Star Tribune: Blind greed led board to Fuji-Ya site

Doug Grow, Star Tribune, February 20, 2005

»The Minneapolis Park Board, which made a businesswoman miserable because it lusted for her land, is trying to sell the property it grabbed in 1990. With each move the Park Board makes, it seems to run into a sticky problem.

The land at the edge of downtown Minneapolis on the west bank of the Mississippi was owned by the late Reiko Weston, a Japanese woman who married a Minnesotan, Norman Weston, in 1952.

Reiko Weston had extraordinary vision. In 1959, she opened a restaurant, Fuji-Ya, on LaSalle Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. The restaurant was such a hit that she began looking for a bigger place and in 1961 found what was the perfect location: a burned-out flour mill at 420 S. 1st St.

…Weston handled the land with care. She hired a Japanese man, Shinichi Okada, who was an architecture student at the University of Minnesota, to design the building in a manner respectful of the ruins and Japanese culture. (Okada now is a well-known architect in Tokyo.)

In 1968, Fuji-Ya, built on the thick foundations of the old mill, was complete and people from throughout the metro discovered the wonders of Japanese food and the beauty of the river.

But in the early 1980s, the Park Board muddied the waters. At the board demand, 1.9 of Weston’s 2.7 acres were condemned to make room for the West River Parkway, which was being built to replace a rutted, little-used road.

The board’s desire to build the road was commendable. Its treatment of Reiko Weston was contemptible.

The land taken by the board had been used as a parking lot by Weston. Parking was crucial to attract people to what was a dark and dingy area. She pleaded with the city to help with the parking problems. For example, she asked that the city replace “no parking” signs along First Street with parking meters. The city refused.

“Funny thing is, a week after we went out of business [in 1990], the city put in parking meters,” Hanson said.

With no parking, business faded.

“It was a sad scenario,” said Ernie Lindstrom, who was Weston’s attorney. “They cared about nothing but getting that land. They must have gone after her for 10 years.”

In 1988, Reiko died at age 59. Her daughter believes the stress of trying to work with the board contributed to her fatal heart attack.

Hanson kept the restaurant going until 1990, when the board finally got what it lusted for. After Weston’s heirs spent three years in a legal case proving that the lost parking had been a brutal detriment to the business, the board paid $3.5 million for Fuji-Ya.

…So what has the board done with this property in the ensuing 15 years?

“We haven’t been able to do anything with it,” said Board Member John Erwin. “We’ve been stuck.”

…So, this month, the board finally voted to sell the property for $1.5 million to a developer who will build 15 condos on the site. But there are potential stumbling blocks.

For starters, Erwin said that because state money went into closing down Fuji-Ya, the state wants proceeds from the sale. The board is trying to work out an agreement with the Legislature that would allow the board to use the $1.5 million to buy more park land upriver.«

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