Evictions take strip mall businesses by surprise

By Jane McClure

Midway Center business owners knew that someday they would have to relocate to make way for the mixed-use developments planned around the Allianz Field Major League Soccer stadium at Snelling and University avenues. The arson and vandalism that occurred on May 28 and 29 has hastened that day. Several of the stores were looted and set on fire. Others sustained smoke and water damage. Preparations are now being made to demolish the buildings.

Leases in the Midway Center strip mall were terminated in late June by property owner RK Midway. Business owners had until July 17 to remove fixtures, equipment and inventory. The business owners met on July 14 with Midway Center management, city officials and community development agencies. Although RK Midway has indicated that businesses could return when new retail spaces are ready to be occupied, some business owners said they could not wait that long.

Peking Garden co-owners Mary Lau and Tina Yang sorted through boxes of goods as they cleaned up the restaurant and counted their losses following their eviction from Midway Shopping Center and the riots that left some of the shops unfit to reopen. Photo by Brad Stauffer

“We don’t know where we’re going to go or what we’ll do,” Lau said. She was hoping to work with her landlord on relocating, but does not know whether she will be able to wait as long as that may take.

“I really sympathize with these small business owners,” said Saint Paul City Council member Dai Thao, whose Ward 1 includes Midway Center. The city has resources to help small businesses, he added. “We grieve the loss of their business with them, but we’re prepared to help them move forward,” he said.

Another agency that is offering assistance is the Asian Economic Development Association. Its executive director, Va-Meng Thoj, said his group is ready and willing to help.

The problem is finding available space, especially in the Midway area. About a dozen businesses were affected by the fire, smoke and water damage. Foot Locker, Great Clips, Game Stop and To New York in the strip mall sustained the heaviest damage, as did the stand-alone Big Top Liquors building.

Some small-business owners initially assumed they would be able to clean up their leased spaces and reopen. Two restaurants, Peking Garden and Golden Gate Cafe, are the strip mall’s oldest tenants. Golden Gate has been owned and operated by the Hui family for more than 40 years. Mary Lau’s family has operated Peking Garden since 2006 after losing its longtime location on the University of Minnesota’s East Bank to the development of TCF Bank Stadium.

Lau said she watched news coverage of the Midway Center fires on television and went to assess the damage as soon as possible. “We sustained smoke and water damage, but otherwise our restaurant was OK,” she said. Finding out that the strip mall will be torn down was a shock, she added.

“We don’t know where we’re going to go or what we’ll do,” Lau said. She was hoping to work with her landlord on relocating, but does not know whether she will be able to wait as long as that may take.

Lau had recently renovated the Peking Garden space, investing about $350,000. “We’ve lost everything,” she said. “This is very difficult for us.”

Two GoFundMe accounts have been started for Peking Garden, raising more than $25,000 as of last week. Wyn Huynh, a friend of Lau’s, said he and others felt compelled to help after hearing about the restaurant’s forced relocation.

Thien’s Cajun Boiling Seafood was a relative newcomer to Midway Center, opening in 2018. Co-owner and chef Thien Do said his business and its neighbors at the north end of the strip mall only sustained smoke damage. “We were very surprised to get the letter indicating that our lease would be terminated,” he said. “We’re hoping to stay in the Midway, but we don’t know what we’re going to do.”

Other business owners said they would also like to reopen, ideally in the Midway. A letter from RK Midway indicated that the businesses could come back when the proposed United Village at Midway project is complete. However, no timeline for that development has been announced.

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