How to Improve East Lake Street

What is going on with East Lake Street in Minneapolis? That’s the question the Longfellow Community Council (LCC) asked me last year when I was tasked with a market study to determine reasons and solutions for a stubbornly high commercial vacancy rate. The answer goes far beyond waiting for retail demand to return and space to absorb. East Lake Street (between Hiawatha Avenue and the Mississippi River) suffers from a variety of systemic maladies, just like any number of aging commercial corridors around the country. The good news is there is a lot of potential, with a corridor vision, attention paid to specific nodes, a catalytic developer, development incentives and possible use of form-based codes among possible solutions.

Read the final presentation to LCC here and read the study itself here.

Commercial vacancy on the East Lake Street corridor hovers around 15%, more than double the metro area average. Part of the reason is a number of buildings are older and funtionally obsolete for newer tenants and uses, some are not designed for today’s retail tenant needs, and others have absentee landlords or owners that otherwise cannot or do not invest in their property. That said, one of my findings is there is not necessarily demand for more retail space in the first place. Thus, some redevelopment may be housing-only, particularly if it replaces underutilized space.

The first problem is there is no vision for what the street should look like. Even when the city’s comp plan indicates a preferance for high-quality mixed-use infill projects the zoning allows drive-thrus in many locations. Why millions were recently spent to rebuild a street in to a more pedestrian-friendly corridor with no accompanying changes to land use is unfortunate. As a result you get very little certainty. Why invest in a nice mixed-use property if your neighbor could build an automobile-friendly Culver’s? Furthermore, many blocks along the corridor have zero or very few doors facing the sidewalk, further diminishing the pedestrian-friendliness of the street.

Physically, redevelopment is a challenge due to shallow lots along the corridor. But there is one beacon, a guiding light if you will, and it is in fact one of the better examples of infill development in the Twin Cities, and it’s located right on the corridor. West River Commons, shown above, is a 53-unit apartment building with four ground floor retail tenants and three for-sale townhomes.

Key urbanism elements of West River Commons include parking that is hidden undeground or behind the building, retail spaces that have doors facing the sidewalk, as do ground floor units, thus enlivening the streetscape, and retail space that is not overbuilt and includes popular retailers and restaurants. In short, the project fits its urban surroundings well, very well, adds housing and retail options as well as tax base for the city. But it is these urban principles that are important to adapt to future projects. Not all projects will be mixed-use, and not all even this dense, but luckily we need look no further than the corridor itself for an excellent example of what to do.

So how do we get there? For what it’s worth, the corridor has a lot of bright spots and stable surrounding neighborhoods, but there is a lot of room for improvement along East Lake Street. Most of all, the Longfellow Community Council and area residents and businesses must make the case that this should be a priority for the city. Already they have a subcommittee meeting biweekly to push for solutions. A potential next step is to define a vision for the street and ensure zoning (possibly a form-based code) properly encourages good development. In a time of scarce resources, choosing specific nodes carefully is critical so any public investment properly catalyzes future opportunities. The future of East Lake Street is bright, but there will be challenges.

This was crossposted at Joe Urban.

Sam Newberg

About Sam Newberg

Sam Newberg, a.k.a. Joe Urban, is an urbanist, real estate consultant and writer. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two kids, and his website is