St. Louis Park’s Excelsior and Grand wins 2012′s best New Urbanist Simulacrum of Main Street.
The Twin Cities doesn’t have a Seaside, Kentlands or even a Celebration. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because we have an Uptown, St. Anthony Main, Warehouse District, Cathedral Hill, etc. Our New Urbanist (NU) town centers are few and many came too late in the real estate bubble to make much of a lasting impact. Our local NU developments weren’t able to shed their suburban skin – Excelsior and Grand does, and that’s likely why it’s our victor.
That isn’t to say Excelsior and Grand isn’t without criticism, but it’s the best we’ve got. In fact, it’s hard to take other Twin Cities New Urbanist projects seriously. Arbor Lakes? No real residential. West End? Same problem, but with too much parking and it’s half-empty. Burnsville’s Heart of the City? I’m really happy they are trying. Woodbury Lakes? You can’t be serious?
I had this college summer internship that paid me too much money to basically drive aimlessly around the metro. Coming from a small town and moving directly to an walkable, urban-university setting, this internship was the first chance I had to experience suburbia. I’d drive from suburban office complex to strip mall to industrial park, and repeat. One day pre-ubiquitous GPS systems, I remember coming off Highway 100 while coming down from one of Blaine’s excruciatingly depressing industrial parks. I made a wrong turn and somehow bumped into Exclesior & Grand.
I remember thinking it was a mirage, an oasis in the suburban desert. This place couldn’t be real?
There are a few elements that put Excelsior and Grand ahead of the competition. The location is aided by its proximity to Minneapolis. That, and it’s surrounded by a partial traditional street grid. The strip malls nearby are old by strip mall standards, but they look quaint relics of the bygone years when compared to the expansive Power Center Strip Malls of the late 1990s and early 2000s. In a way, Excelsior and Grand is still surrounded by suburbia, but a humble suburbia in its first generation. The type of suburbia that still had some traditional patterns and acknowledged that Minneapolis, the big city, actually existed.
Excelsior and Grand is not an island (a criticism I have with all the other NU projects on the list). It’s connected to the neighborhood to the south and the few apartment / condo buildings to the north. As long as those walking are willing to brave Excelsior Blvd. The pedestrian connections aren’t that bad and walking within is a pretty pleasant experience. The project doesn’t feel too out of place either – it’s as if it is less than 10 years old, but already part of the neighborhood.
The retail currently occupying Excelsior and Grand is doing well. My only complaint is that the businesses are boring (CVS, Panera Bread, Starbucks, etc.). This isn’t a bad thing for most people. Eventually, as rents and markets change, businesses will come and go. That’s part of how a these things operate and I’m confident the Panera Breads of the world won’t stay forever. I’m just glad that we’ve got a place with good bones – even if the shops are bland.
They even did a clever job on parking – public parking is broken into two smaller-scale ramps (2.5 to 3 levels) that attempt to architecturally blend with the adjacent land uses; and on-street angle and parallel parking.
Parking is clearly labeled and doesn’t look unpleasant. Excelsior & Grand compliments garage parking with on-street angle and parallel parking. These complimenting methods seem to work pretty well.
Trader Joe’s has its own surface area parking lot, but it’s small enough to not make much of a negative impact. The lot is usually busy (and oftentimes requires an orange-vested employee to direct traffic).
In the long run, I think the success of Excelsior and Grand and the surrounding area will be how it adjusts. Will the surrounding area rid its suburban past or will it become stagnant? Will the strip malls and single-story buildings along Excelsior intensify as a result of this NU project? Will things grow up around it organically? It’ll be interesting to see if St. Louis Park will allow a denser district to grow up around Excelsior and Grand.
Thanks to everyone who voted!