The Beautiful Inconsistencies of a Grand Avenue


Grand Avenue: Diversity and chaos can help create beautiful, walkable streetscapes

Gerber Jewelers
is a small business situated on one of St. Paul’s most desirable streets and it’s trying to extend its storefront to the sidewalk.

“Gerber Jewelers’ bid to extend the front of its building at 945 Grand Ave. to the sidewalk has been rebuffed. On a 7-0 vote … St. Paul City Council rejected owner Rafic Chechori’s appeal and upheld the Board of Zoning Appeals’ previous denial of a setback.” – The Highland Villager, Jan. 21, 2015

The Council is upholding a requirement that the front-yard setback from the property line be 25 feet. Dave Thune, out-going Ward 2 Council Member, said “granting the variance would have set a bad precedent and would have encouraged other property owners to extend their buildings to the sidewalk as well, destroying the residential character of Grand.”*

This is a bad decision and the entire Grand Avenue plan needs to be revisited to acknowledge the real urban character of the street, improve walkability, to help local businesses, and improve the City’s overall tax base.

The problem with the City Council’s decision, and the zoning code in general, is that it’s trying to impose a character that doesn’t exist (and shouldn’t exist).

Grand Avenue is not a street with a residential character. For starters, literally every building on this particular 900 Block is either commercial or mixed use (residential + retail). This includes the building immediately to the Gerber’s left with a 0ft (zero) setback.

gerberts jewerly setback

Gerber Jewelry was denied the right to look like it’s neighbor immediately to its west.

Grand Avenue can be chaotic and disorganized, but unquestionably beautiful. This is the character of a city! This is the character of Grand Avenue. No two blocks are alike, and this is something that should continue. In fact, there is nothing more consistent about Grand Avenue setbacks than that they are entirely inconsistent.

It is not uncommon to see a single family house, next to a 4plex-turned-cooking-store, next to a two story office/burrito/real-estate/pastry/yoga/hair-salon – and all of them have different setbacks! This is the Grand Avenue norm.

house, cooks, com

Nothing is more consistent about Grand Ave. setbacks than the fact that they are inconsistent.

Gerber’s block on Grand Avenue includes everything from a gas station, dance studio, sandwich shop, quality dining with sidewalk patio seating, a cigar shop in a house, a small frozen yogurt shop on the sidewalk, and more than a handful of other small businesses.

These small, unique spaces are one of the reasons that Grand Ave has a disproportionately high percentage of local businesses. It is precisely these types of businesses that we want to thrive as they are more likely to use local services (such as marketing, legal, accounting, etc.) and more of their profit stays within the community. This is precisely the type of incremental growth we should be trying to encourage.

There are few things more important for creating walkable spaces than giving people something to experience at the sidewalk level. The social value of a storefront is too important to pass up, and rejecting Gerber’s application is an unfortunate error in judgement.

This decision is also costing the city money. The adjacent building abuts the sidewalk similar to the new proposal and pays nearly 2.3x times more in property taxes ($31,130 vs. $13,919).** This alone is a drop in the bucket, but when you consider the long-term ramifications it can have some costs.

The entire Grand Avenue plan needs to be revisited, and we need to take into consideration the viewpoints of people other than the Summit Hill Associations. We need to acknowledge the real urban character of the street, improve walkability through more sidewalk storefront, to help neighborhood businesses grow to improve our local economy, and improve the City’s overall tax base.


  • Quote is not a direct quote, but a summary of Thune’s quote taken from The Highland Villager, Jan. 21, 2015.
     It’s fair to say a similar new addition would yield similar results. However, you never know since valuations are based off a number of factors, such as building materials, etc.
    *** Related Reading: Anthropologie: A Storefront Not Worthy of Grand Ave.

16 thoughts on “The Beautiful Inconsistencies of a Grand Avenue

  1. Tom Reynen

    Unless I am missing something, the logic of this article makes no sense. Grand Ave is charming and walkable specifically BECAUSE of the mix of houses, business buildings and businesses in former houses and the varying setbacks. I have never been in Gerber Jewelers but from the photo it appears to be a cute little house with no means of extending it to the sidewalk without destroying it. Tearing down the house to build a commercial structure would destroy some of the fabric of the block. Putting an ungainly extension on the front of the house would mean it would no longer look or feel like a house. If there was a way to pick up the house and just move it forward halfway closer to the street, I could support that. Otherwise they may need to sell the house, which served the purpose of being an incubator for their business, and move to a larger commercial structure. Meanwhile another small business could get their start in the house.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      But you’re denying the nature of incremental intensification that happened everywhere in our country and many places abroad. As a node intensifies, it sees a greater mix of uses including office/commercial in previously residential dwellings. Then the second level of intensification is carving out the setback and building a new storefront, as the jeweler was proposing (and a form of which we have dozens of examples in the cities). And a later level of incremental intensification happens when these original heavily-modified and aging stick build structures are replaced by brick lowrises. And so on and so forth.

