Sunday March 19, 2023
By Evan Ramstad
Basim Sabri, developer and owner of Karmel Mall, ran into his cousin Safya Sabri at the shopping center in south Minneapolis last week. RICHARD TSONG-TAATARII | STAR TRIBUNE
Basim Sabri walks around Karmel Plaza, his mall in south Minneapolis where hundreds of Somali-Minnesotans run shops or restaurants.
“It’s not just the money. This is their life,” Sabri said. “Some of them make a killing. Some don’t really care. They don’t want to be rich. They just come here because they want to meet and talk.”
Sabri, in his early 60s, has long been one of the most colorful business figures in the Twin Cities — funny and pugnacious, visionary and meticulous. I had to meet him.
He has created wealth, not just for himself but for hundreds of people at that turning point when they are new to America, when they are simultaneously vulnerable and vibrant with possibility.
Luul Ali helps a customer at the Matanaha store at the Karmel Mall in Minneapolis. Construction of an eight-story addition to the mall is nearing completion.RICHARD TSONG-TAATARII | STAR TRIBUNE
“I’m bad at names, but I know people,” Sabri said, drawing out the “know.”
He actually does know names, said Bashir Garad, the head of the Karmel Plaza Business Association.
“I’ve never seen anybody who has his memory,” Garad said. “He remembers word by word what a tenant says, what he said to them, and every transaction. It’s an especially unique talent, right?”
The complex houses one of the largest mosques in the Twin Cities, which various imams reserve to lead prayers. It also houses a large prayer room for women that Sabri believes is the only one in the state.
Samia Barsug, far right, is the owner of the Matanaha store, which sells womens’ apparel and fabrics. RICHARD TSONG-TAATARII | STAR TRIBUNE
The Karmel complex is all about to get much bigger. Construction will finish later this year on an eight-story building — which extends the mall on the first three floors, with five stories of apartments above.
Two officers at his longtime financial partner, St. Louis Park-based Bridgewater Bank, took a long pause when I asked if any other developers in the Twin Cities had built a business like his.
“We’ve seen individuals that have bought single-family homes they used as rentals, then catapulted from that to do apartment buildings,” said Jon Tollefson, who leads commercial lending at Bridgewater. “But not people who have taken his path.”
The top floor of the current Karmel Mall has a light-filled seating area for shoppers to hang out and eat. The ceiling is also painted the colors of the Somali flag.RICHARD TSONG-TAATARII | STAR TRIBUNE
“That’s something we don’t usually see, where someone will have retail, residential and office that is fully leased up before it opens for business,” Jeff Shellberg, co-founder and chief credit officer at Bridgewater.
Sabri got into development by rehabbing a small Minneapolis apartment building he was living in about 30 years ago. He quickly moved into commercial properties and became a visionary, combative presence on Lake Street.
Even so, as we walked around the new building on a recent snowy day, the fight came out in Sabri. The city’s roadwork and metering on Pillsbury Avenue means that coffee shops in the new building won’t have much room for outdoor seating. “I want tables with umbrellas along here,” Sabri said.
He has acted as general contractor on most of his projects. He went to Turkey to buy chandeliers for the new building. While there, he saw some window ornaments he liked, took pictures and had them replicated locally.
“I’m very good at trying to figure things, you know? Like ‘What does it take for that to happen?'” he said.
Workers move equipment on the first floor of the expansion of Karmel Mall in south Minneapolis.
When Sabri bought the original building in 1998, it had been a machine shed for a small manufacturer. It had no carpet, no windows and a hole in the roof. One day, he says, he was inside “sitting on a bucket smoking a cigar” and wondering what to do with it.
“Out of the blue, two guys walk in and they say, ‘Hi, we want to build a coffee shop,'” he recalled. “One of them had this very bright face, just full of life, 24, 25 years old.”
They told him they were from Somalia. “He goes ‘My brother, there’s a lot of Somalis going to be coming and many of us are going to need stores and shops,'” Sabri said. “I was determined right there to help them open a shop. I made the blueprint on the floor. It was simple then.”
Mohamud Isse was just out of college when he took over a small personal computer repair business and became one of the first tenants at Karmel. Today, he and his wife run a tax service, a clothing shop and a restaurant in the mall. He’s thinking about whether to open another business, perhaps a small grocery, in the new Karmel building.
“The day he put the plan up, everybody signed up for space,” Isse said.
The first expansion at Karmel, completed by Sabri’s wife and his sister in 2006 when he was in prison, added a 100,000-square-foot building along the Midtown Greenway. That building later got a four-story parking garage.
Basim Sabri, outside the eight-story building that will double the retail footprint of Karmel Mall and include five stories of apartments.RICHARD TSONG-TAATARII | STAR TRIBUNE
Nearby, he’s building a 40,000-square-foot grocery store, with an events center and a new office for his real estate firm on top.
“The success of his client base just begets more success for him,” Shellberg said.
A short walk north of the Karmel block, Sabri bought land for his next project, a 10-story residential building. And in a sign of growing wealth he sees among Somali-Minnesotans, the new building will be condos rather than apartments.