Urban grocery: an important step in neighborhood revival

MinnPost photo by Steve Berg
Downtown St. Paul’s proposed Lunds supermarket would be patterned after this one, opened in 2006 on the edge of downtown Minneapolis.

Last week’s announcement that Lund Food Holdings, Inc. intends to locate a major supermarket as part of the Penfield development in downtown St. Paul didn’t get the attention of, say, landing an NHL franchise or a new corporate headquarters. But from the standpoint of urban revival in the Twin Cities it is a very big deal.

“The impact goes way beyond the 30,000 square-foot size of the project,” said Patrick Seeb, president of the St. Paul Riverfront Corp. “Psychologically, it lifts the downtown beyond the point of just being a place for urban pioneers.”

I know firsthand that Seeb is right. There’s something special about a supermarket — especially a high-end store like Lunds — coming into a developing urban community. For residents carving out new lives in and among old factories and warehouses, it’s a signal their neighborhood has finally arrived. And for potential newcomers, it’s an invitation of sorts to move back into the city.

The focal point of everyday life
In 2006, three blocks away from our loft building, Lunds opened a new store at University and Central Avenues S.E., the first of three upscale supermarkets slated for downtown Minneapolis. Immediately the store became the focal point of everyday life. Lunds is the place where you run into friends in the frozen foods aisle, chat with the cheese lady and trade jokes with the butchers. Aside from the astounding convenience of buying groceries a short walk away, having a human-scale store so close at hand makes you feel grounded and comfortably at home. The massive anonymity of suburbia — and the need for all that driving — is replaced by the realization that the best small towns are sometimes in big cities.

“Food, home and comfort go together,” said Carolyn Ginther, who said she’s surprised how much Lunds changed the feel of her neighborhood. From her office window (she managers the Village Lofts complex on First Avenue N.E.) she sees dozens of people a day — even now, bundled against the cold — toting their green cloth Lunds bags down the street, or pulling two-wheeler grocery carts.

“People around here can afford to drive to the store, but a lot of them prefer to walk, even in this weather. It’s kind of an environmental statement that you can walk to the neighborhood stores,” she said.

Commitment should help other pieces of project
Lunds’ commitment to downtown St. Paul shows confidence in the district’s growth potential when better economic times return. It also should help line up financing for other pieces in the long-delayed Penfield project: a 170-room Hilton Place Select Service hotel and a 208-unit market-rate apartment tower designed to rise above the supermarket. The full-block $88 million project would be built between Robert and Minnesota and 10th and 11th streets. Construction could begin next year if financing from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development materializes.

“HUD is still open for business,” said Bob Lux of Alatus Partners, the project’s developer. “We’d have no chance to do this right now in the commercial market.”

Penfield was, perhaps, the highest-profile Twin Cities condo project to buckle under the current credit and real-estate crunch. Alatus had built the successful Grant Park and Carlyle luxury condominium towers in downtown Minneapolis, and Penfield, a 33-story luxury condo tower with 313 units, had been expected to follow.

Now, with industry in hibernation, a smaller project still represents a coup for downtown St. Paul, which hasn’t scored a major residential tower in nearly two decades, and where there’s almost no luxury housing. Lux sees an opportunity, however, with a light-rail line on the horizon and a supermarket now committed.

It was big news in 2007 when the Ralph’s food chain announced it would build a 50,000-square-foot supermarket in downtown Los Angeles, a location the company had abandoned in the 1950s. “Is downtown Los Angeles finally a neighborhood?” the Los Angeles Times wondered.

Lunds pleased with first urban-style store
Similar projects have opened in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., in recent years, as well as in Minneapolis, where, by all accounts, Lunds is pleased with its first urban-style store. It emphasizes ready-to-eat deli items, lots of organic produce and walk-in customers who shop more than once a week. (There’s also an attached parking garage and a condo tower, the Cobalt, on the upper floors.)

“It’s very successful and popular,” said Lunds spokesman Aaron Sorenson. The company considers it a prototype for a second downtown Minneapolis store to be built at 10th and Hennepin, and for the St. Paul store.

With about 7,400 residents and 65,000 workers, downtown St. Paul has only a fraction of the residential and workforce numbers of downtown Minneapolis (30,000 residents, 160,000 workers). But its riverfront setting and its stock of historic buildings are unmatched. Something as simple as a grocery store could be an important catalyst. I’ve never thought that St. Paul should try to become a conventional downtown filled with office towers and chain stores. It should capitalize on its best features: historic buildings, two of the loveliest parks anywhere (Rice and Mears), cozy streets and a picturesque setting. St. Paul has terrific residential bones.

Lux agrees. “It’s a diamond in the rough. We think the long-range future of downtown St. Paul is incredibly bright.”

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Laurie Zelesnikar on 12/09/2008 - 10:49 am.

    Lunds in Minneapolis replaced a perfectly decent, far more economical and broad-appeal Supervalu (formerly Red Owl) that had been there for decades serving a diverse neighborhood and its grocery shoppers. It also supplanted an independent drug store that had been there for at least as long. In St. Paul, very near the Penfield site, is Eisenberg’s, which has been a family-owned, independent (albeit produce-focused) grocery for many decades. Please do not represent the situation as if there were no grocery options for those who want to walk to them. There were and are. Lund’s is replacing, not adding, capacity, and removing or threatening long-open businesses as they do so.

