Something Brewing in Northeast: A Mistake at Hennepin and Central

Just earlier this year the East Isles neighborhood endured the gut-wrenching disappointment of watching the proposal for a new Walgreens along Hennepin Avenue in south Minneapolis get approval. The project stirred up a lot of debate about what belongs in urban corridors and how suburban-style single story drive-thru commercial impacts the areas of Minneapolis with the highest density.

Most people outside of that area probably didn’t know it was happening.  However, even if they had, it seems like it couldn’t have been stopped.  The project fit the zoning for the area, so who could say no?

But there was some positive that came from it.  The City of Minneapolis is re-assessing the pedestrian overlay districts along a number of key corridors in South Minneapolis. So hopefully this is the last time we’ll hear about it…

Until this week.  A pair of projects proposed by two separate groups (one for White Castle, another for Holiday) for a block on the border between NE and SE Minneapolis will be considered by the Planning Commission. The reports from staff paint the projects as benign.  But if you dig a little deeper, they are actually a sharper stick to the eye. Similar to the Walgreens development, the chances of stopping this are slim.  But it needs to be the last time we talk about this.  Period. We can’t afford to keep giving away our best land for developments that don’t generate vitality and tax revenue for present and future citizens.

The block in question is bounded by SE 6th St, E Hennepin Ave, SE 7th St, and Central Ave.

Screen Shot 2016-07-29 at 7.38.37 AM

Location of the proposed projects

The three components of a grand mistake are:

Transit-Oriented Corridor without Transit-Oriented Development

South Hennepin Ave at 27th may have more buses per hour than Hennepin and Central, but the number of places you can go from Hennepin and Central is arguably higher. Routes fan out in multiple directions (2, 4, 10, 17, 25, 61 plus some extra limited stops during rush hour) from the bus stops adjacent to this site, making it a natural location for development that suits a diverse group of non-motorized users.  In addition, current plans for a streetcar would have the phase one terminus across 7th St SE from this property.

During the Walgreens debate, a lot of attention was paid to the role that a pedestrian overlay would have on that project.  Some felt it could have been a deal killer, others think the drive thru was just an attractive target to negotiate from but wouldn’t have ended the project.  In the end, it didn’t matter because the overlay district ended a block away.

For those unfamiliar with the pedestrian overlay, my over-simplified summary is that it’s a special zoning type that is applied to areas that are more likely to have storefronts and walkable commercial and mixed uses to discourage auto-centric uses. (If someone else has a better description, chime in). Activity centers (like this area) are a prime candidate for a pedestrian overlay because the city has already designated those spots for higher intensity land uses more likely to generate non-auto residents and visitors.

In the case of Holiday and White Castle, the pedestrian overlay is across the street.  One street ROW away. It shows the power of where the lines are drawn.  And unlike the Walgreens, the facilities that are prohibited in the pedestrian overlay are core to the function of the proposed businesses. Even more than Walgreens, this project doesn’t align with the City’s aspirations for this area.


A bucket of cold water on a developing area.

Renderings of the proposed project:
They sure do make those buildings behind it look nice, don’t they? Too bad the developers ignored the context and momentum in the area in the proposals.

The CUP has a requirement that “the conditional use will not be injurious to the use and enjoyment of other property in the vicinity and will not impede the normal and orderly development and improvement of surrounding property for uses permitted in the district.” The staff reports state that the surrounding area is fully developed, so there is no impact.

Except that it’s not developed.  A lot across E Hennepin Ave stands vacant, with a fence around it.  Diagonally across the six-point intersection of Hennepin, Central, and 5th sits a parcel that has been the subject of multiple development attempts. The corner of 6th SE and Hennepin opposite the proposed White Castle is a vacant dirt lot that, until a few weeks ago, was illegally being used by patrons of local restaurants for parking.

The proposed Holiday and White Castle projects send the signal that we are not serious about ensuring that property in major commercial corridors achieves the highest and best use.  We can only hope that the owners of those adjacent brownfield properties are more creative than this.  But I can imagine some will take what they can get, because few people will be excited to live across the street from something that looks like it belongs in Eagan. I’m sure it’s very difficult to prove that the project is disrupting an unknown, but we won’t know until we try.

Lowest and Least Use

Over and over, the staff reports for these two projects reference the existing conditions and notes how the proposals will mitigate shortcomings of the existing structures.  That’s just preposterous.  Unless the buildings are historical, the existing structures are irrelevant if they will be demolished as part of the proposal.

