Urban development: mixed use, mixed results?

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empty-retail-space_mainEver since Jane Jacobs cel­e­brat­ed diverse, high-den­si­ty neigh­bor­hoods in her 1961 clas­sic “The Death and Life of Great Amer­i­can Cities,” city plan­ners, politi­cians, aca­d­e­mics and even some devel­op­ers have been jonesing to recre­ate New York’s homey West Vil­lage where she lived back then.

Of course, to adopt Jacobs’ pre­scrip­tions for the per­fect city — short, walk­a­ble blocks, high-den­si­ty liv­ing and main­te­nance of old, some­times out-of-date and impos­si­ble-to-upgrade build­ings — would have required a mon­u­men­tal upheaval in most of the nation’s sprawl­ing, car-cen­tric metrop­o­lis­es. How­ev­er, her call for mixed-use devel­op­ment — com­mer­cial and hous­ing jum­bled togeth­er to pro­duce a live­ly street — was one goal that most cities could imple­ment with­out bull­doz­ing them­selves and start­ing from scratch.

Thus was born the notion of the mixed-use devel­op­ment. Put a con­do or apart­ment build­ing on top, a Star­buck­’s, a yoga stu­dio and a flower shop beneath, and bip­pety-bop­pety-boo, you’ve got your­self — you hope — an inter­est­ing, walk­a­ble street. Clump a bunch of these things togeth­er and maybe you’ll wit­ness the birth of a charm­ing urban neigh­bor­hood, the likes of which you’d find in Copen­hagen, Lon­don or Buenos Aires.

In the past two decades or so, the mixed-use devel­op­ment has become an ide­al that city plan­ning depart­ments try to encour­age. Min­neapo­lis, for exam­ple, grants a 20 per­cent den­si­ty bonus in com­mer­cial dis­tricts to build­ings that devote at least 50 per­cent of their ground-floor space to com­mer­cial use. St. Paul does not pro­vide any such incen­tive, but May­or Chris Cole­man has waxed enthu­si­as­tic about the Pen­field and the Win­nepeg, two new apart­ment build­ings with ground-floor retail; only last Fri­day he pitched a res­i­den­tial-retail-movie-the­ater com­plex on Wabasha Street to replace the aban­doned Macy’s. Even the sub­urbs have jumped in. There’s Excel­sior on Grand in St. Louis Park, and Hop­kins has seen the devel­op­ment of Mar­ket­place & Main and has under con­sid­er­a­tion Fifth Avenue Flats, both com­bin­ing apart­ments and retail space.

All of this is well and good. For sure, streets with store­fronts are more fun to walk down than those with sur­face park­ing lots — and they very def­i­nite­ly pro­duce more com­merce, spend­ing, jobs and tax rev­enues. But when I dri­ve around town, I see a whole lot of mixed-use build­ings with unused retail space. So I won­der: Have we gone over­board with this dogma?
‘It went in loca­tions that could­n’t sup­port it’

Mary Bujold, pres­i­dent of Max­field Research, a real-estate con­sult­ing firm, believes that the mixed-use devel­op­ment may actu­al­ly be a bit ahead of its time. Back in the ’90s, she says, “when we start­ed request­ing that peo­ple do mixed use, it went in loca­tions that could­n’t sup­port it.” At that point, the trick­le of pop­u­la­tion back to the city had just begun, and there was­n’t enough pop­u­la­tion to pro­vide the busi­ness stores need­ed to stay afloat.

That trick­le back to the city has turned into a small but steady flow. Still, peo­ple won’t nec­es­sar­i­ly walk to stores on the street, even when they live in the same build­ing. I had to engage in major brow­beat­ing and fish­wife-style nag­ging to get my hus­band to buy a half-gal­lon of milk or a jar of olives at the small gro­cery on the ground floor of our build­ing rather than dri­ving to Rainbow.

If the store had been in a build­ing five blocks away, I would­n’t have stood a chance. And our cli­mate does­n’t help. If the store had been five blocks away and we’d been in the throes of the Polar Vor­tex, I would have dri­ven to Rain­bow myself rather than step out into the elements.

