‘Little Africa Plaza’ coming to St. Paul’s Hamline-Midway neighborhood

Little Africa Plaza coming to St. Paul neighborhood

Little Africa Plaza coming to St. Paul neighborhood

A 1920s car dealership in St. Paul’s Hamline-Midway neighborhood will soon be transformed into “Little Africa Plaza.”

The nearly 9,000-square-foot building along the 600 block of North Snelling Avenue has been empty for about eight years.

“This was the neighborhood organization’s highest priority vacant building for many, many years,” said development consultant Lisa Kugler.

The former car dealership was built back in 1926.

In the decades that followed, it has served as retail space, most recently as a fan and lighting store.

The building is currently boarded up, but there is a plan to bring it back to life in a new and vibrant way.

“We want to create a place where people connect to their culture,” said Dr. Gene Gelgelu, whose nonprofit African Economic Development Solutions purchased the site two years ago.

Gelgelu’s nonprofit serves African immigrants by providing support for small businesses and first-time homebuyers.

He plans to turn the vacant building into a cultural destination for African food, clothing and art.

The design includes a large ethnic grocery store, areas for African artists to sell their work, a community gathering space, a small African museum and two retail storefronts for start-up businesses run by immigrants, along with second-floor office spaces for his non-profit work.

“To start their own business, renting is the biggest challenge. So here they will not have huge upfront costs,” Gelgelu said. “It’s a testing space so they can test their product or service and then once that works, they can go rent somewhere else.”

The ethnic grocery store on the main level is expected to feature locally grown produce and food from local African restaurants, such as nearby Snelling Cafe.

“It’s really going to add some vibrancy and some much-needed entrepreneurial space to this area,” said Rebecca Muchow, senior architect at Cushing Terrell — leading this project. “As an architect, the adaptive reuse is really exciting. It is an art deco building, so there are some nice geometric motifs on it. And we are doing our best to make sure there is a reflection of the African culture within the interior design.”

The renovation will include indoor and outdoor murals created by African artists.

“The City of St. Paul has recognized that cultural communities are part of the attraction of the city,” Kugler said.

Kugler said the $5 million project pools a variety of funding sources, including federal grants, donations from foundations and money from the city and state.

The city of St. Paul provided 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS this statement about the project:

“African Economic Development Solutions (AEDS) has applied and been approved for a Neighborhood STAR award and Year-Round STAR award for the Little Africa Plaza project, as well as an LCDA award from the Met Council. They are currently requesting additional funding assistance. This project proposes to renovate a long vacant building with a mix of uses including a grocery store and food hub, micro retail spaces, a community room, and offices for African Economic Development Solutions. The Department of Planning and Economic Development supports the variety of uses proposed for this project, and the HRA board will consider the funding request.”

City of St. Paul

African Economic Development Solutions hopes to break ground on the renovation by this summer and have the project complete by the fall of 2024.