Zoning is about what is permitted and how those permitted uses interact with surrounding permitted uses. It’s also about the built form of our city.  The fact that everyone complains about trying to get to a pump at the existing Holiday station is just not relevant to either of these purposes for zoning and therefore it has no place in this discussion.  It’s nothing more than easy cover for a poor decision.

Digging into the numbers, we can take a look at the Holiday station near Target Field (601 N 5th St), which has been described as a “success” for that neighborhood and a pattern for what is proposed at Hennepin and Central.  That property is valued at about $2.3 million.  Dividing the value by the lot area, the North Loop Holiday has a value of about $60 per lot square foot.  Looking at the combination of parcels that the new NE Holiday will stand on, the estimated value of that parcel would be about $2.9 million.

Sounds like a big increase over the current value of $1.3 million, right?  Not quite.  First, the value of land in the North Loop is slightly higher per square foot, so applying the combined value per square foot may not be conservative enough.  Second, the “Red 20” complex across Central Avenue is worth 10 times as much on a smaller parcel.  The value per lot square foot for that project is over $730.  If the Holiday site were redeveloped at the same intensity, it could yield over $35 million in value for the city.  Why should we sell ourselves so short?

What Do We Do?

The next hearing for this project is Monday August 1 at 4:30 PM.  According to the notice that a neighbor sent me, public comments can be sent to Shanna Sether at CPED ( or people may testify in person.

What fruit intervention will bear is unknown; I’m not particularly optimistic. In the bigger picture, this project, plus the Walgreens plus the Wells Fargo on Lake Street, should drive home the conversation that every high frequency transit corridor should have a pedestrian overlay.  Every neighborhood commercial node should be pedestrian overlay.

And we need to enforce the overlay! If that is the tool we have for now, use it until we can’t use it any more.  And the upcoming comprehensive plan needs to acknowledge that there are still tools missing from the toolbox.

About Nick Minderman

Recovering engineer living in the world of energy. Stops along the way in waste management and sustainable urban planning. Oh, and Sweden, too.

36 thoughts on “Something Brewing in Northeast: A Mistake at Hennepin and Central

  1. Mark Ditter

    Long time lurker and newish member of here. Question: where is today’s hearing for this proposal? Is the public allowed to just show up? I don’t know if I will feel comfortable to say much, but would love to show my support for thoughtful pedestrian-centric/high-value redevelopment of this particular site.

    1. Joey SenkyrJoey Senkyr

      The hearing will be in the City Council chamber (room 317) at City Hall. Any member of the public can just show up.

    2. Rebecca AirmetRebecca Airmet

      Editor’s note: a link to the meeting agenda has been added to the article. Thanks!

  2. Former Restident Of This Neighborhood

    When I looked over the ped overlay district maps a while back it looked as if most were deliberately drawn to exclude certain parcels instead of to make a cohesive district. I wonder if there were some back room dealings with certain businesses and property owners to keep the overlay district restrictions from applying in places certain interests didn’t want to? I’m not one for conspiracy theories normally, but given the certain cozy and sometimes questionable relationships some longtime council members seem to have with a few developers it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility.

  3. Monte Castleman

    Gasoline stations and fast food drive-thrus need to go someplace unless you expect Minneapolis residents to drive the suburbs to wash their cars, get gasoline or whatever they need at the convenience store, or a fast food meal. Maybe not here. (although wouldn’t it be convenient for the residents of the building pictured. Even if they didn’t own cars they could grab a snack or some aspirin at all hours of the night). But If every transit corridor and every neighborhood commercial didn’t allow them, where would they be allowed? How do you know people won’t want to live across the street from neighborhood services as opposed to say more apartments?

    Looking at Google maps there’s a McDonald s and a gasoline stations at University and Broadway, a couple of gasoline stations on north Washingon Ave, a gasoline station at I-35W and Broadway, and a few fast foods by the Quarry? Are these close enough and adequate for the neighborhood? If not is there in your opinion “less bad” spot around?

    1. Matt SteeleMatthew Steele

      The problem isn’t the proposed use. The problem is the proposed form.

      You could fit gas pumps, a fast food joint, a drive through, and a convenience store into a built form that looks more like Red20 across the street or is otherwise more compatible with the neighboring land uses (and more financially valuable to boot).

    2. Nick Minderman Post author

      The position I’ve taken throughout discussions on this project is not that I’m against there land uses because they are in fact being used. I don’t think we can let such a critical parcel be *just* a single story gas station and a fast food place. Couldn’t the convenience store have offices in the second level? Does White Castle really need its own building?

