The Soul of St. Paul’s Highland Park

If you’d have told me ten years ago that I’d be bemoaning the loss of a large-format chain retailer, anywhere, I’d have been suspicious. Stranger things have happened, and as of January 1, 2015, Barnes & Noble in the Highland Park neighborhood of St. Paul closed its doors. The neighborhood lost not only a bookstore but a “third place,” a beloved gathering space. I used to get my Financial Times Weekend there (the House and Home section is my guilty pleasure), and I miss it. As well, sidewalk replacement in late summer 2014 cost the neighborhood a little public square nearby at the southwest corner of Ford Parkway and Cleveland Avenue. I miss that little public square, too. With the loss of these two popular gathering places, Highland Park has lost a little of its soul.

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I’ve long been a fan of Highland Park, as I shop and dine there frequently and I believe it is a complete, walkable neighborhood built to a standard that all new suburbs should be held. It is also changing in many ways. A new Walgreens didn’t come without controversy. Today a brand new restaurant occupies the pad site at the corner, sharing a parking lot with Walgreens (see above).

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To the east, a new Schuler Shoes (see above, left) is nearly complete. A mixed-use project is proposed along Cleveland Avenue one block north of Ford Parkway. In general, all four of these new buildings improve the urbanism of the area.

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Highland Park is full of good places like restaurants, coffee shops, a grocery store (Lunds), medical offices, and still has a great bookstore (Half Price Books). The east side of Cleveland Avenue between Ford Parkway and Pinehurst is the friendliest section of street, and has an insane Gehl Door Average (GDA) of close to 20 (see above). In this single stretch of street, on foot, you can eat, get a haircut, watch a movie, receive a massage, buy a gift and get your clock repaired! I love that.

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And it isn’t so much the loss of Barnes & Noble itself, although it was a really nice bookstore for browsing, and had a great children’s section. I suspect what a lot of people will miss is specifically the space between the cashier and the adjacent Stabucks (connected inside the building), next to the windows and the magazine racks. This space was an informal “third place,” not quite in Starbucks nor Barnes & Noble, but a visible place to socialize, people watch and just linger. I’d see a lot of the same people there, day after day, hanging out as people are prone to do (see above). Regardless of what they spent in either store, they kept the place populated, gave it some soul.

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Similarly, the public square at the southwest corner used to look like this (see above). It had a kneewall as an informal place to sit, trees provided some shade, the kiosk provided a place to post community events and a landmark for meeting, and the location was close enough to the Ford/Cleveland intersection to be part of it all, but offset enough to provide refuge from passing traffic. In recent years there was even a piano, and people played it! This was the first place in the Twin Cities where I observed teenagers simply hanging out without seeming out of place nor threatening to others (a rare thing!). This was arguably the soul of Highland Park, a public space at the very center of the neighborhood.

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Now it has been replaced by a slab of concrete (at least for the time being?). Perhaps benches, shade, another kiosk and piano will someday appear. I certainly hope so. There are other “third places” in Highland Park where folks hang out, like at Lunds and the coffee and tea shops. The Barnes & Noble space will be filled later this year by a Target Express, and maybe through a minor miracle that will become a third place. Make no mistake, Highland Park is still a great place, but the loss of Barnes & Noble and the little public square at the corner are notable. I know I’m not the only one who misses them. While it is important that new development fronts the sidewalk and is pedestrian-friendly, let’s hope that beloved places to hang out are also part of the deal. The soul of Highland Park depends on it.

This was crossposted at Joe Urban.

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19 Responses to The Soul of St. Paul’s Highland Park

  1. Mike Sonn
    Mike Sonn January 29, 2015 at 10:54 am #

    You can’t just mention Lund’s and not talk about that strip mall being buried behind a sea of parking. Also, the southeast corner of Cleveland/Ford is set back behind 20+’ of parking. And none of these businesses have any mixed-use, there should be a 2nd story for apartments. The B&N/Target building is also set behind a hairball of parking.

    I don’t know, Highland Park is great, but also very faux urban. Tons of free parking, very fast traffic on both Ford and Cleveland. Odd bus stop locations to accommodate traffic flow over transit functionality. Extremely poor bicycle infrastructure.

