Density Without Mixed-Use Baffles Me


Saint Paul’s Upper Landing development

Last year I went to Thanksgiving dinner in Chanhassen. A friend of mine bought a house out there and hosted a dinner and, being curious and friendly, I made the trek.

I was surprised when I got to my buddy’s place because, though it was in the middle of nowhere, my friend’s house wasn’t a house per se. Rather, he’d bought an attached townhome that was part of a long row of similar complexes in a brand new greenfield development, complete with sidewalks and quasi-porches and a pleasant almost grid-like street network.

Looking out at the sidewalks, I turned and asked my friend, “So where’s do you walk to?”

He looked at me blankly. “Um. People walk their dogs?”

The useless sidewalks in my friend’s strange middle-of-nowhere quasi-urban neighborhood got me thinking, so I started looking around for places where you have relatively urban densities, but no urban diversity.  There are lots of these places, and not just in the suburbs. It doesn’t make any sense, but there you have it. Let’s meet some of them!

Suburban and Urban Examples

One way to measure this is through Walkscore, which simply counts the number of shops, parks, and transit options within a certain distance of your address. For example, here’s what my friend’s townhome neighborhood in Chanhassen looks like from the outside*:


And here’s the Walkscore:


Please note: It’s very difficult to get a Walkscore of 0. That’s impressive. Well done, Chanhassen! It’s all the more impressive in an area that technically has sidewalks and a facade of urban design.

There is probably a long list of similar suburban examples I could list, and one of the problems stems from the difficulty of attracting retail into suburban developments. For example, see this situation in Blaine, or the mixed-use challenges in Chaska [see comments].

But the real problem is when I see these kinds of developments built in ostensible cities like Saint Paul.

For example, here’s what the “upper landing” development along the Mississippi River in the shadow of Downtown Saint Paul: solid blocks of 4-story buildings…


But here’s the Walkscore: a paltry 36. Basically, there’s nothing down there unless you cross the busy Shepard Road quasi-freeway and climb the hill to West 7th Street.


Here’s a similar project along West 7th Street in the Shepard-Davern area. Again, you have solid blocks of beige 4-story condos…


But here’s the walkscore: 31. There’s one restaurant (Buca), a Taco Bell, and an Ethiopian restaurant that’s always in trouble with the city for various license violations.


The Legacy of Crappy Zoning


Before-and-after zoning in the Shepard-Davern area.

How does this happen? How do we build dense urban buildings that are potentially walkable only missing the mixed-use component that might actually provide destinations?

One of the big culprits was the single-use zoning that Saint Paul had in place for many years. I’m not sure of the exact history, but a few years ago the city began replacing its traditional “Sim City” zoning categories (R for residential, I for Industrial, and B for Commercial) with mixed-use “Traditional Neighborhood” zoning that allowed for the mixing of residential and commercial uses within the same building.

TN zoning came too late for many of these spots, but even in places where you do have TN zoning in place, you can still have difficulty creating proper mixed-use environments. For example, the latest from-scratch large-scale development in Saint Paul is in the Victoria Park neighborhood, also along West 7th Street. [See bottom image.] There, despite the four-story apartments and condos, there doesn’t seem to be much of any retail yet.

Changing Mindsets

There are lots of reasons why you might have density without mixed-use, but none of them seem very satisfying to me. One is that people don’t want it, because they view commercial spaces as a nuisance. For example, in the (aforementioned) Shepard-Davern area along West 7th Street there’s a new building planned to replace an empty office building. In the latest Highland Villager, the local paper, I found the following quote from a neighbor:

A lifelong highland park resident who moved into Gateway Village [development] several years ago said she loved the idea of getting rid of the vacant building, though she is concerned about adding more housing and traffic to the neighborhood. ‘I don’t know how I’m going to be able to get sell my condo and get a good price for it,’ she said.

To me, it’s sad when development equates to misanthropy. Surely the presence of more people, shops, and things to do in your neighborhood is a good thing and not a detriment?

Another challenge stems from the depressing fact that sometimes there isn’t much demand for commercial spaces because they often have trouble filing up. For example, it’s commonplace in many parts of the Twin Cities to see a new mixed-use commercial/residential building where the ground floor retail stays vacant for years.


