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.


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Sam Newberg

About Sam Newberg

Sam Newberg, a.k.a. Joe Urban, is an urbanist, real estate consultant and writer. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two kids, and his website is

Articles Near This Location