Twenty-six years ago, as I worked at my first high school job at a West Side steakhouse, a pair of steak-chomping St. Paul men called me to their table.
“Hey kid, help me settle a bet,” the guy motioned to me, pausing his conversation.
A teenage busboy, I was thrilled just to be noticed.
“What’s the best street in St. Paul: Grand Avenue or University Avenue?”
“Um, Grand Avenue, I guess,” I sheepishly opined.
Boy, was he pleased.
My take might have been accurate for 1995, but that was a long time ago. I like to joke that Grand Avenue peaked in 1990 when then Soviet Premier Michael Gorbachev ate perestroika walleye at the Tavern on Grand, a long-time neighborhood fixture. In typical St. Paul fashion, everything has been preserved in amber since.
Of course, that’s not exactly true. There have been a couple of new buildings on East Grand Avenue (the stretch from Lexington to Ramsey Hill), including a parking garage at Victoria Street and a four-story apartment complex near Oxford. But for the most part change has been slow going on Crocus Hill.
That stasis might finally be breaking apart in 2021 as two very different development proposals have popped up on the same Grand Avenue block, between Grotto and St. Albans Streets. They place a stark choice before the city’s policymakers. That choice could decide the fate of the street.
On the one hand, a developer wants to transform the mothballed former Pier 1 Imports store on the corner into a chain restaurant and regional bank branch with two drive-thru lanes. The proposal would make the most out of the parking lots around the building while re-using the existing commercial structure.
Meanwhile, on the other corner, Peter Kenefick, the long-time owner of Dixie’s Restaurant, wants to build a mixed-use project with 79 apartments atop commercial space on an acre lot, half of which is currently surface parking. The building would rebuild some of his existing restaurants in a new building below four stories of housing.
The two proposals could not be more different. The former has a “floor-area ratio” of 0.5, meaning it’s mostly asphalt; the latter boasts a floor-area ratio between 4 and 5, making the most of the land on which it sits. (See also: per-acre evaluation.) Placed side by side, the two proposals reflect diverging visions. How the city’s policymakers react to them will shape the future of the neighborhood, and whether it changes after years of inertia.
Some resistance to increased density
On the one hand, there is already resistance from some neighbors to increasing density. A recent contentious meeting floating the Dixie’s project was met with consternation over traffic and parking, and some others have begun handing out fliers door to door along the street with alarming cries about traffic and parking.
At the same time, the Summit Hill Association, the local District Council neighborhood group, has been planning for this debate for over a year. In addition to convening a task force, this month they began hosting community conversations online to think about the future of the area.
One point of debate is the 15-year-old East Grand Avenue Overlay, a local zoning ordinance limiting the size of new buildings.
“[The] East Grand Avenue plan was the only strategy that could be thought of at the time to moderate the pace of development,” said Merritt Clapp-Smith, who was a recent speaker in the Community Thinkers series, explaining how planning for Grand Avenue has shifted over the years. “Some people were concerned about the height of buildings or the mass, but it was as much about concern that new development would displace independent businesses typically and come in with chain stores.”
Clapp-Smith is an urban planning consultant who lived near Grand Avenue for decades, and was involved in 2006 when the overlay zoning was first created. Intended to preserve small-scale and local businesses, the rules limit new developments to 75,000 square feet and/or three stories in height.
While the zoning rules probably prevented some displacement along the street, at the same time they prevented any change that might have benefited the street in positive ways. Meanwhile, chain stores like the ones involved in the Pier 1 proposal appreciate the availability of drive-thrus and surface parking lots.
As Clapp-Smith sees it, the 15-year-old zoning rules probably need to be revisited in light of shifting city priorities.
“Things in an area change over time,” said Clapp-Smith. “What remains true for Grand Avenue is that some of the historic retail and residential form gives it a uniqueness and identity that draws people from around the Twin Cities to shop and live around there instead of many other places they might choose.”
Grand Avenue’s transformations
If you read about the history of the Grand Avenue — for example, pick up Grand Avenue: The Renaissance of an Urban Street — you realize how mercurial the street once was. Transforming from a streetcar corridor to a row of auto dealerships (!) and again into a small-scale commercial strip. The latter transformation was once a quiet revolution in St. Paul, and reading the descriptions of the first adaptive reuse projects, it’s easy imagine what previous generations valued about Grand: the intimate, walkable experience; the diversity of local businesses; the historic commercial structures; and the old apartment buildings contributing to bustling streets.
Like it or not, that vision of Grand Avenue has been slowly fading away. It’s no longer the most walkable street in the area (that honor belongs to Selby, a half-mile to the north), and even the bougie chain stores — North Face and The Loft — have been closing. Meanwhile, the local business association has been in disarray for years, even canceling the street’s annual walking festival for two years in a row.
At the same time, there’s increasing demand for restaurants and apartments throughout St. Paul, and especially along streets like Grand. The shift has meant an increase in development proposals like the Dixie’s Apartments and a potential mixed-use grocery store a block to the west.
Going all-in on walkability
If you ask me, it’s long past time for Grand Avenue to double-down on its historic density. With new development, the street could look and feel less like a suburban strip mall and more like a city street.
You can quickly see the promise of a more walkable Grand Avenue by spending a few minutes at its most pleasant intersection, Grand and Victoria, where a pair of historic urban malls come together. Crucially, St. Paul street designers pulled out all the stops at this intersection to create a safe, slow-traffic experience. The corner features “no turn on red” rules, lacks some turn lanes, and even has a leading pedestrian interval (where the WALK sign activates before the green light for drivers). Together these tweaks make the spot the most safe and walkable part of Grand Avenue.
That’s a recipe for success. Adding more density and housing to Grand Avenue will open the door to a people-centered street. With more housing and looking less a strip mall, maybe in a few years, if you ask the guys at the steakhouse where to find the city’s best street, they might claim again that Grand Avenue is the place to be in St. Paul.