In a West End town, a dead end world

When I first heard about the new development called the Shops at West End (WE), the Pet Shop Boys played in my head. My vision of The West End came from London, roughly the area between Piccadilly Circus and Charing Cross. They are not similarly located, London’s version is substantially closer to the City (2.2 miles) than the St. Louis Park version is to Nicollet Mall (4.2 miles). The spatial location similarities fell short, but as in its London namesake, WE is a restaurant and theatre district. Minnesota’s version opened as a new open-air shopping center at the northern end of St. Louis Park, roughly at the Southwest corner of the Junction I-394 and MN 100 in 2009. Now almost 4 years old, how well does WE work?

Below are some photos taken mid-day on an unseasonably nice Minnesota spring day. The site is not fully leased, as noted in this Biz Journal’s series of articles. The parking ramp is far from full.

The development into a real community remains unfinished, but while on-site it resembles the veneer of a Main Street (see this map), it is poorly connected with any of the neighboring retail parcels (including a Big Box center featuring a Costco and Home Depot across the street), and even the onsite offices are separated by a fortress of parking ramps.

The poor connections are not entirely the developer’s fault, the neighboring developments were designed without West End in mind, and geared to automobile travelers (go figure, located at the interchange of two major freeways). The onsite offices could have easily been above the shops, so that office workers passed the stores going into and out of work. This ground floor retail would have increased pedestrian traffic compared with the current layout (at the expense of fully climate controlled travel for lessees of the office space).

So the internal without respect to the external is inherently hampered. The site itself acknowledges all of its customers are drive up, it features several significant parking structures. The structures do dump pedestrians onto the Main Street (West End Boulevard), but the interface is far from seamless, with some longish unpleasant-ish, malodorous walks within the structure, so while it tries to play nice between car and pedestrian, it falls short. West End Boulevard aims for the shopping street experience, but it still gives more real estate to the movement and storage of cars than pedestrians. West End Boulevard is no Shaftesbury Avenue (which itself was a 19th century slum clearance measure, so some good can come of urban renewal in the right hands and given enough time).

With some artistry, the West End could be tied into future redevelopments of neighboring sites, but I don’t see it happening, this suburb is too far gone, street grids are too hard to reorganize, and no good East-West corridor was established through the site. At a larger scale, St. Louis Park is dissected by both freeways and railroad tracks. Driving from Excelsior and Grand to The Shops at West End is 4.4 miles, and for all practical purposes requires freeway use. Walking is given as 3.4 miles, but is on the circuitous side, requiring 7 turns.

Back at the WE, trees are under-developed (The developer could have installed older trees). More significantly, West End Boulevard is too narrow, and as a result, has too much shade and too little sunlight, even in the middle of the day. A wider street would have helped in this regard.

The roads and sidewalks are bricked, and not just brick highlights, but a fully bricked road. In a different climate, this might survive. I have doubts this will age well under traffic and Minnesota winters. The main street is not straight. It could have been straight, but the developer chose curvy. This seems to be popular in shopping malls now (so you can’t see the end, there is excitement at every bend, there is more retail surface area), but it feels wrong at this scale, like it’s wobbly. Part of the problem is its narrowness. Of course all grids must bend at some point (the earth is not flat), but this short turning gives it a more suburban feeling in what is supposed be an urban-like (or urban-lite) experience. The real streets that West End Boulevard parallels (Duke Drive, Park Place Boulevard) are straighter, and oriented for the movement of cars.

The shops are not unique. I visited solely because of the multiplex movie theatre, which are getting more difficult to find in the cities. The theatre itself is upstairs in one building, which I guess makes sense, as no need to waste ground-floor retail on such a large structure, and I have seen this model in Town Centres in and around London. On the other hand, I passed the entrance before I figured out it was the theatre, the signage is not at all obvious at ground level, and the large highway-oriented signs suggest a different location for the entrance.

While the West End is not scheduled to get any significant transit stations any time soon (just like St. Louis Park’s other signature retail development: Excelsior and Grand), and unlike London’s counterpart, where you can’t turn around without falling into an Underground Station, there is a small park and ride lot one block north of the site at Park Place Boulevard and I-394. If this corridor were turned into a full-fledged Freeway Bus-Rapid Transit system (like the Red and Orange lines, as suggested by the Purple Line on this map by Kyril Negoda), there would be a natural station here. And BRT is technically quite feasible, what with the HOT lanes already in place. Tying that station into a real fine-grained local street network at the interchange may be the planners’ hope, but there is a lot of market coordination required to achieve that.

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10 thoughts on “In a West End town, a dead end world

  1. David

    Thanks you. It’s time someone said that.

    I get sick every time I hear someone fawn over the West End.

  2. Nick MagrinoNick Magrino

    The West End is such a disappointment considering St. Louis Park’s otherwise really great track record with infill. And not just Excelsior and Grand–the Hoigaard Village redevelopment is pretty good, Ellipse on Excelsior, etc. The traffic flow at the West End is impressively bad, the buildings look tacky, and a little sad considering they’re just one story. Separating the uses was weird…they ended up building apartments right next door, why didn’t they just put them on top of the retail?

    Though I will say that I’ve been there for movies a couple times on Friday and Saturday nights and the parking ramp was almost completely full.

