On Thursday morning, the Minneapolis City Council’s Zoning and Planning Committee made short work of a proposal to allow a Trader Joe’s grocery at Lyndale and 27th Street.
The city’s Department of Community Planning and Economic Development or CPED endorsed the project. And the City Planning Commission had approved it unanimously. But Meg Tuthill, the local 10th Ward council member, announced definitively that she was agin’ it.
“We would be changing the zoning for one business,” she declared, sounding a bit like a schoolteacher who had caught one of her pupils smoking in the cloakroom.
What’s more, she had received complaints from residents, which was significant in her mind: “Usually, they roll over for developers,” she said with the tiniest of sneers.
Following its tradition of acceding to the wishes of the local council member no matter what the merits, the committee — without discussion — adopted her motion to deny the required zoning change.
Next week the issue is up for a vote by the full City Council.
Should they go along?
As you no doubt know, Lyndale Avenue is not exactly a nature preserve. It’s a busy commercial street lined for the most part with small businesses. Some, like the French Meadow Bakery and Café and Flanders Cycle, are what you’d call upmarket. They cater to people once referred to as yuppies — young urban professionals (now they’re ouppies, that is, old urban professionals) who are willing to pay $4 for a cup of coffee or $2,000 for a bike.
Other outfits — I won’t name names — are a little bit worse for wear. Profitable they may be, but not particularly pretty. Trader Joe’s, a discount gourmet grocery (owned by Albrecht Corporation, the folks behind Aldi’s), would seem to fit right in.
Most of Lyndale is zoned commercial. Of course, zoning codes are notoriously complicated, and “commercial” in Minneapolis is divided into five categories. The only ones we care about in this case are C1 (Neighborhood Commercial District) and C2 (Neighborhood Corridor Commercial District). You’re not crazy if they sound the same, but there are differences. C1 properties are limited to a maximum of 4,000 square feet, more if the builder adds on a story or two.
The proposed Trader Joe’s store, while not as large as the typical Rainbow or Cub, is at 14,000 square feet, too massive to fit in that footprint. So it needs to be a C2, which, when translated from the legalese in the statute, means bigger. C2 properties may also have liquor stores; Trader Joe’s wants to add one as a 1,200-square-foot adjunct to the grocery. Ergo, it needed a zoning change.
In the entire context of Lyndale Avenue from Rudolph’s down on Franklin, all the way up to Lake Street, C1 and C2 seem to be distinctions without a difference — or vice-versa. A pedestrian or driver passing by would not think, “Oh my gosh — I’ve left a C1 zone, and now I’m in a C2.”
The reason? Lyndale is completely inconsistent, splotched from north to south with a variety of zones. Some C1s are right next to C2s, and there are plenty of C4s — a category that permits just about anything. You can also find batches of OR2s (office residences) and even various Rs — or residential zones. A color-inside-the-lines person would likely say that Lyndale is a disorganized mess. To people like myself who love streets that are variable and even surprising, changing a parcel from C1 to C2 seems like a big fat foofaraw.
The professionals at the Department of Community Planning and Economic Development or CPED, pretty much made the same case — though much more tactfully — in an exhaustive 21-page “Site Plan Review.” According to Becca Farrar, the senior city planner who presented the high points of this document to the zoning committee, the change was checked to see if it violated the spirit of any of the six different plans that applied to the area. Among other things, the planners determined that commercial properties should stay commercial but switches among the commercial categories would be kosher — which makes perfect sense.
Initially, Farrar added, residents endorsed the project. Only recently had CPED received calls and emails objecting. She also argued that the change was not for the benefit of one property owner but “in the public interest.” In a later phone call, she defined that as keeping the most intense development in the Lyndale commercial corridor.
I would add another element of public interest. There aren’t many groceries in the area. True, residents can shop at The Wedge or Kowalski’s, if they’re up to paying $5 for a loaf of bread. Stores with more modest prices, say, Rainbow or Target, lie at a distance.
Another element in the plan’s favor: CPED won a bunch of concessions from TOLD, the developer. They’ve agreed to put in all kinds of screening and landscaping, extra entrances and windows on Lyndale and to install a traffic light at on 27th. Finally, because the site will have no unloading zone, the store promised that all deliveries will take place outside of business hours.
OK, so if Trader Joe’s goes in, what goes out?
Basically, a not particularly fetching-looking group of stores: a Coin-Op laundromat, a restaurant that’s already defunct, an art supply store, a T-shirt store and Planet Soccer. The one exception to not-particularly-fetching-looking is La Societé du Thé, a shop that sells and serves exotic teas and looks like it came straight off a street in Paris or Madrid.
The owner, Tony Ruggiero, a tall thin guy that looks to be in his late 60s or even later, told me — over some aromatic Darjeeling Sangbulli — that he did not want to leave. He and his assistant, Bozena Dimants, who designed the store, had been in the spot for 12 years. Trader Joe’s, he argued, “is already redundant” because Kowalski’s is adding a liquor store of its own.
The new development, he added, would make rents in the area rise. “They talk about creating affordable housing,” he said. “Nobody talks about affordable business space.”
But he made another point that to my mind was just as important. Projects like Trader Joe’s, he said, “always skirt organic development.” And I know what he means. A vibrant street life comes partly from clumps of little stores and cafes, some of them quaint like his, others, say, dry cleaners and pizzerias, more down-to-earth. If we allow such homegrown developments to be stomped out, city streets will wind up looking as bland as suburban strip malls.
Couldn’t he find other space, I asked. He could, but much of the shops for rent in the area “don’t have the right feng shui.” OK, whatever. Still, I came away thinking that maybe Trader Joe’s should go somewhere else.
The property owners
Then I talked to Jeff Minea (by phone, no thé). He’s a lawyer, a commercial real estate broker and a member of the Guerts family, the property owners.
Minea did not argue, as I thought he would — and righteously could — that property owners should generally be allowed to do what they want, particularly if the project in question calls for a minor tweak in zoning. Instead he pointed to the 75 jobs the store would create, “all paying a living wage.” He added: “Trader Joe’s is a highly sought after retailer that’s been trying for years to open a store in Minneapolis.”
What’s more, at the recent Lyn Lake Street Festival, some 1,000 people signed a petition in the store’s favor, and he said, another 400 had signed petitions at a local store. Understandably frustrated, he added: “The Committee’s vote was against jobs, against new business and against amenities. It went against the recommendations of city staff and did not match up with the plans for the area or the findings of the City Planning Commission.”
But, I asked, somewhat weakly, what about the businesses that are already there? Minea said he is not intimately acquainted with rentals in the area, but generally speaking, “it’s a tenant’s market.” Since the recession began four years ago, lots of businesses have gone under, and there’s plenty of empty space. Maybe, I thought, Trader Joe’s or the Geurts family could ease the pain of moving by offering storeowners little farewell checks.
I think the council should vote for the project, even though I don’t like Trader Joe’s corn chips or its frozen potstickers. The development won’t much change the character of the area; it will produce more jobs, provide a needed service and likely pay higher property taxes to the city. And, God willing, it won’t be too ugly since the plan calls for parking spaces to be hidden in the back or underground.
Still, I apologize to Mr. Ruggiero. I’ll drop by soon to buy some thé (maybe that will assuage my conscience) and pray that he can find a store with the proper feng shui.