    • Adam Miller
      Adam Miller January 29, 2015 at 10:59 am #

      Seems to me that the great bits of Highland Park are the ones from before the era of the Strip Mall, but that Highland Park did not escape being infected by that era.

      What’s come after that era is an improvement, but as you say, not perfect.

      And, of course, it’s naively hopeful of me to talk as though it’s over.

      • Sam Newberg
        Sam Newberg January 29, 2015 at 11:16 am #

        Mike, you are right. Walking, biking and taking transit to Lunds, especially, is not desirable. As for some other places you mention, I don’t mind approaching on foot because instead of crossing a “sea of parking” it’s just a “canal of parking.” That’s why I say Highland sets the minimum bar for all suburban development. It may not be perfect, but at least it is possible to walk in Highland Park, compared to say Radio Drive in Woodbury.

        So Adam, you are right, most of the best of Highland is pre-strip mall era, and we’re lucky some of it remains.

        • Mike Sonn
          Mike Sonn January 29, 2015 at 11:28 am #

          Yeah, just that Lund’s/strip mall really makes me sad. I guess I’m more okay with the 2-rows of parking btwn buildings and sidewalk on the SE/SW corners of Cleveland/Ford, but just because there is such a worse example a block away. The NE/NW corners are so awesome!

          Don’t get me wrong, it is a great node. Just it has some really big glaring holes. Makes me nervous for the Ford Site redevelopment because someone in City Hall is going to think parking-in-front (no matter big or small) is part of Highland Park’s “charm” and repeat that mistake.

          • brad January 29, 2015 at 12:21 pm #

            One bit of Highland Park I hadn’t noticed until recently is the Highland Village Apartments just south of the B&N/Lunds commercial strip, developed in the late 1930s (some info here: http://www.highlandvillageapts.com/historic-apartments-st-paul.php). I’m assuming that concentration of people nearby has helped the area maintain some of its walkability.

            • Julie Kosbab January 29, 2015 at 12:29 pm #

              I lived in those apartments for several years.

              While the Lunds is at once in a sea of parking horror, it is walkable for the many apartments nearby. (There’s also an island of units in the triangle created as Cleveland and St. Paul Avenues diverge.)

              I kind of wonder where all the cabbies who used to hang at that B&N are going to go now.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke January 29, 2015 at 11:38 am #

      hairball?

      • Mike Sonn
        Mike Sonn January 29, 2015 at 11:46 am #

        I don’t know, Bill. I’m no Dr.

    • Monica Millsap Rasmussen
      Monica Rasmussen January 29, 2015 at 11:52 am #

      Faux urban is a great description. Highland Park may have changed some since I lived there 20 years ago. But, the funny thing is, when I moved there for college, coming from a small town, Highland Park was exactly what I imagined a suburb to be. And, everyone kept telling me that I was in Highland Park, so for a while, I even thought I was in a suburb and not living in the city of Saint Paul. It really wasn’t walkable at all 20 years ago, but I did it, every week- walking to the Lund’s for groceries, to the B&N, to the Half Price Bookstore, to the movie theater, and Mr. Movies to rent, and to the library. The biggest problem that I found in walking then was the dimly lit (if at all lit) residential streets. Those sidewalks were absolutely frightening after dark!

      After college, I made my home in the Midway, which, yes, Mike will say still has an abundance of parking, but is decidedly (by at least me) more urban, slightly better street lighting, more diverse, better access to transit and more stuff to do. (But, I will agree that the Highland Park chain store B&N did have more soul than the locally owned Midway Books….)

      • Mike Sonn
        Mike Sonn January 29, 2015 at 12:04 pm #

        Ah, don’t listen to me. I’m just a blowhard.

      • Julie Kosbab January 29, 2015 at 12:30 pm #

        The area around St. Kate’s is the horror of dimly lit, which always just amazes me. The big trees are lovely, but the small, dim street lamps around a college FOR WOMEN is just… what. WHAT ARE YOU THINKING?

        • Mike Sonn
          Mike Sonn January 29, 2015 at 2:26 pm #

          Great point, that always confuses me. Also, the goat path of desire on the west side of Fairview. Clearly students walk there to their apartments or cars, safety (lighting, sidewalks, etc) should be a priority.

