Shopping Centers vs. Transit Users

The Star Tribune recently ran a story about a Coon Rapids strip mall owner who is trying to evict a public transit bus stop from its property, saying this violates its property rights.

This private property versus transit controversy has surfaced several times before in this metro area and across the nation. It falls in a legal grey area that the legislature should address, because it amounts to discrimination based on mode of transportation.

When I was Metro Transit’s facilities planning manager, I found myself involved in several of these disputes. The most famous was transit access to the Mall of America, which played out in two parts.

  1. Before LRT, the mall became a magnet for gang members who would congregate in the transit station after the close of business. The problem was real, but the mall’s first impulse was to ask Metro Transit to pull its bus service, which Metro Transit refused to do. The mall then implemented its requirement that teenagers be chaperoned by adults at certain hours and that solved the problem.
  2. During the design of Hiawatha LRT, the mall ownership tried hard to keep the station off the property and across the street. Its representative stated, “LRT needs the mall more than the mall needs LRT”. That changed only when the feds intervened to move the station into the east parking ramp.

There were other big fights. The most vicious was between Metro Transit and the City of Brooklyn Center over transit access to Brookdale Mall. The city sided with the mall owner who invoked the property rights argument. Brookdale ultimately went out of business and the transit center was built across Bass Lake Road from it.

Rosedale fought the construction of a transit center on its property. It got built only because the City of Roseville required it. However, Metro Transit’s lease has a finite term and it will be interesting to see if the mall owners try not to renew it. They succeeded in evicting the park-ride lot from their property.

Maplewood Mall evicted its bus stop. Metro Transit was able to buy a failed movie theater just off the mall property and has built a transit center and park-ride lot there, but it’s less convenient to the mall entrance than the old bus stop.

Southdale is owned by Simon, which is notorious for evicting transit. The recently constructed transit center only happened because the City of Edina made it a condition for helping Southdale financially.

Types of transit facilities
Transit facilities at malls can vary significantly in size and impact to the mall property. The one in Coon Rapids is a simple bus stop in an existing fire lane. This particular stop is served by small buses, but if full sized buses are used, the access lanes need to be 9-ton capacity or the buses will break up the pavement.

Metro Transit has a couple of small park-rides on mall property, but prefers to build larger ones on its own land, so park-rides really aren’t an issue.

The big source of conflict is the construction of transit centers at regional malls. Suburban transit needs two things to have a chance of succeeding–convenient access to the largest traffic generators, combined with timed-transfer connections between multiple routes. Regional malls are the biggest suburban traffic generators. Convenient access means not having to walk farther to reach the mall than the average auto driver.

Timed transfers require that all the buses converge and transfer passengers at once. That’s not possible unless transit centers with multiple bus bays are built. Depending on the number of bus routes, transit centers can consume an acre or two of parking on what is private property. The malls argue that this constitutes a “taking” of private property without compensation.

That argument is only valid if the government requirements to provide handicapped parking spaces, a certain number of parking spaces for the retail square footage, and fire lanes also constitute a taking, which they don’t. All are required for the public to access the mall. Why should transit be singled out for prohibition?

The cities hold the cards
At present, municipal governments offer the only legal barrier to these evictions and that barrier is not guaranteed, given the whims of local politics.

Transit land ownership is one solution. That’s what happened at Maplewood Mall, where Metro Transit bought the adjacent movie theater. Metro Transit has the power of eminent domain, but has used it sparingly and seldom does so if the municipality in question disagrees. Never have they condemned mall property for a transit center.

Is it discrimination?
I’m unaware that anyone has successfully alleged discrimination against transit users, but that’s what it is. Fixed route buses carry many disabled passengers, so it could be argued that evicting buses violates the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The real solution, I believe, is to pass a state law that puts transit service into private property on an equal footing with auto transportation. It would state that businesses that hold themselves open to serve the public must serve all of the public, regardless how they arrive at the door.

Aaron Isaacs

About Aaron Isaacs

Aaron retired in 2006 after 33 years as a planner and manager for Metro Transit, where he worked in route and schedule planning, operations, maintenance, transit facilities, light rail and traffic advantages for buses. He's an historian of transit, as a 40+ year volunteer with the Minnesota Streetcar Museum. He's co-author of Twin Cities by Trolley, The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and author of Twin Ports by Trolley on Duluth-Superior.

25 thoughts on “Shopping Centers vs. Transit Users

  1. Monte Castleman

    So since you’re against moving the bus stop, how do you propose to solve the original problem in the original article; transit users that have no intention of buying anything loitering in and around stores?