A new mixed-used 5-story apartment building in Saint Paul’s West Side Flats neighborhood.

This is another challenge that cities have to overcome. We need to change mindsets about retail, and start figuring out how to encourage walking (and shopping) in urban neighborhoods instead of simply driving to Target once a week. 

In short, I just don’t get these kinds of buildings. I don’t get it in the suburbs, but I really don’t get it in the city. The whole point of living in an urban environment with sidewalks and 4- to 5-story buildings is that you can walk to places. Why would build a bunch of that kind of building only without anywhere to walk to? Why would you want to live in a 4-story building in the middle of nowhere? Wouldn’t you rather be somewhere?

Maybe someone can explain it to me. Thanks in advance!


New apartments in Saint Paul’s Victoria Park neighborhood. Will they have any walkable destinations?

* It’s very nice on the inside, BTW. Wall to wall carpeting, two-car garage, nice kitchen countertops, multiple TVs, etc.

52 thoughts on “Density Without Mixed-Use Baffles Me

  1. Sean Hayford Oleary

    I actually consider developments like the Chanhassen one to be a half-victory, not just an impractical hypocrisy. (In the same token, I consider Main Street Maple Grove and similar to be half-victories.)

    It says that the market craves an authentic, town-like feel. Which is major progress over the 1980s snouthouses on long, winding culs-de-sac.

    Now we just need to convince people that we want authentic, town-like functionality.

    1. Peter Bergstrom

      Right on! Yes, the market desires an authentic, town-like feel. Maybe this is actually a win, and not just a half-victory?

      In general, why do we need to be so focused on including commerce in the places we reside in order to toe the “urbanism” party line? Maybe a once a week trip to Target is all we require…are we really going to be conditioned to believe that when we step out to the sidewalk, we should think of where we can spend money?

      Some urbanists, like myself, prefer to live in environments which create recreational and adventure opportunities in the immediate area, since retail isn’t really on their minds

      1. Alai

        What’s the point, then? Wouldn’t a rural area be even more of an “environment which creates recreational and adventure opportunities in the immediate area”?

        To me, the main upside of living in a high-density area–near lots of other people–is that you’re also near lots of things that require a lot of people to function, like commerce, social events, mass transit, etc. An exclusively residential high-density area which still requires you to drive to get anywhere seems like the worst of both worlds. Is it purely an aesthetic preference?

  2. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    I have no idea how that Upper Landing Caribou Coffee stays in business. But I will say it is an excellent place to park for free and hop on the wifi all day, just like you’re in a suburb.

    1. Matt Brillhart

      Upper Landing is basically a high-density cul-de-sac. It’s close to the western edge of downtown (Xcel, Science Museum, RiverCentre, etc.), but not really within walking distance of anything else. The far southern end of it is a full mile from the nearest bus stop.

      Also, somewhat hilariously, it borders an actual cul-de-sac under the Smith Ave High Bridge, but does not connect to it.

            1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

              I think we need to be a little easier on Upper Landing. To get built the land had to be literally raised about five feet because of the floodplain, and still all occupied space must be elevated further, which impacts urban design a little. It was wedged between a road and a river to be sure, but the proximity to the river is really awesome, as is the view of the water and Harriet Island, not to mention the skyline. Being at the bottom of a bluff with freight rail tracks reduces pedestrian connections quite a lot, but the bluffline is beautiful as well. And the Shepard Road crossing is better than crossing Hiawatha, so let’s chew on that for a while. Yes, it’s a little isolated but put on your walking shoes and you are up on West 7th at a plethora of choices, and you can walk past the Ramsey Mansion and Irvine Park.

              As for retail, Upper Landing has around 700 housing units, not enough to support much retail, but very helpful for a coffee shop. A smaller grocer needs around 10,000 households to be successful. So sure, the neighborhood is pretty isolated, but they started from scratch there, not street grid, and basically underwater at times, so adding 700 homes with decent design is a success.

              I’m far less impressed with Gateway Village as far as urban design goes.

