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Macy’s abandons St. Paul: Another doomed dinosaur departs

St. Paul is not alone among downtowns losing a Macy's this spring.
MinnPost photo by Jana Freiband
St. Paul is not alone among downtowns losing a Macy's this spring.

My heart rate, which had been rising and falling all weekend with the fiscal cliff negotiations, underwent another crisis when Macy's announced that it would be shuttering its store in downtown St. Paul. The company described it and the other five it planned to close as "underperforming."

Unlike me, Mayor Chris Coleman was quick to rally. He declared that Macy's leave-taking "provides the city with a tremendous opportunity to bring another part of our city into the 21st century." Really? I realize that public officials can't run around screaming, "the sky is falling!" every time their constituency faces a setback, but the departure of St. Paul's last surviving downtown department store is not a happy occasion. For starters, the place employs 153 folks. And a big hulk of a building sitting empty does nothing to make a city lively.

If it's any comfort, however, St. Paul is not alone among downtowns losing a Macy's this spring. The chain is also nixing outlets in Pasadena, Honolulu and Houston, whose mayor, Annise Parker, refuses to accept the loss. She announced the creation of a retail task force to try to bring back Macy's and other department stores. "As the fourth-largest city in the U.S., Houston needs, and should have, more retail options downtown," she said.

But she may be embarking on a hopeless mission. Department stores have been abandoning downtowns for the last 40 years. "They were the first things to go when the malls came," says Jeff Speck, an urban planner and author of “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time.” To hear him tell it, the fact that St. Paul and Minneapolis still have department stores makes us something of a throwback. "Midwestern towns seem to retain them longer," he adds, suggesting that we are stuck in some kind of arrested development.

But he's right. Downtown department stores -- and a lot of suburban ones too -- are doomed dinosaurs. Wikipedia has a page listing defunct department stores, and it seems to scroll on forever. Entire chains have gone down, and cities as various as Denver, Tampa, Orlando, Hartford, Nashville and Memphis are completely absent any big downtown emporium.

Efforts to keep stores

Municipal governments have done anything and everything to keep downtown department stores going -- mostly granting tax breaks, loans and even cash. Following the trend, St. Paul lent Target Corporation, the store's previous owner, $6.3 million to refurbish its facility back in 2001. The city promised to forgive the loan if the store stayed open for 10 years. As of New Year's Day, it had completed its obligation.

Despite such subsidies, the battle to keep the department stores looks like a loser. Jan Whittacker, a historian and author of “The World of Department Stores,” says the retail environment has changed drastically. "Once department stores were all things to all people," she says. "But that hasn't been true for a long time."

It isn't just the suburban malls that have drawn business away. She points out that people's habits have changed. Previously office workers took an hour for lunch and went shopping. Now, she says, they tend to eat at their desks. Also, she adds, "There's a slowness factor. You have to take escalators from floor to floor."

And one big store downtown isn't enough to draw people. Previously, shoppers could sally from one big store to another. (Well I remember as a kid sailing from Young Quinlan to Dayton's to Donaldson's and Powers in search of a dress.) Now, if they strike out at a downtown Macy's, they have to go home. Better to visit a mall where they can try their luck at a number of different outlets. (Of course, Whittacker points out that malls are having their problems too, but that's a story for another day.)

The disappearance of the department store, however, does not necessarily doom downtown, says Jeff Speck. But for retail to survive, he claims, there needs to be a critical mass of downtown residents. The Twin Cities have seen a modest influx of people who prefer living in the core rather than in residential neighborhoods or suburbs -- there are now about 23,000 in Minneapolis and more than 7,000 in St. Paul. Their needs will presumably produce new retail.

"But not department stores," says Alan Ehrenhalt, author of “The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City,” which posits that downtowns are where the affluent and educated increasingly want to live. "They will be centers for restaurants, entertainment, nightlife and education," he says.

As for retail, he expects that small specialty stores will make a comeback. Whittacker agrees. The young, the affluent and others who like downtown living "want smaller stores, vintage stores, funkier places where they know the owners," she says.

Repurposing empty buildings

In the meantime, there's the question of what to do with the empty buildings. The obvious solution is to find a new tenant. But that's not always easy. Indianapolis' Circle Center lost Nordstrom's, one of its two anchor stores, in 2011. So far the space has no takers -- though last year, it was rented out for Super Bowl parties, and some restaurants have expressed interest.

Still, there may be another retailer willing to go into the St. Paul's Macy's. My best guess would be – yes -- Walmart, which might be aching to establish a beachhead right in the middle of Target territory, or Target, in a defensive move against Walmart. With the new LRT stopping at the door of the building, the site is bound to draw a lot more pedestrian traffic than it does now.

Some of the more historic department store structures have been repurposed. Cleveland's Higbee Building, for example, became a Dillard's department store, which closed in 2002. Recently, it reopened as The Horseshoe Casino. G. Fox department store closed the doors of its downtown Hartford branch in 1993. Public money saved the building from demolition; now it houses state and city offices and a community college -- though recently, financing problems forced the owner into foreclosure.

But not every building lends itself to a renovation. In Connecticut, the New Haven Macy's also closed its doors in 1993. The building remained empty for years. Finally, it was razed in 2006; in its place stands South Central Community College.

The St. Paul Macy's may be similarly difficult to repurpose. It has no windows; so transforming it into an office or a school probably wouldn't work. And retrofitting it for smaller stores would be difficult.

