What Minneapolis Planners should have said to Trader Joe

A nice mixed-use two-story Trader Joe’s store in Seattle’s U District.

A city council committee is expected to vote later today about whether to move ahead with plans for a new Lyndale Avenue Trader Joe’s store. The store is controversial. Building the project would involve razing a block of old two-story mixed-use buildings along Lyndale, and require negotiating with Minneapolis’ (Lutheran) ordinance about liquor store density. If built, Trader Joe’s would threaten the balance of food and booze power in Lyn-Lake, competing with The Wedge, Hum’s, and Bill’s Imported (among others).

That said, those complaints aren’t deal breakers. Competition is a good thing, generally, and there’s plenty of demand. (Disclaimer: I personally despise Trader Joe’s even more than most chain stores, but some of my best friends shop there.) Having the option to buy faux gourmet (“faouxrmet”?) frozen food, slightly cheaper mediocre wine, and a wide selection of ironically packaged fruit and nuts close at hand in Minneapolis might be a nice thing for a lot of people. (Prediction: Believe me, almost everyone I know would shop there incessantly.) Maybe messing with the sometimes too-smug Minneapolis liberal status quo might not be the worst outcome in the world.

The same might be argued about the properties on the site. While I personally adore the buildings on these block, and wish dearly that they could be rehabbed and continue to provide harbor for unique diverse businesses with apartments on the top, the owner of the building doesn’t want to maintain them any more, and would rather redevelop the site. Shouldn’t that be the kind of choice a person who has spent decades owning and caring for these buildings be able to make?

No, the real problem with the Trader Joe’s Lyndale store is that the proposed storeplan doesn’t fit the future of Lyndale Avenue, and you’d think that the Planning Commission would have pressed harder to get a better site plan out of the developer. The proposed building would be a one-story box on a site dominated by a large surface parking lot along Lyndale. (There are also some underground spaces.) It’s basically the same building style as the store on Lexington in St Paul, only with the storefront pushed up along the sidewalk (and without the second retail building).

The proposed plan for the Trader Joe’s parking lot (and store).

Lyndale Avenue can do a lot better than this. As the recent Open Streets proves, the difference between St Paul’s Lexington Parkway and Minneapolis’s Lyndale Avenue is huge. Lyndale is one of the key points where walkability, density, and mixed-use fabric should be maximized in the city. Even if you enjoy making snide remarks about condos, the recent developments near Lake Street have increased density along this corridor, and in the future this area should continue to increase in density with infill. It’s one the few places you can actually walk to more than one store to buy food, where you can actually get by semi-successfully without a car. The parking ratios should be decreasing. Large surface parking lots should be a thing of the past along Lyndale.

In Boston, Trader Joe’s is located in a three-story building on a busy street corner in a walkable neighborhood.

Unfortunately this building plan actually decreases density. You’re essentially replacing two-story mixed-use buildings with a single-story surface lot. It’s unfortunate, because Trader Joe’s is not averse to building stores in mixed-use urban areas. Their store in Boston’s Coolidge Corner (actually Brookline) is in a great three-story building and fits well with the dense fabric of the area. Their store in Seattle’s University District is similar, a two-story building along a dense commercial street with parking in the back. When the city is sacrificing historical property and messing with long-standing zoning rules, and particularly along one of the city’s main streets, shouldn’t the city be setting higher standards for developers? Shouldn’t they be asking for more than just a little plaza by the parking lot? Minneapolis isn’t Boston or Seattle, but is asking for a mixed-use development for this site unreasonable?

The City Council committee unanimously shot down the development.

33 thoughts on “What Minneapolis Planners should have said to Trader Joe

  1. Dale

    "Minneapolis isn’t Boston or Seattle"

    I don't understand what this comment means. We shouldn't expect Boston or Seattle densities? Our density is very comparable to Seattle's and we should demand that new development reflects that reality.

    Minneapolis population density: 7,019.6/sq mi

    Seattle population density: 7,361/sq mi

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      Well, it's literally true. And I agree with you. I think we should try to be more like Seattle and Boston and have density along commercial / transit corridors.