      1. Monte Castleman

        I did read the entire article, thank you very much. The woman wouldn’t be able to work if the bus stop was on the street which would discourage loiterers from entering the stores?

        1. Julie Kosbab

          As someone very familiar with this mall, that’s not a particularly good option with the street in question, unless we want to see them all die crossing said streets. Poor visibility, or 8 lanes of traffic.

          I’m fairly certain that the “people are loitering!” thing is overstated. Most of the action at that plaza exists in 3 places: the Cub, the Wal-Mart and the Starbucks.

    1. John Maddening

      How do you solve the problem of people who have no intention of buying anything loitering in and around stores when they arrive on foot, on bike, or by car?

      Because I can tell you, as a teenager I loitered around the mall a LOT, but the mall I loitered at was pretty close to my house and didn’t require a bus ride to get there.

    2. Matt SteeleMatthew Steele

      Monte I think your comment gets at the actual meat of the issue, that malls are an inhumane land use centered around being a consumer rather than being a human. We’ve ceded far too much of our civic life to these privately-owned land uses, rather than having actual public squares from which private businesses and activities interact.

      I’ve “loitered” many days in parks, plazas, and squares… rather La Rambla in Barcelona or a fountain in Paris, or a city park in rural Minnesota towns while I’m waiting to meet someone or waiting for a store to open. “Loitering” is being human, and I want places where people can productively “loiter.” Where there are even chairs set out for them to sit.

      Malls do not provide this function. Malls are not a replacement for streets. Malls are not a replacement for public squares. Malls do not satisfy #2 on the Strong Towns Strength Test, “If there were a revolution in your town, would people instinctively know where to gather to participate?” Malls are inherently fragile compared to streets – they have centralized ownership instead of diffuse ownership. Malls are orderly but dumb. See Brookdale, Apache Plaza, Eagandale, Valley Ridge, or any other torn-down mall. Streets are chaotic but smart. Malls are not a civic institution. Transit hubs should ideally not be in malls. County service centers should ideally not be in malls. Stores should ideally not be in malls.

      1. Monte Castleman

        It’s interesting at Valley West too, that was the de-facto hangout spot in west Bloomington; people were upset when the mall owners remodeled and mostly eliminated the enclosed hallways in favor of direct access from the stores to the parking lot.

    3. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

      Same issue as the gang problem at MOA. The mall is what attracted the loiterers to begin with. Policing the people it attracts is the mall’s problem to solve. Who’s to say the loiterers are even transit riders, since they don’t get on the bus when it leaves.

      1. Matt Brillhart

        “Who’s to say the loiterers are even transit riders, since they don’t get on the bus when it leaves”

        EXACTLY!! This was my thought exactly about the frequent complaints about the City Center bus stop on 7th St & Nicollet. Between routes 5, 19, 22, etc. a bus pulls up to the stop every 3 minutes or so. If someone is hanging out there more than 10-15 minutes…they aren’t a bus rider – they’re loitering or worse, harassing folks who are actually waiting for the bus. Yet who gets blamed for the bad behavior at that stop? Bus riders…

  2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Excellent article Aaron, and lots of history that I hadn’t realized, especially the Mall of America stuff. Given how central the MOA has become to our transit system, it’s half-scandalous that they wanted nothing to do with transit.

    But that’s the heart of the matter here. Malls are fiercely competitive privately-owned businesses, and mall owners are not philanthropists. The fact that they mimic and (in many places) function as “public space” is a dubious blessing for the massive parts of our cities that have no viable alternatives. Your legislative proposal is a good first step, but we need to re-think how these quasi-public places work. The current situation seems to be predicated on mobility, race, and class filtering, all revolving around the bus.

  3. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    The simple solution seems to be zoning codes that require equal access from the pedestrian realm to businesses. There is no need to put bus stops on private property in Uptown (save for a turnaround point for the 21), because the businesses are immediately accessible from the sidewalk.

    Bus stops on private property are basically mandated by places like Rosedale because it is so impractical to walk from the street/sidewalk to the stores. Note that this isn’t inherent to the mall format. West End doesn’t have great transit service, but can easily be served by access from 16th St and Park Pl Blvd. Even much-older Galleria is pretty accessible from all sides.

    But I do like the idea of a state law solution. There’s something to be said about the trade-off malls gets with the public, of public roads and access paid for them by the people. The least they can do is allow the people’s transit service to drop off there, too.