  3. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

    These places are hard evidence that it’s not the idea of ‘stack and pack’ living, lack of space/privacy, shared walls with fewer windows, etc etc that are keeping people from living in the city. Mega townhouse developments with hundreds of units can be found all over the metro. Apartment buildings in freeway armpits are just as common.

    The zoning is the key, as you point out. For most areas that grew in population after freeways had been constructed, zoning almost always points ‘density’ to the lest-desirable places: along busy highways or interstates.

    Had the Lakevilles, Chaskas, Chanhassens, Shakopees of the world (places that had a walkable street grid to begin with) focused on intensifying those areas with what is obvious demand, things would have been different.

  4. Alex

    Financiers also tend to prohibit mixed-use developments. One example is the Longfellow Station development on Hiawatha & 38th St, the commercial component of which had to be removed to a separate building in order to obtain HUD financing. I’m not familiar with the relative ease and generosity of insuring and financing different types of real estate, but I’d speculate that bankers and insurers would classify mixed use as commercial, and potential make terms less favorable to the developers.

      1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

        I think it is true. But remember, lenders are putting a ton of money at risk, and if mixed-use is financed and one performs poorly, it impacts the other. This isn’t meant to let lenders off the hook, but try to see it their way.

        1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

          I agree Sam.

          One question then is why is mixed use struggling so much in the U.S. and what can be done to fix it? It amazes me how often a mixed use place will have vacant retail for years while the strip malls nearby are completely full. Retailers appear to be skittish about them. Parking concerns? Other?

  5. Steven Prince

    The Walk Score site is a cool resource, thanks for blogging about it.

    Some of what you describe (particularly in suburban locations) is what I call the Disney approach to city planning – if it looks like a cool traditional village with porches and sidewalks then it will work as a walkable neighborhood. It doesn’t. You need the businesses and services in walking distances to convince people to embark on their daily journey without a car.

    Unfortunately, the New Urbanists who ruled in the ’80s and ’90s didn’t get this, instead focused on design. They believed (based on projects like Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and Philadelphia’s Penn Landing ) that if the design was exciting, it would work. They viewed projects like Cedar Riverside in Minneapolis as failures, not recognizing that while the buildings were poorly designed, the densities of the project allowed the survival of a neighborhood business node.

    Could it be that (with the exception of really high value – high amenity locations) it is not possible to design neighborhoods from scratch that work in the way we want as walkable places? Almost any walkable neighborhood that works in the Twin Cities was not built by single developer making all land-use decisions – they reflect a collection of individual investment decisions that resulted, over time, in a successful walkable neighborhood.

    Perhaps we should focus more on transportation infrastructure? Could it be that trying to impose mixed use when building larger scale development (a block or more) is simply a doomed exercise without transit connections?

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      “Could it be that (with the exception of really high value – high amenity locations) it is not possible to design neighborhoods from scratch that work in the way we want as walkable places?”

      Potentially. So maybe we should allow places that are already walkable (and served by transit) with existing businesses/services to grow/intensify – increasing the number of patrons and also commercial space available? Places like the Wedge, CARAG, LHE, Whittier, etc?

  6. Wayne

    Having lived for a year in one of the developments mentioned, I was equally as confused by it. I moved in with someone out of economic necessity and the entire time I thought it was ridiculous. Also St Paul really needs better bus service.

    Regarding ground-floor retail vacancies in new buildings, does anyone have any particular ideas for how to get these to fill up faster? All I can think is that the developers are either asking too much for rent or maybe there’s some kind of initial costs to the first tenant who has to build everything out inside, whereas future tenants can reuse some of the walls/furnishings/whatever? I don’t know enough about the world of retail leasing to understand why these stay empty so long.

  7. Evan RobertsEvan

    Great post. It did remind me of Daniel Kay Hertz’s recent post on the appearance vs. actuality of density (

    Once you’ve netted out surface parking and ornamental berms with new trees that only the dogs truly appreciate what is the density of places like Upper Landing and Victoria Park? Is it any denser than lower-rise neighborhoods?

    This gets to another point. By themselves there are not enough people in these apartments to support the retail (which they’re sometimes obliged to put in by city policy. Mandatory minimum retail spaces). Moreover, the zoning means that in both city and suburb these new 4-5 story buildings are often deliberately quite a way from existing single-family-home neighborhoods, and can’t attract people in those neighborhoods to support the retail stores.