  2. Alex

    Nuts to 2 or 3 story TJ's, how about the one they built in the booming megacity of Madison, in the first floor of a 5 story condo building tucked into a 1-2 story streetcar suburb:


    I absolutely agree with you, Bill, and was very disappointed by the Planning Commission decision. While the letter of the Lyn Lake small area plan allowed for C2 zoning, clearly the spirit of the plan was for much denser development than this. Luckily I'll put its chances at the Z&P committee at slim to nil.

    Ps, if Minneapolis' liquor laws are Lutheran, how come catholic St Paul has nearly identical laws?

  3. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins

    I don't have any problems with TJ, and I'm ambivalent at best about liquor store spacing issues, but this site plan is really disappointing for Lyndale Avenue. Maybe a compromise is to allow them to keep the parking lot as is, but require two floors of apartments/condos up top.

  4. Michelle V

    I feel pretty ambivalent about TJ – they don't really replace a grocery store, especially a grocery store as benefiting as the Wedge, but there is a market for this "fauxmet" and those that live closest will shop there sure. That's cool.

    But regardless, why take a street like Lyndale that is vibrant because of its mixed use and put in a structure and lot that is uncharacteristic, breaking up the flow of interest? TJ's fits fine with a residential or office partner to share a building with — see the SLP site. TJ shouldn't have a problem rethinking their plan to be a steward of the neighborhood's vibrancy.

    I would hate to see Uptown reduced to rows of single story strip mall-style buildings. What we love about Uptown is the quirkyness, the mixed use, the walkability, the stacked nature (albeit not super tall, true we need not be a Boston everywhere in the city), is due to intentionally good planning. Don't fail us, Planning Commission!

  5. Andrew

    Keep in mind that this isn't just the result of some love affair that the planning commission or the city council has with surface parking — its also their attempt to be responsive to concerns from the local neighborhood and business associations. Both groups have expressed fear that allowing the TJ's without providing ample on-site parking will man that TJ shoppers will occupy parking spaces that would otherwise have been used by local residents and patrons of other businesses.

    Of course, they're right. But they also think that this would be some sort of disaster for them, and that's where they're wrong. Yes, including fewer or no parking spaces on the TJ site would increase demand for local parking without increasing supply. But it would also leave room for additional businesses which would be accessible to local residents with no driving required. By the same token it would increase the variety of sans-auto accessible businesses as well.

    Disappointingly, these potential benefits are hardly mentioned in the debate — everything focuses on parking and a fear of change. By letting these short-sighted fears guide their decisions, planners and council members are favoring short-term status quo and conflict avoidance over long-term leadership, evolution, and growth.

    (Reuben, re: the suggestion to build housing units over the parking lot — how much *additional* parking would those units need to include in order to assuage fears of futher parking "shortages"?)

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      Andrew, you hit the nail on the head. Another reason why OpenStreets is good; it demonstrates that economic activity isn't welded to car traffic. You CAN have a neighborhood with plenty of businesses and shoppers and foot traffic without filling your streets with parked and moving cars.

      But because parking spaces have a svengali-like hold over our psyche, because driving around looking for parking is such a uniformly terrible experience, because parallel parking is so difficult for so many, public process debates are dominated by these voices.

    2. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins

      In case I wasn't clear, I'd like to see apts above the store, not above the parking lot. Regarding additional parking for those units. There is no amount of parking (either an increase or a decrease) that could be proposed that would satisfy neighbors.

