The year 2021 was brimming with bad news for cities, as the plague took its toll on society in countless ways. But in St. Paul, an unexpected turn of events resulted in the rarest of positive news: the transformation of the city’s worst-designed drive-thru. For five years, the Starbucks coffee shop drive-thru on the corner of Snelling and Marshall has been a thorn in the side of Marshall Avenue. Back in April, the drive-thru abruptly closed, after a demand by workers to stop using police officers to direct traffic.
At the time I was sure the closure was temporary. Drive-thrus are a lucrative piece of the chain restaurant puzzle, significantly boosting store revenues. And during COVID, drive-thrus are becoming more dominant around the country, expanding in many places.
But then, just this month, Starbucks announced they were making the change permanent, rolling out new plans for converting the former drive-thru space into a pedestrian-friendly patio.
How we got here
The Snarshall Carbucks dates to 2015, when the coffee company submitted a site plan for the coffee shop on the small corner lot, a former car-repair shop. At the time, I was serving on the St Paul Planning Commission, and remember the discussions between city staff and officials about whether this coffee shop was a good idea. We had a spirited debate about granting a variance for the FAR (floor-area ratio) required by the zoning, with many people believing that it lacked density. But the plan eventually passed on a contested vote, thanks to arguments that the site was an unusual shape, ill-suited for other development.
In retrospect, for the most part, we missed the boat. During the discussion at the commission, few people spent much time on the potential traffic impacts that the drive-thru might cause, and the merits of the traffic study provided in the application. (Meanwhile, some public commenters perfectly predicted what would happen.)
Partly, arguing about traffic is a matter of authority. When city and county engineers have signed off on a traffic study, as they did in this case, that leaves little room for the public to challenge the findings. Unless you are someone who also has credentials in traffic engineering, professionals almost always trump amateur concerns.
After some debate, the variance and conditional-use permit (CUP) was granted by the City Council. The new store was built the following year, at which point the options for city regulators narrowed considerably.
It became clear early on that the Starbucks drive-thru was causing traffic problems. The fundamental flaw was a lack of stacking capacity, made worse by the constrained and confusing design. For one thing, there were often far more people interested in drive-thru coffee than places for their cars to idle. The resulting queue invariably backed up into the street, and, at times, even blocking the busy Snelling and Marshall intersection.
Meanwhile, the design of the queue and its intersection with the street triggered a constantly evolving battle between infrastructure and the driver inattention. For example, after a few drivers mistakenly drove straight over the curb and sidewalk (probably doing damage to their car), the company installed a crude fence at the end of the exit making it clear not to drive over the embankment. Meanwhile, coffee-seeking cars routinely blocked the bike lane, so the City began installing plastic bollards to better demarcate the space. As they got mowed over, the bollards were re-installed with varying and futile frequency.
Some of it worked, but nothing seemed to solve the fundamental problem of too many cars in too small a space. Eventually, with months of complaints from bicyclists and neighbors, the St. Paul Department of Safety and Inspections (DSI) began requiring a police officer to stand on duty directing traffic and keeping the streets and sidewalks clear from 7 to 10 AM each morning.
That’s the situation that persisted for over a year, an uneasy status quo that lasted until 2021.
To actually understand a situation, it helps to see it in person, to spend time and dwell with an intersection. Over the years of the “carbucks” limbo, a small group of St. Paul urban planning advocates, myself included, made it a habit. Every month or two a few people would gather on the grass beneath the billboard with some donuts and coffee, and see how the drive-thru performed in real life.
We typically arrived a bit before 10 a.m., just in time to see the last few minutes of the police officer’s performance. The officer (and there were several of them over the months) would calmly motion cars to line up two-abreast, and keep people from making illegal turns or stopping traffic. To me, it seemed like one of the most tedious tasks this side of the airport pickup queue, and most of the officers I chatted with seemed to have a slight sense of humor about their fate.
A few minutes after the departure of the law, the problems would begin. Without the police there to literally direct traffic into a more space-saving stack, it didn’t take long for drivers to begin idling on the sidewalk and blocking the bike lane. A few times an hour, the caffeine logjam would fill up the entire drive-thru and block all of eastbound Marshall Avenue.
One other observation: watching the cars slowly proceed through the twisting circle, I was continually amazed at how long it took. Drive-thrus promise fast service, but if you actually timed the process, as I did, it’s quite slow. From the moment a car customer arrived in the line to the moment they drove away, presumably happy, the elapsed time would often exceed ten minutes. Smarter customers simply parked on Marshall Avenue (albeit often illegally) and ran into the store to get coffee in half the time.
Day after day, each morning, the drive-thru went on like this, generating constant, small moments of chaos before the pressure faded through the afternoon as coffee lost its appeal.
The story has a happy ending, at least if you don’t mind parking and walking into a coffee shop. In April 2021, in the midst of the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police, some of the Starbucks employees demanded the removal of the police officer. Faced with a lose-lose situation, the company closed the drive-thru and it’s remained that way ever since. The new proposal, just approved by the City, calls for replacing the coffee window with a patio and bike rack.
These days, drive-thrus occupy a paradoxical place within U.S. cities. On one hand, during the pandemic, demand for drive-thrus spiked and companies have been devising ways to make them larger and more efficient. On the other hand, cities emphasizing walkability have been pushing to remove drive-thrus; for example, Minneapolis recently banned new drive-thrus citywide.
If anything, the Starbucks drive-thru illustrates how difficult it is to change something after it’s built. Even after five years of consistent problems and complaints to the city’s DSI, there was little hope that regulation would close the drive through. Instead, it took a completely different issue — a lack of trust in police — to trigger the change. The “carbucks” is the exception that proves the rule.
All this is a long way of saying that, sometime this summer, I’m going to very much enjoy drinking an espresso on the new Snarshall Starbucks patio. I will toast the Starbucks workers who made it happen.