  4. Matt SteeleMatthew Steele

    I just ran a land value analysis on these parcels, Red20, and some other parcels in the neighborhood. The results are ridiculous, but not surprising.

    The current Holiday+White Castle parcels have only 6% of the value-per-acre as Red20 across the street. Even if the Shiny And New ™ Holiday+White Castle were three times more valuable than today’s iteration, they would still be less than a fifth as valuable as the apartment building across the street.

    This is one more reason why we need a land value tax to replace the property tax, at least in urban areas.

    1. robsk

      Agreed on the land value tax in the urban core. Property taxes punish land improvements, while land value taxes might encourage development that is deemed appropriate by those in control.

      I also love triangles created by crossing streets. The right triangle here could provide for 2 more Otter’s saloon-style buildings or a really creative mixed-use dense option for a growing part of the city.

      Not that I am a fan of the proposed development, but 24-7 convenience can add a little spark to the night (and early morning) life of a neighborhood. A search for “urban gas station design” yields some examples that might not suck. However, I have little hope that Holiday or White Castle will improve the area.

      1. fred

        Ya lets add a little Spark to the area with a 24/7 gas station…just like Bobby and Steves on South Washington,Old Colony on North Washington..or even the SA at Broadway and University..Those 24/7 stations all shut down at bar close for a few hours because of the scum thugs that come out of the downtown area after bar close. Dont believe me..check out the BP at 27th and University N.E at bar close..they stay open and its scum city..

        1. Matt SteeleMatthew Steele

          I’m not familiar with this “scum.” Could you elaborate a little bit more? Is there a certain color that helps you identify “scum” when you see it?

  5. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    A gas station was retrofitted into a two story building on Snelling and Iglehart in St. Paul.

  6. Julia

    Great post!

    Slightly tangential, but I was struck with your (accurate, as far as I know) description of pedestrian overlays and how we’ve decided that our most car-centric streets/quasi-highways are also the only streets along which we regularly allow for and encourage the kind of buildings/development that truly support walkability. I love living along corridors where there’s regular transit, multiple commercial uses, and high-density, more affordable, more sustainable residential development. But Minneapolis/Hennepin County in their wisdom have decided that’s also where to funnel congestion, trucking routes, and other sources of air & noise pollution (not to mention the insufficient sidewalks, dangerous crossings, and speeding traffic that community residents face just trying to shop or get to school or home).

    1. Rosa

      we just biked around the Longfellow Station Apartment building at 38th and Hiawatha today, getting around the road & sidewalk closure on 38th, and it is really striking how much louder the street side is – despite the benches, trees, doors, and bike racks we only saw one human on that side of the block. The back side, which is mostly parking (There’s a small playground, which is great) was much quieter and nicer, even with all the construction.

  7. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I agree with the article in that it is a poor use of the land. I have a couple of thoughts:

    1. The drive-thru seems like low-hanging fruit. Drive-thrus have terrible externalities for neighbors (pollution, noise) and demand a good amount of space for queuing and turning a car. Why should a city allow them at all? Or, rather than prohibiting them only in ped overlay districts, why not limit them to some sort of “highway overlay district”? (e.g., along Hiawatha)

    2. I sympathize with the desire for something better, but how exactly does Holiday make that happen? They own the property; they bought the neighboring one. The result of a mixed-use development is great, and I think could work well. But Holiday wants to build a gas station. Do we really expect them to try to solicit an apartment developer, alter their design, work with them, and wait potentially a couple of years for that developer to get financing and approvals through? These gas stations teardown/rebuilds are frequently done in a few months.

    Process-wise, we need a way to make this work for existing low-value land uses that want to improve to serve their customers.

    1. Monte Castleman

      So your point is the conveniences of drive-thrus is one thing city residence should give up in exchange for the choice they made of living in the city (similar to how they give up having space to park three cars and an RV?). Would White Castle refuse to rebuild if they couldn’t have a drive-thru and the neighborhood would lose that option? What about other fast-foods in other parts of the city?

      1. Rosa

        I seriously doubt they would refuse to rebuild, that neighborhood is a cash cow. And if they did, there are already a lot of Holiday Stores and several White Castles in town. Once people are already driving maybe they could then just cruise over to another location?

    2. Nick Minderman Post author

      Regarding point #2, this is one of the things that other people have brought up trying to support the project. To which I say “they are using a finite commodity (land), why can’t we expect more?”