It’s very dif­fi­cult to break the car habit,” says Bujold. “Here in the Mid­west we don’t have a his­to­ry of being pedes­tri­ans.” (Not for the last cen­tu­ry any­way.) Appar­ent­ly, a lot of oth­er peo­ple in our neigh­bor­hood suf­fer a sim­i­lar addic­tion to the car, because the gro­cery closed its doors last fall, leav­ing an emp­ty storefront.
Requires design and archi­tec­tur­al finesse

To make a mixed-use build­ing suc­cess­ful takes design and archi­tec­tur­al finesse, which not every archi­tect and devel­op­er have, says Sam New­burg, a real-estate ana­lyst who blogs as Joe Urban. There has to be clear sig­nage, win­dows big enough to attract peo­ple from the side­walk, obvi­ous paths into the store from the street and from any park­ing area. He points to West Riv­er Com­mons on East Lake Street as an ide­al. Devel­oped by Michael Lan­der, it has only 8,000 square feet of retail — a restau­rant, cof­fee shop, gift shop and take-and-bake piz­za, all of which is locat­ed on the busiest side of the build­ing. And, a small plaza offers out­door seat­ing for the cof­fee shop.

New­berg adds that the emp­ty retail space I’m see­ing is in the newest build­ings. “It’s much eas­i­er to lease up the apart­ments than the retail space,” he says. The devel­op­er usu­al­ly receives enough income from the res­i­den­tial units to cov­er his costs and can wait until he finds the right retail to go in the building.

Maybe New­berg is right. When I drove back to some of the emp­ty store­fronts I’d seen on Lyn­dale, I found some of the retail filled in — a gift shop, an art gallery and some­thing called a “phar­ma­cie” in one build­ing and a chi­ro­prac­tor, hair-removal place and soon-to-arrive sushi restau­rant in another.

Still, whether those busi­ness­es will sur­vive is an open ques­tion. With the excep­tion of a pizze­ria, the stores in my own build­ing seem often to be echo­ing­ly emp­ty. And I have to won­der whether plan­ners have been order­ing up too much retail alto­geth­er. After all, we’re liv­ing in an age when big box stores are clos­ing, malls and down­towns alike are strug­gling, and most of us have become accus­tomed to buy­ing at least some of our stuff online. If all the ground floor retail that plan­ners and politi­cians are encour­ag­ing has no stay­ing pow­er and devel­op­ments wind up with revolv­ing-door ten­ants and board­ed-up store­fronts, well, we would not have cre­at­ed vibrant mixed-use streets. Just the opposite.
‘Loca­tion, loca­tion, location’

There will always be a need for retail,” says Stu­art Acker­berg, an Uptown prop­er­ty own­er and devel­op­er of the Rain­bow Build­ing and Shops, the Lyn-Lake Build­ing and the Moza­ic con­do, among oth­ers. “Peo­ple are social beings, and they want to go out, be with oth­er peo­ple, touch things, feel things.”

But, in retail as in all real estate, he adds, the rule is always “loca­tion, loca­tion, loca­tion. Those mixed-use build­ings are not emp­ty in Uptown, not at 50th and France or at 50th and Xerx­es,” he says. Cer­tain areas don’t have enough pop­u­la­tion, the right demo­graph­ics and peo­ple with enough dis­pos­able income to make those neigh­bor­hood busi­ness­es viable. “We want to do mixed-use every­where, but it isn’t always pru­dent,” he says.

What to do with the store­fronts that go emp­ty? I reg­u­lar­ly dri­ve by the Min­neapo­lis Grand on Chica­go Avenue. Its ground floor has been avail­able for lease for months, but nary a store or doc­tor’s office, not even a cof­fee shop, has appeared. Yes­ter­day, how­ev­er, work­men were busy in one of the units. “What’s going on?” I asked one.

We’re con­vert­ing it into apart­ments,” he said.

Sin­gle use, anyone?