One of the first stories I ever wrote about on my hyper-local Twin Cities’ planning blog covered the opening of the new CVS store in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood. At the time, I was miffed by the building’s design and scale, suggesting that the new pharmacy had “turned its back to the street” by not including a door fronting along busy University Avenue. From the perspective of good urban design, the one-story building was a real disappointment.
That was a long time ago and, as it turns out, fifteen years is about the lifespan of a chain pharmacy store. CVS recently announced that they’re closing almost a thousand of their retail stores around the country, including the now-mothballed Midway location. It’s part of a shift in corporate strategy reacting to “changes in population, consumer buying patterns and future health needs,” according to one report. The consequence for cities is vacant properties, including one here at a key corner in St. Paul.
The closure recalls the robust debate around retail development at Snelling and University that unfolded when CVS first pitched its store. Today, with a lot of shifting context, it’s worth revisiting that discussion, and taking a look at what’s changed and what’s stayed the same since the CVS first came to the Midway.
Rhode Island-based CVS was one of the retail pharmacy chains that most aggressively expanded twenty years ago, buying property in U.S. cities often directly across the street from competitors like Walgreens or (then common) independent pharmacies. The tactic was part of what some critics warned was leading to an over-saturation of retail aimed at driving out competition.
“It’s something I predicted back in the day when they were opening so many of these outlets,” said retail policy expert Stacy Mitchell. “I’m curious what’s becoming of them — they are probably half sitting empty, and half turning into Dollar Generals.”
Mitchell, who is the co-director of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), has long been a leading critic of chain retail, in part because of how it impacts land use in U.S. cities. Part of the problem is that, in general, the U.S. is overbuilt in the retail sector. On a per capita basis, the US had 23.5 square feet of retail space per capita in 2020. By contrast, other countries are far lower: the UK, Japan, and France are less than 20% of the U.S. total.
That said, the CVS closures suggest retail saturation might be changing as the pandemic has accelerated the shift toward online shopping and at-home delivery.
Revisiting the 2000s debate
Back in 2006, there was a determined community campaign to prevent CVS from opening their store on the corner, led by University United, a local economic development advocacy group. Through a series of community meetings, the group argued that the CVS store was a poor use of a valuable space that could be used in other ways. In particular, the percentage of retail building to the total size of the parcel (aka the floor-area ratio) was abysmally low. Instead, activists wanted to see a denser building on the site, one with a few stories of housing on top of the retail site.
“We did a fair amount of ‘visioning’ for the corner of Snelling, with plans that would have been better than the proposed CVS,” Brian McMahon told me recently. McMahon ran University United during the early 2000s, and is hoping that the closure will give St. Paul “a second bite at the apple” for the corner lot.
As a glance at Snelling and University reveals, the campaign to stop CVS was unsuccessful. With support from the local Chamber of Commerce, the CVS opened in 2007 and provided staples to the neighborhood until it closed last month. The pharmacy even solved my biggest complaint, albeit rather awkwardly, grafting another street-facing doorway onto the building after the opening of the Green Line.
Light rail vs. parking
Looking back at sixteen years ago, the biggest change at Snelling and University is obviously the Green Line light rail. When the building was first pitched, according to minutes from one public meeting, CVS spokespeople were skeptical that the transit route would ever be built, justifying the parking-centered design of the retail store. It turns out they were wrong and, before the pandemic, the Green Line was serving over 40,000 riders a day, making it by far the most successful transit line in the state. With the high-ridership A Line bus rapid transit added along Snelling Avenue in 2016, the intersection will be a major transit hub for decades to come.
All the transit means that the conversation around parking has changed. When CVS first proposed their store, parking concerns dominated community meetings, and city staff spent hours looking at parking demand and brainstorming ways to build shared parking lots or other off-street car storage.
These days, St. Paul has moved in the opposite direction, up-zoning land along the light rail line while removing all off-street parking requirements. The result is that, for both residential and commercial projects, it’s possible to build without including any parking at all. (In practice, developers almost always include parking due to demand and institutional practices.)
The other big change is the new Allianz Field soccer stadium, a vast and shiny structure easily visible from the nearby freeway. Completed in 2019 and built with private money while assisted by millions in city tax-increment financing subsidies, the stadium was supposed to catalyze a slew of mixed-use development in the area. The stadium might be part of the reason that, in the last few years, Midway has seen its first market-rate housing built in a half-century. Looking at the neighborhood today, the 2007-era ambitions to create denser mixed-use buildings seem to have been ahead of their time
The plans that were once pitched for the stadium site, though, seem familiar to anyone who remembers the conversation sixteen years ago. In one design “charette” architects and planners envisioned an ambitious infill project that would have interspersed housing and a street grid around the existing retail stores.
For the time being, there’s little sign of any development around the soccer stadium. Other than a ever-busy McDonald’s drive-thru, a Little Ceasars pizza and a payday lending storefront, there’s nothing on the stadium “superblock.” The plans for developing the now largely vacant land around the Minnesota United stadium haven’t changed much, and the current situation seems to be at an impasse, with the city committing to more TIF money while team owners remain recalcitrant about starting any construction on housing or retail.
But if development around Allianz Field begins, it will start to fulfill a long-held community vision of redeveloping the swath of Midway big-boxes and strip malls into a more walkable community with plenty of housing.
The death of the Midway CVS might be a sign of retail over-saturation, that the market is changing rapidly in the post-COVID era. If the ILSR’s Stacy Mitchell prediction is true, the CVS will likely sit vacant for a while. Let’s hope that, this time around, St. Paul can get a better project on one of its key corners.