      You can actually see in many neighborhoods where this natural course of intensification was literally stopped in its tracks about 60 years ago when we threw away thousands of years of city building knowledge and replaced it with automobileo-dependent land use. Look at how Lake Street intensified in Mpls, with 5+ story brick buildings by midcentury at nodes like Lyn-Lake or Chi-lake. Then look at nodes at 36th/38th like 38th/Nic or 38th/Chi… larger, 1 to 3 story brick buildings. Then other nodes further away, such as 46th/Bloomington or 43rd/Nicollet had 1 story commercial structures. And emerging nodes and node fringes had one story commercial storefronts built onto the fronts of houses, similar to this. And it wasn’t just here in Mpls / St. Paul. This is how things happened everywhere — we copied what works. Here’s an example from Rochester, NY where Jim Kumon and I took some video of the streetscape to describe this intensification process.

      The problem is that we need to get this incremental intensification process starting again. Why? Because we can’t afford not to. The status quo severely constricts commercial space and storefront supply, raising prices. That’s anti small business. The net result is that places like Grand Ave become more corporate and chain as rents increase and we don’t have the lower rungs for new businesses to start on. And the impact of this is fewer amenities for people in the neighborhood. It’s not a healthy outcome.

    2. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      As Matt points out, the extension to the street is a viable option. Here is an example on Lake St

      The old houses in Dinkytown had Duffy’s Pizza in a commercial extension as well (must see it via the 45 degree angle which hasn’t been updated to show the new development that replaced it).

      I’m not sure why this is “ungainly.” So what if it no longer looks or feels like a house? It wasn’t a “house” in the traditional (strictly residential) meaning of the term for a long time anyway. Adding an extension is a way to allow the existing older structure to extend its useful/economic life, keeps a potential mixing of uses, and is a small incremental change to the fabric of the neighborhood/street, while still incubating this small business (or, being a potential incubator for some other business if/once the jeweler becomes to large and decides to leave).

      But even then, why should larger changes to the street’s fabric be avoided? Say the owner did decide to tear this house down along with the one next to it and build something like this Would that really be so terrible? 2.5 blocks east is this corner where a Bruegger’s sits below 2 stories of residential, and kitty corner from that is a garden level jewelery store beneath 3 stories of residential. It would fit right in.

      1. Tom Reynen

        Your example of the pizza place is exactly what I would not want to see. It currently is a cute little house and that is what people go to Grand Ave to see. Little shops and little houses. The pizza building could be anywhere, like University Ave. It is the buildings that give places like Linden Hills and St Anthony Park their charm and character. I agree there is an issue about people wanting to do what they can with property they own but I can’t build a store in my front yard either and I accept that. I still think if the house is too small for their business they should move to one of the commercial buildings at intersections like Grand & Victoria and let the house become a gallery or antique shop that continue to contribute to the ambiance.

        1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

          That house without a storefront could be literally anywhere. In fact, I’d place a bet that there are more houses of that style in St Paul alone than houses with an attached commercial storefront.

          People go to Grand Ave because it’s close to where they live (high population density nearby), it’s highly walkable (not perfect, but good streetscape with lots of destinations & things to do/see), it has an eclectic mix of businesses, and diversity of architecture. As a bonus, many shops local owing to a great range of older and newer buildings and store locations/layouts, providing tons of price points and therefore a healthy mix of locally owned shops to mid-sized chains.

        2. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

          It would be interesting to poll visitors to Grand Avenue; I highly doubt it is for the cute little houses. I visit Grand Avenue for the businesses and walkability, and one more well-designed storefront that meets the sidewalk would probably only add to my reasons for visiting.

          In his book “Dead End,” Benjamin Ross describes modern suburban zoning as a means of “embalming the present.” It’s too bad when that happens on our dynamic urban commercial streets.

  2. Nathaniel

    Grand Avenue is vibrant because of its mix of uses, and not because it is “residential” in nature (which it is not – especially between Lexington & Dale). To imply such a notion is to ignore Grand Ave’s true character. Extending a new shopfront to touch the sidewalk would not destroy the fabric of the block, to say such is a representation of Grand Ave.