  6. Spencer

    What gets lost in this story is the role of Minneapolis' outdated liquor laws in creating this scenario. If Trader Joe's could have located anywhere in Uptown, this site at 27th & Lyndale would have been far from their first choice. We know that a few years ago they attempted to go into a smaller site just south of 22nd on the east side of Lyndale. That scenario called for demolishing an auto shop and a house for the grocery store, with TJ's liquor store going into the adjacent vacant retail space of that newish, French-style architecture condo building. Because the site was smaller, it would have required a more dense, urban design. Unfortunately that plan never got off the ground, because the City would not grant an exception to Trader Joe's for the 2,000 foot spacing requirement for liquor stores (there is one at 22nd & Lyndale). Who knows what other sites TJ's might have considered if they had the freedom to locate wherever they wanted, but the fact is that the only spot they could build a liquor store in Uptown was this 1.5-block stretch between 26th and 28th on Lyndale. If you don't like this outcome, blame the City Council for continuing to stand behind the City's outdated, inefficient liquor store regulations.

    Now, given that TJ's essentially had to locate on this site if they want a location in Uptown, would it have been nice if they had produced a less suburban site plan? Yes, but one can hardly blame them for not doing so. Unlike Boston, they aren't really dealing with exorbitant land values or constricted site size such that it becomes cost-prohibitive to build large surface parking lots. In exchange for doing something more urban on this site (say 90% lot coverage, all underground parking, and 4 stories of housing above the retail) they would get substantially higher construction cost, substantially higher property taxes, a riskier & more complicated financing package, and a lengthier development process. Over the long term, TJ's would have less control over what happens to the property as they would not be the sole tenant, and they would have higher costs for common area maintenance for the building. From that perspective, there is a lot of private cost and not much private benefit to doing something less suburban.

    I understand and agree with the disappointment regarding this suburban style outcome, but think blame towards Trader Joe's or the Planning Commission is misplaced. Trader Joe's is just operating a business and complying with land use regulations, not a charity with the goal of creating the next great urban neighborhood, whatever the cost. And the Planning Commission is just administering the zoning code. I am sure that many of the commissioners would have preferred a less suburban style design, but they can only use the tools at the disposal and the current zoning code allows suburban style design so there isn't much they can do.

    Potential solutions to this problem would be a form-based zoning code and/or a land-value taxation system. A land-value tax (to replace the current property-value tax) in particular would be a great way to encourage higher density, as businesses would then have an economic incentive to reduce their site footprints and to build at higher densities in order to share costs. The current property tax punishes higher density buildings with higher taxes.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      Spencer, awesome reply. Of course you're correct. What level of government policy would have to change to adjust this tax situation? The state?

    2. Andrew

      I propose establishing a new metric: the "mean time before land value tax" (MTBLVT), which measures the elapsed time in any discussion of land use regulation before the first mention of a land value / Georgian tax (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_George). Further, I theorize that MTBLVT is currently decreasing in contemporary discussions of land use regulation.

      Spencer, I agree that if a land-value tax system were already in place it would make this and similar problems self-solving. But I also think that the practical and political difficulties of implementing land-value appraisals make it impossible to transition to a land-value tax system.

      1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

        that's kind of why I asked that question. If this type of reform requires state-level policy change, then it'll likely never happen. we need solutions that cities can put into practice at the municipal (or maybe county) level, because realistically those are the only minds we're going to be changing anytime soon.

        1. Spencer

          I disagree that a land-value tax would be impossible to implement. Difficult, yes, but so would be any other major change in tax policy. I think support for the idea could be generated by emphasizing what is perhaps the biggest problem with the current property tax: that it dis-incentivizes improvements to property. It would also (likely) remove a lot bureaucratic inefficiency and inconsistency in property valuations. Its a lot simpler to assess the value of land at a large scale than it is to attempt to derive an accurate value estimate for tens of thousands of unique buildings.

          1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

            As someone who began his career as a commercial appraiser, I don't think it would be a stretch to change to land-based tax valuation. An appraiser must appraise the property as-is and as highest and best use. If it is an existing single-story with a lot of parking on a site that could accomodate a four-story mixed-use development, even in today's world the appraiser must acknowledge that the land could be put to higher and better use. What I'm saying is appraisers and assessors could make this switch easily if they are paid to do so!

            I wonder if it couldn't be tested or applied on a corridor basis or in some small area of the city as a trial (like East Lake Street)?

      2. David LevinsonDavid Levinson

        I think the practical difficulties are close to nil, this is what hedonic models are for, we can easily estimate the value of land.