    [I am also interested to see the characterization of a site across the river as “on the edge of downtown Minneapolis.” Really?]

  2. Submitted by Sam Bergman on 12/09/2008 - 12:20 pm.

    I lived in the neighborhood before and after the Lund’s was built. The SuperValu it replaced was filthy, poorly stocked, and understaffed. The produce and meat were of disgustingly low quality, and you had to check everything you picked up to be sure it wasn’t a month past its expiration date.

    Categorizing a cheap, dirty store as having “broader appeal” simply because it was cheap is ridiculous. Gentrification is a real and important issue, but replacing a bad grocery with a good one is not a net negative for any community.

  3. Submitted by Laurie Zelesnikar on 12/09/2008 - 01:06 pm.

    Sam, dude, chill. My point is that the article suggests that these Lunds stores are gloriously and romantically filling a previously unmet need, and I am saying that’s not quite so. No need for such very exaggerated bile, my man. No class wars here — just trying to be real. We’re getting closer to “two Minneapolises” every day — no need to accelerate the process.

  4. Submitted by Tim Hayes on 12/09/2008 - 04:55 pm.

    I had bad experiences at the SuperValu that the Lund’s replaced. While I wish that this wasn’t the case and high priced condos didn’t take up the top floors, I will be honest and say that the neighborhood is far superior now (taking out the strip mall!) that massive parking lot has been replaced with a more walkable and friendly built atmosphere.

    My $.02

    This is quite the coup for downtown St. Paul. If I was living down there I would be very excited for a full grocery AND the pending light rail.

  5. Submitted by John Slade on 12/09/2008 - 08:56 pm.

    “”The impact goes way beyond the 30,000 square-foot size of the project,” said Patrick Seeb, president of the St. Paul Riverfront Corp. “Psychologically, it lifts the downtown beyond the point of just being a place for urban pioneers.”

    I know firsthand that Seeb is right. There’s something special about a supermarket — especially a high-end store like Lunds — coming into a developing urban community. For residents carving out new lives in and among old factories and warehouses, it’s a signal their neighborhood has finally arrived. And for potential newcomers, it’s an invitation of sorts to move back into the city.”

    I’m sorry, but this is amazingly classist. “You know that for people moving back you have to put up with the artists and oddities who live in those lofts and are squatting in their studios” “An upper middle class grocery store lets people know that the gentrification of the neighborhood is in full swing. It’s a clear signal that the people who (or who’s parents) white-flighted out in the 60s and 70s can move back”

    While I applaud the author for being part of the formerly-socially-conscious Strib editorial board, I find this article, like many on MinnPost, contains the same upper-mid orientation that the ‘legacy media’ has. Y’all can do better.

    And for those who dissed the SuperValu – that would be the chain not cleaning, pushing the almost-expired products, and lowballing the produce.

  6. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 12/10/2008 - 07:36 am.

    There goes the neighborhood? Sounds like food fight in the making?

    Hey, think of it this way…Lunds may sell top-of-the-line tony tuna but if the condo crowd start feeling the pinch of what we so gently refer to as a ‘Recession’, rather than the Big-D, they may just follow the food lines that will certainly soon be twisting down the avenue. As bread lines get longer, dumpster diving may become the more dominant consumerism. Even loyal condo consumers formerly entering by the front door will be joining the dumpster divers at the back…same quality produce….”we have out exits and our entrances”, carelessly paraphrasing the poet Eliot.

  7. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 12/10/2008 - 06:28 pm.

    footnote: my god, I just realized, I was “careless” indeed! I misquoted the wrong bloody Englishman…my apology to you, William S.

  8. Submitted by Craig Westover on 12/14/2008 - 10:23 am.

    Lunds or SuperValu? Interesting debate, but can we agree that liberal politics is no longer concerned about using the public treasury to help Minnesota’s “most vulnerable citizens,” but more concerned about using public money to create private benefits for the “gentrification” class? You know — people who vote to feather their own nests at other people’s expense. Why do we need HUD to build market-rate housing?

  9. Submitted by William Levin on 12/14/2008 - 05:45 pm.

    1. Good luck, St. Paul. We’re still waiting for the Lunds due for the 10th and Hennepin area. It’s been years since the announcement, and no store.
    2. I’ve shopped the SuperValu and I’ve shopped the Lunds at the Cobalt site, and frankly, I preferred the SuperValu. I never, repeat never, found problems with outdated products, and I nver found the store filthy. The store was not operated directly by SuperValu, but by a franchisee, who also had a store in Navarre, which Lunds also bought. The Lunds store isn’t really a grocery store, where a person can buy a week’s groceries or depend on finding all the ingredients for a complete dinner, cooked from scratch, for six people. It provides all kinds of take-out options, which are expensive. Groceries and staples seem to be a sideline.
    3. People cannot figure out how to navigate the parking ramp at the Lunds store. It is nice, however, that if it is 90 degrees out, a person can park in the ramp there so that the car isn’t overheated when groceries go in it.
    4. Personally, I’d rather do a combination shop at Kowalskis on Hennepin and Rainbow at 28th and Lagoon.

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