    The house would not be torn down. It would continue to exist, but it’d have a shopfront addressing the sidewalk as an addition.

    In regards to moving the business into a bigger space elsewhere; why? Interestingly enough, the reason Gerber’s is on Grand is because their original building was torn down (and it was forced to move) so the City could build Lawson Commons.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      It’s also refusing to let it’s character evolve.

      Preferring that a local business move somewhere else instead of be allowed to expand and continue to serve the community is just bizarre.

  3. Alyssa

    I doubt that Thune’s reaction is irrelevant. I suspect that when he described a concern for “residential character”, he, too, was referring to a mix of style and scale that gives us a feeling of being someplace interesting, someplace that entices us to take a stroll on by and have a look. I think many of us grapple with this question of how a new building impacts us as “neighbors” or users (are we creating spaces where people want to be? are we creating spaces that enhance our community in some fashion?). That quality is so often reflected in design. Hood addresses this more directly when he complains in a linked article about the remodel of the old Birkenstock shop into the Anthropologie store, which he laments for the loss of windows and awnings and bus shelters and other features that serve to acknowledge and support the people who walk past the building. I am guessing that many who might oppose an addition on the building are expressing our concern for a shabby addition that destroys the aesthetic appeal of this small house as a “home” for a small business.

    Down here on my end of Grand Avenue (across of UST), we have a developer who has razed homes in order to build what are in my opinion horribly cheap, ugly buildings. Several years ago, he took advantage of a then-existing provision in the code that allowed for a five-story building on a very residential corner, and he chose to built a bland and out of scale private student dorm. He now proposes a second private dorm in the middle of the block, seemingly identical in style and building materials. Together, the two buildings create an unappealing institutional feel, almost as if UST chose to extend its campus south of Grand, but forgot to bring along the Kasota stone.

    I find these buildings to be aesthetically disastrous, uninviting and lacking in most everything that builds community. That makes them very spirit depleting to me. If that is letting the character of a building evolve, I’ll take frozen in time. At least until something thoughtful and better designed comes along.

    [And regarding comments on Gerber’s proposal: the tax argument kills me. When we improve our community structures and there is a tax benefit, that is wonderful. But a project isn’t desirable just because it enhances revenue.]

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

      Alyssa, you raise a good point about the new residential building near St. Thomas. Much of the problem with the building in my opinion lies with how it meets the street/public realm. The building is surrounded by a concrete wall and fence – there are more subtle ways to distinguish between public and private space. Also there is only one door and it is not directly accessible by the front steps. My recent post about front doors ( demonstrates the good and bad of getting residential frontage right. Height and materials also must be considered, but getting frontage and doors right goes much farther when it comes to us, the general public, who get to walk by every day. Clearly this is a discussion that must be had with city hall and the planning department over the right zoning tools to ensure better results.

      1. Alyssa

        Sam: I appreciate your point: “Clearly this is a discussion that must be had with city hall and the planning department over the right zoning tools to ensure better results.” I recognize the perils of conversation about design standards, particularly whose view(s) matter? But as we grapple with TOD and tear downs, I think we would do well to focus some energy on this layer, which rests subtly (or not so subtly) underneath a lot of our current discussion.

  4. Dylan Garrison

    I know Rafic, he’s my jeweler along with his wife and son who also work in the store. We bought our wedding rings there after friends recommended him and I have since bought my wife various gifts from his store as well. I really like to shop local so this says a lot since we live in SW Mpls. I was there in December picking up a Christmas gift and he told me all about this proposle. One issue that he pointed out to me is that he rarely gets walk in business. The building to the west blocks his and people just walk on by. He had a nice drawing on a large board that he showed me. The design extended the home to toward sidewalk but as I recall there was still a few feet of setback. It still looked a lot more like a house than the building next door or the gas station down the street. I can see the powers that be saying they did not care for his design proposal but to outright deny the expansion is just crazy. Why not work with the business owner that wants to expand his family run business and stay in the neighborhood?

  5. Michael RodenMichael Roden

    I’ve spent a lot of time wandering Grand Avenue waiting for my now wife to get out of class. I know for a fact that the only time I ever walked in to a house-shop is to pet the bulldog in the window. To me, Grand Ave is a medium density commercial strip with apartment buildings. The converted houses always seemed weird. To hold them up as the defining character of the neighborhood is bizarre.

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