        The political difficulties, of changing the basis for taxation, are of course much more difficult, as winners and losers are created – the winners won't realize it, but you can be sure the losers will. But if you design a clever transition plan, it should be doable (e.g. change the basis at sale, change it gradually over time for everyone).

  7. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

    I appreciate Spencer's response. A better zoning code would alleviate a lot of (not all, of course) these development squabbles, and make it easier to do the right thing. A well-written form-based code could better define the expectations of the city's comp plan or small area plans.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      oooh, i've been to that one in Portland. That's a great example. Hawthorne is a very similar street to Lyndale, almost exactly the same in terms of primarily single-family / duplex / small (3-story) apartment density, similar width commercial street in a mixed but upscale neighborhood.

      (of course, they've done a traffic calming conversion on the street, which should really happen on Lyndale.)

      but there are three grocery stores you can walk to (!) on Hawthorne from the neighborhood where I was staying. c'mon MInneapolis, catch up to Portland!

  8. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

    Perhaps what bothers me most about the proposal for Trader Joe's is the placement of the pedestrian door. That there is no door at or even near the corner of 27th and Lyndale and there should be. Sure there is a door off the sidewalk at the southeast corner of the building, and it makes sense that it's located near the parking lot, but to not have another pedestrian entrance along Lyndale and a blank wall along 27th is anti-urbanism plain and simple.

    If this is the way we develop, there should be no grocers or pharmacies at urban corners. Of course, a better code requirement for doors facing the sidewalk would go a long way. There is a requirement, but it should be improved.

    1. Jessica SchonerJessica S

      This is not surprising for Trader Joe's. In dense parts of LA (and yes, LA has dense parts!), Trader Joe's still had exclusively parking-oriented doors, and lots (but never "enough" given demand) surface parking.

      Your proposed code amendment would have to specify that these doors must be *functional*, and no obstructions in the "windows". Rye (NW corner of Franklin & Hennepin) has a door facing the sidewalk, but last time I was there it was locked, and you had to enter through the parking lot anyway. Stores that are usually in strip malls or shopping malls tend to block out all their street-facing windows – i.e., every major chain retail store near Calhoun Square.

      1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

        Jessica, you raise a very good point about doors actually being open and functional. I can think of the Trader Joe's on Sepulveda just north of LAX that is like that – perhaps that's the one you mean. Yes, the whole point is to use doors.

        1. Jessica SchonerJessica S

          Yeah, that one was especially bad, but it wasn't the only one. Even the one at La Brea and 3rd was fairly parking oriented. The new one at Hollywood & Vine was nice, though.

  9. Jessica SchonerJessica S

    I find this ongoing battle about Trader Joe's in Uptown really entertaining.

    Trader Joe's is basically a cult in California. I took a class with Bill Fulton at USC before moving here, and he described a redevelopment project for the dead half of an aging shopping mall in Ventura. Nearby residents were strongly opposed for vague fears over traffic and change, but as soon as they found out that the anchor tenant was a Trader Joe's, they enthusiastically supported the project.

    Here, though, it seems like we have a lot of other things that cover that niche that Trader Joe's usually fills. Every neighborhood has a co-op, which tends to cover those "gourmet food" needs, and they blow TJ out of the water regarding any claims to local, organic, or sustainable. With liquor shops every mile, you don't have to go far to find a half-decent selection of low- to mid-priced beer and wine. Who needs Trader Joe's when the Wedge, Hums, and Lyndale/Grand Liquor are right here in my neighborhood?

  10. Chris

    I'm sure all of the readers of this blog have heard by now, but the Zoning & Planning Committee has struck down the rezoning proposal, going against city development staff recommendation. I also like what Gary Schiff had to say about the change from mixed-use to a single-use code: "We would be going a big step backwards rezoning this for a single-use development."