      While developing at the intensity of the project across the street would result in all the barriers that you’ve described, there are a spectrum of development options on a site like this. The problem is that they are aiming for the very lowest end. As I suggested in response to Monte, one or two stories of offices or other commercial (studios for NE Mplsover artists?) over the convenience store could make a big difference. It would surely shield light and noise from residential properties, it would maintain separation for people concerned about safety of locating residences next to a fueling station, and it would establish a stronger urban corner at 7th and Central. This seems like it could be a much lower hurdle for Holiday to clear.

      I don’t have all the answers but the fact that the project can be done with little need to align with surrounding uses doesn’t give policymakers or city staff much negotiating power to get the development to match the plans for the area. I can’t imagine that this site will not generate enough revenue for Holiday to get them make a deal if they had to. But at this point they don’t. So they get their piles of money and the city (and indirectly, the city’s residents) loses a huge opportunity to continue to build value.

    3. John Maddening

      The White Castle drive-thru, with its pollution and noise, has been there far longer than any of these new residents across Central. The speaker is actually angled away from the closest previously-existing residential homes (across Hennepin, behind Brasa and an auto body shop). People moved to the area despite the trash and noise.

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        I don’t subscribe to the idea that people deserve to be punished by enduring needless externalities just because they moved to an area where those externalities already existed — particularly in this case, where it’s dense infill right in the urban core.

        Even in a greenfield situation, if you build moderate density next to the highway, the highway department should build a sound wall to mitigate their impacts to those residents — even if the new residents moved there knowing the highway was in place. A highway had impacts outside its right-of-way for as long as it’s existed; it’s just that it could get away with those impacts when the adjacent land was a cornfield.

        Similarly, a drive-thru in an urban area always affects neighbors. Just because the land-use of those neighboring parcels has changed doesn’t mean that the new residents must be subjected to it.

        1. John Maddening

          I completely disagree. Don’t want to hear church bells every Sunday morning? Don’t move near a church. Don’t want the traffic and parking problems associated with living near Como Park? Don’t move near Como Park.

          Moving to an established neighborhood and demanding that area conform to your sensibilities is the height of arrogance.

          1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

            Once the mistake was made to allow a drive through it must forever be kept friendly to drive throughs. No undos!

            1. John Maddening

              Ah, sarcasm. Great to see.

              You see, now we’re at an impasse. You seem to believe drive throughs in the city are always a mistake, I don’t. I very rarely use them myself, but I don’t have a car full of kids, either.

              Now I’m certainly fine with restricting new ones in residential areas (such as the CVS on Grand Avenue), but to think this particular one is a blight on the city that must be stomped out at all costs seems rather silly.

              1. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

                “You seem to believe drive throughs in the city are always a mistake, I don’t.”

                Neither do I. But I don’t think drive throughs get to be a special case that qualifies to be frozen in time from change.

              2. Nick Minderman Post author

                No one ever said the drive through had to be ‘stomped out’. It is simply the lowest hanging fruit in a more problematic proposal. If they kept the drive through and proposed something that looks more like the project in Columbus (linked by another commenter) I think most of the criticism would disappear.

                Land is a finite resource, and land that has good access is even more constrained. Putting such low intensity uses on a parcel like this costs every Minneapolis taxpayer in the long run, because that land is not contributing according to its potential.

  8. Matt Brillhart

    The most concise response I can come up with is this: “The city loses nothing by rejecting this proposal” (i.e. White Castle and Holiday are already there, they will continue to be there)

    1. Monte Castleman

      Well, White Castle and Holiday might very well simply close rather than continue to operate in cramped, inefficient buildings. If the buildings were working out for them they wouldn’t be investing this kind of money in rebuilding. How many tiny, closed gas stations do you see everywhere. That would be a loss for the neighbors that want to use those services. Of course on the other hand if the proposal was rejected they might come up with something better, or if they closed another developer would get a chance at the site.

      1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        It’s all speculation, but I’d infer the opposite from their wanting to expand: that these must be decently performing locations or they wouldn’t want to sink further resources into them.

        And yeah, I’m not sure that them closing would be the worst case scenario for the city.

        1. Erik

          I dunno Adam, it is a premier drunk food location, especially when they had the mac n cheese bites last year 😉

  9. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    How much longer are we going to have to wait until the revised ped overlay process is finished. We’ll keep having these pop up as outrage topics until it happens.

  10. Scott

    The Pedestrian Overlay revisions are only being considered for Hennepin, Lake, Lagoon, & Lyndale in the 10th Ward. The remaining Ped Overlays will remain, and the rest of the awful commercial corridors will continue to function as ‘Automobile Underlay Districts’.

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