    1. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

      The Route 21 turnaround in Uptown is not on private property. Metro Transit owns all of it.

  4. Matt SteeleMatthew Steele

    1. Would a land value tax (rather than property tax) help fix this?

    Malls look to be very very valuable land uses at the parcel level. But they are actually very low value land uses with value-per-acre analysis, since there’s so much parking. #blackfridayparking and all that. Maybe if malls had to pay more for their parking lots, they’d see more value in having a blended mode share.

    2. Have any malls done a mode share analysis for the employees that work on their premises? I have to imagine far more employees walk/bike/bus than they think. I just ran into this same issue at a neighborhood corner where a local business argued for excess parking at the potential expense of bicycle facilities. They seemed unaware that most of their employees biked or bused to work rather than drove. Shouldn’t employees be able to safely get to work?

    3. It seems so shameful that these places provide free car storage to some at the expense of all. People who take the bus to the mall and buy goods are paying for parking – through the price of goods and services, which then gets moved up the value chain through lease fees – for “free parking” they may not use. The bundling of car storage with the cost of goods and services is toxic and harmful to society.

  5. Karen Sandness

    There was a mall owner in suburban Portland back in the late 1980s who didn’t want a transit center because he specifically said that he “didn’t want a lot of blacks coming to his mall.

    I wonder what color the alleged “loiters” are, and how business owners distinguish loiterers from customer and employees who are waiting for the bus.

    This attitude reminds me of the silly suburbanites who won’t go to downtown Minneapolis, especially not on the bus, because “gangbangers and welfare mothers hang out at the bus stops.”

    1. Jaquelyn Moore-Williams

      There is a lot of truth to the gang problem downtown. I have lived here and worked downtown for 21 years. I lived in N Mpls. I rode the #5 twice a day. Every night at 5PM the kids & youg adults piled on the bus and rode downtown to hang out and do whatever they do. I will not be downtown after 6PM. It is not safe no matter what nice patio you are having dinner on. It is a huge problem.

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        “I will not be downtown after 6PM. It is not safe no matter what nice patio you are having dinner on. It is a huge problem.”


        Stuff happens occasionally, especially in the warehouse district on weekends as clubs close, but the numbers simply don’t back this fear up. In fact, it’s pretty darn safe downtown, especially if you’re having dinner and/or seeing a show and going home before it gets too late.

        1. Rosa

          Safety depends a lot on who you are. People who look more vulnerable get targeted more – and that includes by gender and skin color both.

        2. Jaquelyn Moore-Williams

          Sigh….wow. I dont mean to offend anyones love of downtown. 5 months ago I was walking down Nicollet at 5Pm heading home. I witnessed a group of young people assault and rob someone. It stays with me. just sharing my point of view. I will refrain from that. Apologies to all.

          1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

            Please don’t refrain from sharing your view! Especially when you’re being specific about something you saw.

            But generalized statements about the dangers of being downtown are a little exasperating, as they often don’t seem to be based on anything but suburban stereotypes (not saying that about you).

            In contrast, I lived downtown for five years and continue to work downtown. I’ve been out and about on foot at more or less all hours.To my recollection, this is the actual crime I’ve seen: (1) one instance of fighting among a group a young people and (2) two or three shoplifters fleeing store security. In non-crime annoyance, once two guys followed and would not stop talking to us while walking home with my wife and mother-in-law after dinner (thanks to the Rock Bottom bar tender who shooed them away after we diverted in there).

            Rosa makes a good point that being a white male probably helps me feel safer. I do witness low-level street harassment of women occasionally, though. But that’s definitely not limited to after 6pm.

        1. Monte Castleman

          Interesting how the Huffington Post doesn’t note that the violent crime rate fell in half at exactly the same time as the incarceration rate doubled. But what are the crime statistics for downtown Minneapolis in that time period? That would be more relevant than crime statistics for the nation as a whole.

  6. Steve Morris

    I was involved in the MOA station discussions back in the late 1990’s.
    Aaron is generally correct about the mall’s resistance to committing to a location. There were likely some other issues at play but concerns about loitering were part of it.
    I have worked at transit systems throughout the country and such resistance is neither new nor local.
    There have been at least a couple of cases (one in New Jersey and one in Buffalo, NY) where a mall owner was found liable for a transit passenger’s accident injury after the mall refused to allow transit on their property. Sadly, the threat of potential liability for ADA access or accidents to mall users may be the best incentive for good transit access.

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