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

8 thoughts on “How to Improve East Lake Street

  1. Matt SteeleMatt

    People on the Longfellow E-Dem forum seem to dislike the number of vacant commercial spaces on East Lake and elsewhere in the neighborhood, yet some are vocal critics of a private developer's plan to bring a six story mixed-use complex to the corner of Hiawatha and Lake (in the MnDOT surplus land between the LRT viaduct and the shopping mall).

    Neighbors on the same forum complain about parking adjacent to West River Commons within the past week.

    One of the reasons we're struggling is because of NIMBYism that feels the neighborhood should not be allowed to become more dense, and that developers wishing to provide more supply of housing in the neighborhood should run into roadblocks.

    1. Ian Bicking

      What specifically are they complaining about with regards to the Hiawatha development?

      (And in this we're talking about the area that is strongly part of Corcoran and not Longfellow, are we not? Anything east of Hiawatha is definitely not Longfellow, it's Corcoran – everyone is entitled to their opinion, but we shouldn't let people get NIMBY about other people's back yard.)

      1. Ian Bicking

        I didn't even realize there was development proposed at this particular site, which is Phillips (i.e., north of Lake, west of Hiawatha):

        I don't see any major objections on the list, rather the overall opinion is strongly in favor, with one fairly modest objection, and the initial email offers some concern while at the same time forwarding an email that is in favor of the project.

  2. Ian Bicking

    15% vacancy doesn't seem *that* bad, but I'd say that underutilization is also widespread on East Lake. There's a lot of properties that aren't technically vacant, but sure seem like it.

    I'd like to see more of a comparison of Midtown Lake Street with East Lake. They are both surrounded by residential neighborhoods – somewhat higher density in Midtown, but not that much. The buildings are fairly similar – somewhat larger in Midtown, but not that much, and of a similar era. Income levels are about the same; East Lake can't just become Uptown, but Midtown isn't Uptown either.

    I'm not sure Longfellow actually wants East Lake to be like Midtown (though Seward would probably appreciate it): so identifying the differences doesn't necessarily give a call to action. But it seems like an interesting question nevertheless, and engages more with the specifics of Lake Street and the area, not just generalized urbanist principles.

    Anyway, some specific thoughts:

    It's a ways off, but I personally think the Greenway Streetcar should go all the way to Minnehaha, and that Longfellow should advocate strongly for this (in a positive way, of course, not a my-way-or-we'll-sabotage-the-whole-thing way). But the streetcar is kind of half-fantasy, so whatever.

    The Minnehaha-Lake intersection has tremendous potential in my opinion – built, of course, on a lot of positive things already happening there. Even the Target-Cub strip has potential (develop the east side of that parking lot?): it's not pretty, but it brings in a lot of people. I think we should, for now, accept that there's a lot of parking there, but try to make it an accessible hub despite that, so that each business can feed off the success of the other businesses. We shouldn't look down on usefulness, and there's a core usefulness to that area. Hiawatha is a pain-in-the-ass boundary (LRT or not), but also offers potential. Tell Trader Joe's we won't turn them away like those ungrateful Uptowners!

    Minnehaha-Lake is of course on the edge of East Lake, but that's okay. Hennepin-Lake is kind of on the edge of West Lake Street yet it provided an anchor that has helped grow a lot of areas east of it.

    Of course when vacancies are the concern it'll seem best to try to resolve that – but resolving that is the opposite of building on success. Building on success is why I think the emphasis should be on strengthening Minnehaha and expanding from there.

    A good gas station would not be bad. I know they are looked down upon, but a nice modern gas station doesn't have to be bad. For instance, I'm really rather impressed with the new Holiday on 36th Street and Cedar. Put a nice station like that on the outside of one of the under-used parking lots and I think it'd do great and bring in business at the same time (but would need great signage, maybe requiring a variance).

    The oversupply of retail and grocery is interesting – and of course due to the big box section. But none of those are failing, which is to say it's not "an oversupply" but rather "an attraction".

    So, those are my thoughts. I live a mile west of East Lake, so I suppose I might be biased towards the western portion of that area. But as a practical matter I also find myself drawn south into the suburbs for many retail needs, and I don't think that retail leakage is necessary, which is why I want Minnehaha (and Hi-Lake) to better compete – and I think there's a lot of ancillary benefits from drawing in the immediate community to the area (like something along the lines of a 3 mile radius, which I don't believe is too ambitious for the area).

    1. Matt SteeleMatt

      I know East Lake is technically from Nicollet to the river, but I normally think of East Lake as Lake Street east of Hiawatha (maybe it just depends on where one lives in South Mpls)

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