    The brouhaha in Minnetonka about the Highland Bank building is indicative of this problem. Enough neighbors saw a mixed-use building within walking distance as a disamenity that it was voted down.

  8. Molly

    I think this is very much a site specific issue. Developments like Upper Landing are geographically isolated and the potential for mixed use is determined be the development itself – if commercial is not incorporated at the outset it is unlikely to happen.

    On the other hand, Victoria Crossing has the potential to become part of a mixed use neighborhood because it is along an underdeveloped commercial corridor with decent bus service. It already has Mississippi Market, restaurants, dentists, and other services.

    I think one challenge, and the reason where there is so much vacant commercial in mixed use development is that the dynamics of commercial real estate are quite different than residential. The development is being done primarily by housing developers and the retail component is driven by community requirements that have no real relationship to what makes most sense for retail. Many of the spaces created are too large and expensive for small business owners and much more appropriate for chains. The chains will choose what makes sense for them based on very different factors than what drives housing developments.

  9. Casey

    “Why would build a bunch of that kind of building only without anywhere to walk to? Why would you want to live in a 4-story building in the middle of nowhere? Wouldn’t you rather be somewhere?”

    One example – My mother and her husband recently moved in to a condo much like these. They prefer this type of community where they can meet neighbors while walking the dog and other similar situations but not have the ‘hustle and bustle’ of a dense city neighborhood. They prefer to use their car for all errands as they are older and carrying items from a store is not as easy anymore. When they want to go out they will drive to eat street or something so they can still enjoy the ‘city life’.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      Hm. I understand wanting to drive for errands (I used to feel the same way about groceries), but I don’t understand actively not wanting to be able to walk to a coffee shop, cafe or restaurant. Aren’t more options better than fewer?

      1. Casey

        Not that I agree with my mother but I know she never goes out for coffee, why pay for what you can make at home. When they want to eat out they usually drive to one of their favorite restaurants on eat street or similar city area. They are not really into the chain type places you see in many of the mixed use developments. They have many more options if they drive.

        1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          “Chain-type places you see in many of the mixed use developments” is a needle scratch moment for me.

          Not that you’re wrong (don’t know), but there is simply no reason that mixed use should = chain.

            1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

              Because they’re always new spaces – optimal layouts, new finishes, likely higher end finishes, etc. They lend themselves to larger firms with enough cash to afford the prime location/layouts/etc, and oftentimes these are chains.

              Though there are plenty examples of new mixed-use projects with non-chains and plenty of examples of old commercial buildings having chains in them.

    2. Monte Castleman

      I’ve known a few people that have lived in places like these. Generally they’re people that want to live in the suburbs, but either can’t afford a single family house, or as Casey mentioned, want to live in a place to meet neighbors. But they’re still very much car-oriented suburbanists- You see bags from Target and Walmart in their homes. When they go to eat they’ll drive to the Taco Bell down the street or else a nice place to make an evening out of it. Presumably they don’t want the non neighborhood traffic of a restaurant right downstairs, why waste 15 minutes walking to some place when you can drive in under 5.

  10. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

    Very good beginning of a conversation, Bill. When I think about my favorite walkable neighborhoods I’ve visited (San Francisco, New York, Washington D.C., Vancouver, London, Amsterdam), they often have two to three story row homes or stacked flats, perhaps higher. Two and three stories is the same as your Chanhassen example but less than the St. Paul neighborhoods you mention. What is the difference? I’d like to know, but I suspect net density increases due to narrow streets and less space given to parking in these other cities.

    Still, it’s not like every street is all mixed-use buildings. Neighborhoods can be great and walkable with commercial nodes every couple or few blocks, meaning most buildings are all-residential. The neighborhoods I speak of have huge Walkscores, all over 90.

    So mixed-use is not as common as you think, and it takes a ton of households to support retail, but lots of other factors impact how walkable a neighborhood is. Suffice it to say this is worth looking in to more!