  11. Brendon SlotterbackBrendon Slotterback

    I'll make some points that haven't been brought up yet. 1) The project proposers were asking for a rezoning to a MORE intense use than was allowed in the existing zoning district (C1 changing to C2). Current zoning also would not allow a liquor store. Without a rezoning, you'll get a smaller/less mixed use project on this site. 2) When Bill says this project may be "decreasing density", he is technically correct, in the sense of the physical building. But would this project decrease the intensity of use on this section of Lyndale, or increase it? I imagine traffic of all kinds, bikes, peds and yes cars, would increase dramatically. 3) There is already a single-story grocery store on Lyndale with a large (larger?) surface parking lot and a door that doesn't face the corner. It's called The Wedge. The neighbors do not hate this store. 4) More retail means the opportunity for more residential density, even if the mixing is not vertical. While I'm sure Planet Soccer and Calhoun Vacuum are fine stores, how will they support residential density compared with essentials like grocery?

    1. Alex

      #1 is a good point, and C2 is probably a better fit for this lot, so you're absolutely right that this was sort of a scorched earth victory. However, C1 zoning can accommodate the sort of development that most of us think would be ideal here – first floor retail with a few floors of housing above – something similar was just built on 4th St at 35W. The retail would probably have to be yet another restaurant or bar, but there is enough C2 zoning and existing commercials space in Lyn-Lake that a grocery store could be accommodated elsewhere. As for #3, I think the Wedge is a great example of why the TJ site plan would have failed immediately, and from my experience while neighbors like the Wedge as a business they absolutely hate its layout and consider it a mistake that they approved it in the 90s.

    2. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

      Good points, Brendon. Trader Joe's will eventually find a location or two in Minneapolis, and it will increase activity on the street and make the immediate area more attractive to denser residential development. As Brendon points out, The Wedge has a surface parking lot, but I'll point out that was developed at a different time, and the city needs to decide whether we turn the corner and become more urban or just maintain the status quo. Doing the former means creating the tools to encourage Trader Joe's and other businesses that want to be in the city to fit in to dense, mixed-use settings with creative parking solutions that improves the urban fabric.

      Lastly, the city has an oversupply of older buildings that are charming as a part of the streetscape but are functionally obsolete or at least cannot accomodate a different category of tenants without extensive or cost-prohibitive renovations. I can't comment on the Planet Soccer building, but perhaps its utility as-is is limited to relatively low-rent tenants that provide interest and variety to the street but aren't game-changers.

      I've always found the choice of 27th Street to be odd. Why not a more prominent intersection, like the vacant lot at 26th and Lyndale, for example? I guess it is simply a willing seller and buyer finding eachother and agreeing on a price. And I presume the new retail space in the ground floor of The Greenleaf at 28th and Lyndale is too small and under-parked for Trader Joe's. The irony is that space will likely take some time to lease up when Trader Joe's could fill 14,000 square feet in the blink of an eye. That's urban development for you!

    3. Prescott Morrill

      I think 1 and 2 are good points, but what would you say holds more significance for an urban space, density or intensity? The K-Mart on Lake (and where Nicollet should be) intensifies the use of that area; indeed the bus stop at the front of the parking lot is one of the most heavily used Metro stops in the city. However, we should all agree that the store neither supports more density, nor is it any good in almost any way for the urban fabric of that place. I'm not proposing that the intensity argument is bad, just that both metrics should be taken into account together.

      On 3, there could be an argument made that The Wedge might inspire a greater sense of community (it being a coop and all) than a Trader Joe's would, and the fact that it's a chain store illicits a knee-jerk reaction in many people. Being a recent grad, I generally shop where it's cheapest, personally. Also, it seems like #3 is a "less-bad" argument. Whatever the reason, however, you're right in that the neighbors don't hate it, so that could speak to a general aversion to change.

      At the end of the day, however, I think we all agree that surface parking is likely far from the highest/best use for such valuable urban land. Also, I like the idea of a land-value tax, but yes it would need some very clever and influential minds to get implemented.

      This discussion is a good one, whichever side you land on. As long as we can get people to really think critically about how small-medium urban site plans can change, or what the paradigms (yep, I went there) have been in the past, then we're likely on the right track.

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