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Progress at Galleria comes with a price

By Jeff Kiger

The Post-Bulletin

Rochester’s leaders are trying engender a rebirth of downtown.

The hope is to transform it from a 9-to-5 workplace dominated by Mayo Clinic into a vibrant cultural center to complement the expected bioscience industry and higher education hub.

At the core of the these plans is a shopping center that has had dramatic ups and downs in the past decade – the Galleria Mall.

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"It is the embryo of the downtown expansion," says Kevin Molloy, president of the Marquis Hospitality division of Chafoulias Management Co. Molloy is also a member of the Rochester Downtown Alliance group, which is working to energize the downtown area.

With the first two floors and the exterior being revamped and the top two floors being transformed into a new University of Minnesota campus, the Galleria will soon be a very different place than it is today.

What was once 2 1/2 floors of retail, one floor of food and a top floor movie theater will become two floors of retail — possibly with a restaurant on the street level — and two floors of classrooms, offices and labs.

"We believe that a retail mall — of this size — can only be successful with two levels," said Molloy.

And on top of those stores will be higher education courses in bioscience and medicine.

"It (the addition of the university) will make that building into a very, very unique place, and that’s very important for Rochester," said Sandy Keith, executive director of the Rochester Downtown Alliance. "The Galleria alone will bring 300 to 400 students downtown."

And the University of Minnesota Rochester’s temporary campus will complement the proposed Biobusiness Center to be built a few blocks away and the new U of M and Mayo Clinic Genomics Center on the top of the nearby Stabile Building.

Food Court future?

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However, using that space for classrooms means some longtime tenants of the Galleria will no longer have a place to do business. The third floor Food Court will close on Feb. 28, so demolition and construction can begin.

So where the current tenants go?

"I have no idea," says Buy Nguyen, who owns The Oasis and Hunan Express. "I’ll try to find another place."

He’s not very hopeful, because most of the other restaurants also are looking for new locations, particularly ones downtown to serve the hundreds of Mayo Clinic employees who surge into The Food Court every day for lunch.

Jeff Eastman, who owns Salad Brothers on the Food Court along with the Rainbow Cafe in Pine Island and Marchigiani’s Italian restaurant, says he’ll stay open until his lease is settled. While the other vendors are on a month-to-month lease, Eastman says he is the only one with a long-term lease.

"I intend to keep doing business as usual. It is very profitable," he said of the operation that has six to seven on staff.

It is expected his lease will be resolved with the management, then Eastman say he may replace Marchigiani’s with the popular Salad Brothers. The Marchigani’s space across from Saint Marys Hospital on Second Street previously housed Salad Brothers.

For his part, Bravo Espresso owner Jay Johnson already has his plans lined up. He’s moving his coffee business down to the second floor into the former Ritz camera space by the Mayo skyway. Johnson hopes to make the move on Feb. 20 or so, and he may hire more employees and add soup and sandwiches to his menu.

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Tien Danh, who owns Grand Junction and other Rochester businesses including the Ultra Lounge and Tinn’s Philly Steak Sandwiches, is already in negotiations to move Grand Junction and its four or five employees.

"My loyal customers are downtown. They need a place to eat," he said. "I feel bad for them."

And he’s not the only one.

Frustrated customers

"I’m not very happy about it," says Won Yong Lee, a Mayo Clinic worker catching a quick bite in the Food Court. He eats there about twice a week.

"Now I guess I’ll bring my lunch more," he said.

A table with several women wearing burgundy scrubs and Mayo Clinic name tags voiced similar frustration.

"It will make other places extremely crowded with even longer lines. That’s tough if you have a half hour for lunch," said Nancy Hammel.

"Basically, there will be no place to go," said Kim Putzierl.

Keith of the Downtown Alliance says he understands the reaction.

"It is a popular lunch spot. Many of my friends eat there. I ate there many times," he said.

And yet, those same tables that are packed during the lunch hour are empty for the rest of the day, Keith points out.

The Galleria which opened in the late 1980s, went into foreclosure in 2002. Its owner and developer, Gus Chafoulias, eventually regained control in 2005. Throughout its history, the mall has had many periods of low occupancy and little customer traffic in the evenings and on the weekends.

"Its (the Galleria’s) success is essential to downtown," says Molloy, citing the mall’s history. "This change of use is part of securing that success."

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