    1. Matt Brillhart

      To your first paragraph, Evan said something above the really warrants some further research:

      “Once you’ve netted out surface parking and ornamental berms with new trees that only the dogs truly appreciate, what is the density of places like Upper Landing and Victoria Park? Is it any denser than lower-rise neighborhoods?”

      You sort of hit on this same point with your comment about narrow streets and space for cars.

      We look at these neighborhoods and say, “We did the density…why isn’t it working?! The retail is mostly vacant and most people still drive outside the neighborhood for most things” Perhaps the truth lies in that these newly created neighborhoods simply aren’t actually that dense after all, compared to your standard mostly-residential neighborhood in Mpls – St. Paul. It’s certainly something to think about with redevelopment of large sites like the Ford plant and TCAAP on the horizon. Both envision town centers with mixed-use development and new retail destinations (though TCAAP also includes some explicitly low-density single family neighborhoods as well). How successful will they be in that regard if they don’t actually include enough households (and diversity of households/incomes) to make it all work?

    2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      So if it takes 10K people to support a grocery store (a lot), how about a restaurant or a cafe or a coffee shop or a corner store? The Upper Landing is one of the only spots in the entire metro where riverfront dining might have been an option. It could be a destination restaurant. Wouldn’t people in the neighborhood like to have somewhere to walk to?

      Just about the only thing you see at places like this is an Anytime Fitness.

      1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

        I know, right? Psycho Suzie’s has a boat dock, wouldn’t it be great to have a restaurant with a few boat slips at Upper Landing? Maybe a restaurant was interested but Caribou and AnyTime Fitness got there first. Maybe some day in the future it will happen.

  11. Payton Chung

    Simple zoning, and NIMBYism. As others have mentioned, the actual density of a place doesn’t matter all that much from the residents’ perspective. What matters is that they can get a house at the right price in the right part of town, and the developer can deliver that — thanks to the generous zoning (whether original or negotiated), the generous parcel sizes, and the lack of NIMBY neighbors. That said, it’s absolutely nightmarish to try and route/schedule buses when these kinds of things pop up randomly throughout the suburbs.

    @Sam: Parking. New suburban townhouses, unlike old urban rowhouses, have to accommodate about three cars per DU (=1000 sq. ft.), two inside and one outside, which adds about 1.5 floors to their height. The “usable” square footage yield declines even further with stacked apartments, since interior corridors are wasted space. I’m pulling together a post to show just how much residential is required to support retail, since that’s usually vastly underestimated.

    1. Daniel Kay Hertz

      Wait, three spaces per DU? That’s insane! Is that standard throughout the Twin Cities area?

      Would love to see a residential-retail support post. Super important, really under talked about.

      1. Nathanael

        That is utterly bonkers. Requiring 2 car spaces per apartment/condo/house is already excessively high, 3 is looneytunes.

        I mean, sure, I know families with 5 cars, but they own mansions, or farms.

        1. Stacy

          Why do you think 2 cars is high for a house? Most households are comprised of two working adults. Each needs a car. Now imagine them having a teenager (or two) who also need cars. And what if they want to invite someone over for dinner, or have a dinner party? 3 cars sounds about right to me.

          1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

            First, your post clearly illustrates what’s wrong with the 1 adult : 1 car land use paradigm. Second, if you think the market will demand 2-3+ car storage spaces per dwelling unit, what’s the need to regulate it via zoning code?

      2. Monte Castleman

        Say they’re the kind of people like I mentioned in the previous post, that are stereotypical suburbanites except they can’t afford or don’t want to live in a single family house (and affordable single family houses aren’t being built anymore, so there’s a limited supply). Maybe they have a teenager with a car, or maybe they have friends over Friday night that drive in from outside the complex or across town.

        1. Monte Castleman

          So if they both drive that’s two cars, and have an additional family member with a car or space for company, three spaces doesn’t seem to be unreasonable to me. Usually parking on the street isn’t allowed so the excess can’t spill onto the street like other neighborhoods. If developers would start building $150,000 houses in the suburbs then more people that don’t want to live in a condo wouldn’t have to live in a condo, and condos could be reoriented towards more “urbanist” buyers.

          1. Alex B.

            It’s one thing to build three spaces per unit if that’s what the market supports. But to require that developers build three spaces per unit in the zoning code is absolutely absurd. It’s based on nothing but the kinds of assumptions you just mentioned.