      • John Charles Wilson January 30, 2015 at 10:19 am #

        I tend to think of urban/suburban/rural as a continuum rather than as discrete categories bounded by city limits. The commercial centre of Highland Park is five radial miles from downtown Saint Paul and a hair further from downtown Minneapolis. (http://www.freemaptools.com) In the Twin Cities, the five-mile mark tends to be an urban/suburban hybrid (as opposed to Grand Forks, ND, where four miles from downtown might as well be Little House on the Prairie).

        Consider the other commercial areas at or near the five-mile mark from downtown Saint Paul (excluding those which are clearly Minneapolis influenced): Saint Anthony Park, Larpenteur/Snelling, County Road B/Rice,
        Hillcrest, Sun Ray, Robert/Mendota, Mendota Plaza, and Sibley Plaza.

        Of these, Hillcrest is very similar in structure to Highland, though a lower income demographic. Saint Anthony Park is as “classy” as Highland, but the commercial area is much smaller in scale. Larpenteur/Snelling is made less walkable by Snelling Ave. itself, County Road B/Rice is dominated by Cub Foods and Highway 36 makes pedestrian access to places to the north of it a pain. Sun Ray is very much a suburban-style strip mall. Mendota Plaza is an old suburban enclosed mall on life support, the Robert Street Corridor is a hazard to walk, especially when crossing Robert St. itself. Sibley Plaza is similar to Sun Ray except that at least it opens onto 7th Street instead of a freeway frontage road.

        I would say that in comparison to these other locales, Ford/Cleveland is pretty decent!!!!

    • Keith Morris January 30, 2015 at 7:06 pm #

      In order for HP to have “Extremely poor bicycle infrastructure” it would have to have bicycle infrastructure. Unless you’re going to count the new HP themed bike racks, which I admit are really nice. I’ve taken the right hand lane on my bike, but will only do so westbound down the hill and wasn’t honked at the few times I did from Cleveland to the bridge.

      Highland Park to me is one urban block (the theatre, Quixotic, and around the corner that weird Tiffany’s bar) and the rest is just, whatever. You also have to be extra vigilant crossing anywhere at the Ford-Cleveland intersection.

    • Aaron Isaacs
      Aaron Isaacs February 1, 2015 at 3:51 pm #

      Actually, the Highland Park business district has some of the best transit service in the City of St. Paul. Six full service bus routes radiate in 8 directions, including 4 that cross the river to link with the Blue Line. This year the A Line BRT starts up.

      Yes different routes stop at different bus stops, but that’s because no off-street transit center is possible, despite past Metro Transit efforts to create one. It’s not a big deal–just go online and the Metro Transit map shows all the bus stops for each route.

  2. Sam Newberg
    Sam Newberg January 29, 2015 at 2:55 pm #

    Via Twitter, Councilmember Chris Tolbert (representing Highland Park), with regard to the “public square” at the southwest corner of Ford and Cleveland, says “HDC & HBA are leading the design w/ public works, public arts Stp, & the owner. No set plans yet, still in the design phase”

  3. Ben January 30, 2015 at 12:54 pm #

    Sad to see the small plaza at the corner of Cleveland and Ford Pkwy go. I have a nice picture of my son at the piano there from a year or so ago. Glad I got a picture of it before it was flattened. My wife was very sad to lose B&N. That was her go to spot to bring the kids. Will the building remain intact for the Target Express?

  4. Matt Brillhart January 30, 2015 at 1:58 pm #

    There was a report that B&N was interested in returning somewhere in Highland. It sounds like their lease was up and the building owner obviously got a large check from Target. If I were the building owner, I’d probably go with Target too, as they are less likely than B&N to have their entire business model replaced by the internet.

    While there are reasons to be skeptical that, in 2015, B&N is still bothering to open new brick & mortar stores, stranger things have happened! Why, just this week it was announced that Saks Off 5th would return to Downtown Minneapolis after closing, being replaced by Walgreens, AND opening a new location at the new outlet mall in Eagan. When Saks announced the closing of their downtown location last year, they said they were interested in reopening downtown, but I don’t think anyone who is remotely familiar with downtown retail believed them for a second.

    So while it seems less than probable that B&N will actually open a new location in Highland, I wouldn’t count them out completely. Not yet anyways.

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