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

Department stores have been fleeing downtowns for the last 40 years.

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

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.

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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.

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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.”