Until some obvious good idea comes along, says Jeff Speck, it's best not to jump onto any wild plans. As long as the outside of the building is maintained, the fact that it's sitting empty won't necessarily harm the neighborhood. For now he adds, "The advice is: don't just do something. Sit there." 

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Comments (12)

Never fear

Never fear. I'm sure the I'm sure the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative and the McKnight Foundation will tell us which of their friends need some tax payer money to move into that space.

New buildings don't accommodate new retail

Unfortunately the rise in consumer's preferences for smaller more unique stores (or at least more small-format chains) has not been accommodated by new downtown buildings. Almost every new tower to go up in either downtown has little room for ground level retail, or the spaces that they do have are enormous.

The latter spaces can of course be broken up, but I do not think that it is a coincidence that liveliest part of Downtown Minneapolis is the portion of Nicollet Mall that retains the smaller (flexible) older buildings and sections of the North Loop with multiple entry/retail bays. As for St. Paul, the older sections of Lowertown and around Rice Park are clearly more lively than the areas surrounding the glimmering - but seemingly inactive - new towers.

Re purposing the St. Paul Macy's site will be difficult as it is not one of those well built classic structures built before WWII. The best strategy for the City is to just encourage and create more activity in the public realm downtown wide and let the future merchants (small and large) find the best spots. Chasing down massive "anchor" tenants with subsidies is a short term game, but one we are well accustomed to.

Golden Opportunity

I agree with the mayor and other officials who see Macy's closing as an opportunity for the city and not a loss. As pointed out by the article, department stores are dying in downtowns across the US so it was inevitable that the same would occur here. What made the retail situation in downtown St. Paul worse was the way it was packaged. The Macy's was in an ugly fortress like building that did not add to the retail experience. In addition, the two enclosed downtown malls at the World Trade Center and Town Square took retail off the streets and put it in ugly enclosed spaces further harming downtown's street level vitality.
Hopefully, the city and developers will re-establish the original 7th Street that the enclosed malls covered and the pedestrian retail street that once existed downtown. Providing space for small street level retail in addition to a Target store, also street level, would do wonders for the vitality of downtown. Downtown is growing with almost 10,000 residents (not the 6,600 Harris states) and has a growing need for retail for downtown population as well as visitors.

Parking and access

Downtowns will continue to be a problem if they can't offer free and easy parking. Street traffic has to be simple to negotiate - put up a couple free lots and close a few blocks to traffic or offer bus service from the lots? Never before did downtowns have to rely on residents in order to thrive, so why is that the accepted solution? I'd love to go downtown, but it's a major hassle.

Wow. I always thought

one of the biggest problems in MSP and St. Paul is to MUCH parking. To many cavernous garages taking up streetscape, barren lots all over, particularly in Minneapolis.

In any case, I live in the suburbs and I've never had a problem parking in either downtown, even on busy days.

Boston has very little parking and every nook and cranny is buzzing all the time.

One word:

Casino.

Bring in

Target. Macy's is doomed anyway.

Circa 1975

Macy's

Given that the city "fathers" knew this was coming, I am surprised at the relatively vacuous response. Or are they so focused on light rail, bars, games, and reastaurants that they believe downtown retail doesn't matter?

Think Big! Reopen 7th Street as Pedestrian Street

The real opportunity here is to reopen 7th Street as a Pedestrian Street that would extend from St. Peter all the way to Sibley. There's immense development potential along this stretch, and it would dramatically increase quality of public space in downtown. Here's what the city should do:
-subsidize the owners of the World Trade Center or Macy's bldg as well as the Twin Tower Town Center (or whatever it is called) to reconstruct the enclosed mall, setting them to allow for 7th Street to be again open from Wabasha to Minnesota.
-extend then the 7th Street Mall by rebuilding the street as a pedestrian street all the way down to Sibley St.
-target development along this area, including the Macy's site, with mixed-use housing, offices, reuse of old buildings and the like. (Incidentally, there are two other old department store buildings that have been repurposed as office buildings here.) There are several parking lots and old buildings

7th Street is quite narrow and would make for a pretty decent pedestrian street. One option, however, would be to create a circulator bus route similar to the Denver transit mall on the street that would run in the middle, and could also run to the new ballpark in Lowertown and Xcel center on the other side.

It would be well worth the money to reopen 7th Street - and I'd be curious what this would cost in terms of working with the bldg owners between Wabasha and Minnesota. Minneapolis is trying to get state bonding for Nicollet Mall rebuild so why not go to the state for a portion - this would be of regional significance with the ballpark, convention ctr and area all connected. Plus, the WTC was state funded so it makes sense for the state to chip in and make this area right again.

Likewise, you could tear down some of the skyways running along this corridor, as the free circulator route would provide a way for people to go back and forth.

Thank you

Bjorn, I share your thoughts exactly. Thanks for posting them. A reopened 7th Street would make a great pedestrian retail street. It would reestablish the main street downtown St. Paul has been missing since it was covered over by the Town Square and World Trade Center projects. Yes, it would cost money to reestablish 7th Street, but it's better than living with the failed indoor shopping centers.

Not a loss really

The place was empty even when it was open. Tear it down. It's easily one of the ugliest buildings in any downtown anywhere. It's a zombie building, the last thing you want is for someone else to animate it. Just don't put a parking lot in it's place. I'd say it would be a good place for a park of kind and a stand for all those mobile restaurants.