dave Alderson, the co-executive director of the Cedar-Riverside Revitalization Program (CRNRP). His organization, along with the West Bank Business Association, have expressed doubts about the project. He sees the CRNRP as a platform for community members to have their voices amplified, especially on an issue he sees as impacting their lives directly.

Alderson described the forum with Warsame and Frey as a circus. “Nobody objects to business development in this part of town. That’s not the point. The point is, couldn’t you bother to just ask anybody,” he said.

Isaaq is concerned that there is not enough support for the existing businesses in the West Bank area and wonders what will become of them if the proposed mall is completed. He mentioned Al-Karama Mall Cedar Square as one example of a location in need of assistance.

“That place has never got any capital investment from the City. They never really engaged with the shop owners,” Isaaq said.

Isaaq contended that the supporters of Warsame were mainly people from outside the community. His view is that the mall is a preconceived idea void of community input. He also lamented the lack of local media coverage providing the West Bank Somali community’s perspective and accused them of highlighting what he viewed as last-minute efforts to gain a consensus for the mall.

Frey has touted a petition with over 1,200 signatures of Cedar-Riverside residents including addresses and phone numbers as proof of support for the project. Frey’s press secretary Darwin Forsyth responded to criticism about the lack of community input on the proposed Africa Village by saying that any proposal will never get “unanimous support” and said this effort was no different. Forsyth described the project as the “product of deep community engagement, including meetings over several years.”

The mayor’s office sees still more work needed on community engagement and points to a recent request for proposals having “baked engagement direction into the process,” according to Forsyth. When asked about the community’s concern over gentrification, Forsyth pointed to their support of a mall for residents to “build a successful small business, and help them stay in the neighborhoods they made great to begin with.”

Isaaq contends that rumors of forged signatures have prompted an investigation into the sources of some of the signatures. He and many other residents say they are weary of the project and believe there’s more to it than just the mall.

“The market is only a small part of it,” Isaaq said. “Ninety percent of that space will be for condos, and at the bottom will be a small mini mall. The main goal is to give a private developer that space.”

Warsame and Frey have shared plans for a clinic, youth center, and housing units to be a part of the development. However, residents are afraid of displacement due to a lack of affordable housing.

Mohamed Salad, a youth coordinator and basketball coach at Brian Coyle, shared his view on the development and where the community stands on this project. He characterized the mall as something that is wanted by some in the community and in City government. Salad stressed the importance of addressing more pressing community priorities.

In a conversation with staff at the Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center, Salad emphasized the need for culturally competent employees when dealing with Somali youth. He also mentioned the need for resources to combat the opioid crisis that has stricken the Somali community in the Twin Cities.

Salad would like the City to tackle the problem of rising rents in the neighborhood and helping residents find paths to homeownership. “If you go to city hall or the governor’s office, there isn’t that much urgency [to address] issues in this community,” he said.

City officials are still waiting to hear back on requests for proposals in relation to the development and are planning to host forums in the future. Alderson at CRNRP promised that there will also be more community demonstrations to raise awareness about the mall’s potential impact on the community.