            The net effect of these kinds of requirements means there is far more parking than there is actually a need for. There’s tons of research on this point. It goes to show how a couple of assumptions that seem reasonable in one context are completely absurd when codified into regulations and applied in aggregate. It’s the law of unintended consequences.

      3. Payton Chung

        BTW, three cars per unit isn’t required by the jurisdiction, although there are plenty of Southern cities that have 1 BR=1 car requirements. However, it’s what the 3-4 story townhouse “product type” typically entails. That’s even the case here in DC, where the code will soon require zero required parking spaces for many areas.

    2. Daniel Kay Hertz

      Also: if you could explain why market failures in retail space seem to be so pervasive – that is, you would think that the owners would find it profitable to rent to *someone* rather than no one, and so would lower rents until someone bit. Instead, it seems to be pretty standard in Chicago for storefronts to remain mostly empty for years, even in places where an economic analysis suggests there should be support for more retail.

      1. Nathanael

        Probably there’s some sort of fixed overhead to having a tenant vs. not having a tenant: insurance costs, or something, and the rent has to be high enough to cover that…

      2. Payton Chung

        A couple more reasons:
        – Chicago in particular has a surfeit of streetcar retail strips, and a lot of the spending that kept them afloat now goes to big boxes, malls, or online. That, combined with smaller HHs, means it now takes many more rooftops to keep the same amount of retail open.
        – Many such spaces (esp. prior to Chicago’s 2004 zoning rewrite) were built as throwaway space, with low ceilings, small window openings, too-small footprints, or insufficient electrical/plumbing. Just the condos upstairs made plenty enough money.
        – Zoning (in Chicago, particularly B1/B2) or landlords/condo associations might add unnecessary restrictions to the uses. Taverns and restaurants are usually profitable, for instance, but not everyone wants to live above one.

  12. Evan RobertsEvan

    The vacant retail spaces are quite often a result of city planning in a perverse way. Both Minneapolis and Saint Paul have policies that encourage retail spaces in these new apartment buildings. But as discussed the density of the retail walkshed is often lower than necessary to support a store.

    Zoning kicks in with the requirement for “retail” as opposed to other active street fronting use like an office.

    I mean, it might be better to require retired people who like staying home with their curtains open to live on the ground floor than to require retail.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      Sounds like we should reform the zoning code to be more permissive of office or even light industrial uses / makespaces / workshops in these storefronts.

  13. Jeff Peltola

    gr8 post/commentary. Aside from zoning, design def matters a lot. Give me airy height vs girthy width any day. I guess part of that is the so-called ped permeability. Another frustration is what I call ‘fake fenestration’. Even SLP’s often lauded Excelsior & Grand has it; West End is a hideous example.

  14. Nathan

    This is an excellent post and points up a national, not just a Minnesota problem.

    There are a lot of cities that have more retail space than they can fill. So it’s not necessarily wise to require retail in every new building. In some cases the right thing to do is let that building support existing retail stores/areas that are within walking distance. Walkscore is an indicator–those circumstances will get decent walkscores.

    Different towns are of course different, but I’d think a city would want to set a maximum of 2 parking spaces per unit if it didn’t want to end up with snout houses. If there’s really a third car, it could be parked on the street.

  15. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

    Although the Upper Landing has no bus service, at least it’s centrally located so auto trips are short. That’s much better for the society than building the same thing in Andover or Ham Lake.

  16. anonymouse

    And then in other places, you have mandatory mixed use and the mandatory ground floor retail in the four story blocks of condos stands vacant because every single building has retail space and the neighborhood just doesn’t need that much. What we need is more options, especially options to change the mix of uses after a building is built, rather than rigid top-down prescriptivism. Because the real traditional neighborhood was built in this iterative way, rather than all at once after someone decreed a Traditional Neighborhood zone.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      If anything, we should be prescribing form more than use… ground floor needs to be built in an adaptable way that welcomes retail, small office, or even small industrial… prescribing retail is problematic because the demand may not exist. But having a storefront is useful if it can be adapted for other non-retail uses that still engage the public realm.

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