  3. Janne

    The thing that drives me bonkers about this development is the total lack of connection to the Cedar Lake Trail — which goes about two blocks from the shops. You have to either haul your bike over a set of railroad tracks (not really a good idea), or ride up and around two clover leaves of the entrance/exit to 100 which no one is going to do willingly. St. Louis Park really seems to struggle to recognize that biking is useful and a silly recreational thing — they seem to want to chase bikes off their streets.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      I agree, Janne. There actually is a not-awful connection to the dead end of Cedar Lake Road, near the JCC. You exit the Cedar Lake Trail, go up a ramp, then cross over it and end up on Cedar Lk Rd.

      So while it’s accessible to bikes, I totally agree it’s ridiculous that this development doesn’t try to capitalize on it. For god’s sake, Life Time Fitness has the Cedar Lake Trail in its own backyard, but it’s secured behind a 6′ fence. Wouldn’t you think they’d want to enable their members to use this awesome jogging and biking route?

  4. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I’m surprised you don’t say more about Park Place Boulevard, David, because I think that’s the real missing link here. There is some frontage of shops from West End toward Park Pl, but it’s very limited and inward-facing — just like the suburban shopping malls this is supposed to replace. And more troubling, Park Pl is designed to be a modern-suburban superhighway, complete with double left turn lanes, red arrows, and right-turn lanes at every intersection.

    This is clearly designed to emulate a space like 50th and France, so why not follow that template? Build on the major street, and calm it down to a sensible commercial scale. I think they would benefit from traffic in front of their stores. I have never shopped at 50th and France, but off the top of my head, I know there’s a Caribou Coffee, Edina Realty, and Sur La Table there, just from driving or biking past. I have literally no idea what’s at Shops at West End, except a Rainbow nearby.

    But: while I do object in principle to what they’ve done here, I’m not convinced it’s such a failure. While (as stated) Park Pl Blvd has all the urban grandeur and pedestrian friendliness of Apple Valley’s Cedar Avenue, I actually see more pedestrians there than many other first-ring commercial centers.

    1. David LevinsonDavid Levinson Post author

      Yeah, Park Place Boulevard is off-site and a freeway feeder, so I sort of wrote it off. I.e. I think there could be a cromulent shopping street that crossed Park Place Boulevard (East-West), but I don’t think there could be an effective shopping street on Park Place Boulevard.

      Could PPB actually be a shopping street even if the Costco shopping center were redeveloped with stores fronting PPB for a block or two? I still think not.

      I will make a thus far unsubstantiated claim: Great shopping streets are through streets.

      I will make a second claim: Great shopping streets are not freeway ramps.

      Third claim: Great shopping streets are 4 lanes wide, no more. PPB is 7 lanes wide at intersections. and 5 lanes at best.

      In short, PPB could be narrowed and disconnected from the freeway, but then it wouldn’t be the same thing.

      In the Twin Cities, look at Grand Avenue, it runs for a relatively long distance, the ends are not shopping street, but they actually do go somewhere. PPB just crashes into RR tracks (Cedar Lake Boulevard/Hwy 100 entrance ramp/Parkdale) a few blocks to the south, so there are no traffic generators on the other end except the freeway. On the north end, 394 is a barrier. (Put a freeway cap on it, maybe it would be interested). In short, at best it gets drive-to traffic, but no walk-up traffic. So PPB could be an outdoor mall, if people wanted that, but it would never be able to be an organic shopping street. I have a post coming soon on 50th and France.

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        I will make a second claim: Great shopping streets are not freeway ramps.

        One doesn’t have to look too far to find examples that dispute this. The Richfield Mills area (54th and Lyndale Ave) is an attractive commercial district, despite being not just easily accessed by a freeway, but actually a former through path of TH 35W. France Ave has full access at both Crosstown Hwy and 494. (Yes, of course, 50th and France is over a mile north of the Crosstown Highway, but there is significant through traffic.) And perhaps most relevant to Park Pl: Excelsior Blvd has full access to TH 100/Normandale Rd, and yet still has lively commercial districts. Is it as good as Grand Ave or 50th and France? No, but it’s way better than Park Pl Blvd.

        As for the lack of non-auto traffic generators: this is a good point, though the Park Place Boulevard Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan actually identifies 14 bike/ped access points to PPB. Again, anecdotally, I actually see quite a lot of pedestrians on (or at least crossing) PPB. Though there would certainly be a lot more if it were better-designed…

        1. Sean Fahey

          My own most recent experience with the West End… We drivers were all adrenaline because we’ve escaped the stagnant exhaust-filled channel that is eastbound 394 on a Twins game night. A pack of us are flying down the boulevard, ready to claim the crosswalk for our right turns into Home Depot or Costco.

          I had to hit the brakes, frustrating the drivers behind me, when I observed a upper-middle aged couple waiting to cross into the West End. They probably came from the DoubleTree across the road, they had fearful looks in their eyes.

          I was stopped before the crosswalk and they had the walk signal, but they were debating whether to cross. As if, they didn’t deserve to cross there because cars need to be turning right without delay. A lot of drivers had already pulled in front of them, why risk life and limb? They delayed so long that they ended up missing the walk signal, and instead crossed W 16th St., still stopping any possible right turn, and further delaying me and my fellow drivers, all of us impatient to obtain some new thingamajigs. (in my case, a ladder and a shovel)

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