Pedestrianizing Big Box Stores – Midway Super Target

Like many parts of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, the Midway in Saint Paul is a slightly strange hybrid between urban and suburban built forms.  Houses and apartments on narrow lots and streetcar-era retail buildings with zero setbacks coexist (oftentimes uneasily) with suburban-style big-box stores that have giant parking lots.  The Green Line provides frequent transit service to places that have incredibly poor pedestrian realms surrounding them.

I live there, so I get to experience this shabby pedestrian realm on a frequent basis  (side note: I really took note of it the first time I took my son along, via stroller.  Cars flying by less than ten feet from your defenseless kid is a…..sub-optimal experience)

In the case of the Midway Super Target, the main pedestrian path is a very busy one.  So many people arrive to shop via Green Line that I sometimes wonder if there are any Target stores that have more people arriving via transit, anywhere.  Unfortunately, the transit-arriving guests must navigate a very long, bumpy, cramped, cluttered sidewalk directly adjacent to a very busy stretch of Hamline Avenue.

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Existing site aerial (click to enlarge)

There is no room here for the functions associated with an urban environment: people waiting to meet a friend, walking in groups, or enjoying a pleasant stroll.  Everything is oriented toward the automobile, down to grassy areas and trees that serve mainly to frame monument signage and screen parking, rather than give a place for refuge from the surrounding environment. To call pedestrians an afterthought here is an understatement. The fact that this busiest of pedestrian paths interrupts a dense and largely walkable neighborhood is a real detriment to the rest of the city.

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That said, a relatively simple intervention can be made that would vastly improve the experience of places like this.  For the low, low price of one row of parking, (about 50 stalls, out of a literal sea of parking!) enough space can be bought to create a true pedestrian realm along this stretch.

The proposal below creates a 25′ wide path buffered by raised planters adjacent to Hamline Avenue.  In order to negotiate the grade change along this stretch, a retaining wall would be required at the Hamline/University intersection, which becomes a seating wall as it extends up the hill to Super Target.

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Proposed path from Hamline/University to Target (click to enlarge)

At the intersection of Hamline and University, enough space is created to allow groups of pedestrians to queue up without getting pushed into traffic.  The buffer of trees would shade the path from hot summer sun, and planter beds offer a place to take a seat.

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Proposed Hamline/University intersection

At the plaza outside the Target entry, the visual clutter of the existing space is better organized, allowing the pedestrian path  to create a clear visual connection to Hamline Station.

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Proposed path along Hamline Avenue

The combination of these simple moves – reduced parking, a vegetation buffer against the street, and a wall to help define a path  – adds up to create an environment with obvious practical and safety benefits.  Equally importantly, this project would serve as a signal that pedestrians are welcome and accommodated in the Midway, encouraging still more pedestrian activity, and promoting the kind of development the City is interested in attracting to the area.

Big-box stores like Target have advantages of utility and cost that mean they are unlikely to go away anytime soon – not to mention the Midway Super Target is only 10 years old.  I think projects like this offer a practical chance to chip away at the auto-dominance of places like the Midway, and begin to connect them to the surrounding city.  Who wants to help get this built?


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16 Responses to Pedestrianizing Big Box Stores – Midway Super Target

  1. Mike Sonn
    Mike Sonn November 3, 2016 at 9:15 am #

    I really like the idea of a pedestrian path. However, I don’t care for the wall idea – even with a good design, it still a blank wall with no interesting features to pull people along.

    But if it is made in such a way that when additional buildings are put in along the exterior of the sea of parking that it can be modified and built upon to bring the store fronts to the property line, then I’m all for it.

    But yeah, Hamline from University to Grand is criminally horribly for anyone outside a car – and people inside cars as well.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke November 3, 2016 at 9:29 am #

      Hamline Avenue needs to be a 3-lane street. When the city reconstructed the AMR bridge on Hamline a few years ago, they did so without consulting plans for pedestrian safety and complete streets. They also claimed, wrongly, that the bridge would have bike lanes but it doesn’t.

      I was chatting with a person who works at Concordia University the other day, and said the school is considering a bridge or tunnel to try and get people safely across Hamline. A better idea would be actually making this street safe in the first place. It’s nuts that we have a University campus with a horribly-designed and dangerous street running right through it.

      • Peter Bajurny November 3, 2016 at 5:29 pm #

        We seem to have a knack for poorly designed streets running through campuses in this region, don’t we.

  2. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke November 3, 2016 at 9:26 am #

    When I started my Sidewealks blog over a decade ago, one of the earliest “public meetings” I ever attended was the proposal from the Target folks about their new building. Some neighbors were pushing Target to plan on having buildings along University that would help keep good urbanism in the area, and increase density instead of the massive parking lot. At the time, then-Council Member Debbie Montgomery defended Target’s plans, claiming that they would build buildings there soon enough.

    To be fair, the city had very little leverage. But it’d be nice if this half-used parking lot next to a light rail station had some buildings it.

    See the retro-story here: http://tcsidewalks.blogspot.com/2006/05/stp-super-target-no-longer-so-super.html

  3. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell November 3, 2016 at 10:32 am #

    I agree with Mike & Bill. I don’t much care for the blank wall and even less so when I think what it will look like a couple of years after it’s built and neglected. A building there would be much better with front entrances along the street and maybe a second floor rear entry of some sort.

    I didn’t look up the traffic counts but anecdotally I’d think a 3 lane would work here and so provide room for good sidewalks and one-way bikeways on each side.

    Overall a great post and idea though.

  4. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell November 3, 2016 at 10:47 am #

    There is a place for Big Box, but the middle of a city (or suburb) is not it. As much as it pains my libertarian heart to say this, they should be banned from most built up areas and limited to specific tracts on the edges of sprawl with good rail service connecting them to the urban core and everything in between.

    Within built-up areas a Target, grocery store, pharmacy, or any other daily necessity need not be any larger than 20,000 sq ft and often no larger than 5,000-10,000. Many more smaller stores closer to where we live rather than many fewer Big Box stores a long way from where we live would be a good thing.

    Goods in these smaller stores may cost minimally more but not by a significant amount. Most of the efficiency of Target is in their purchasing, distribution, and admin. There is minimal in individual stores, though when looking at their bottom line every penny will count. They can still be run quite efficiently and potentially more so if more of their customers arrive by foot, pedal, or transit allowing them to have less parking*.

    I also don’t think most people realize the cost to drive to these Big Box stores and that that cost will often eliminate any savings at the cash register. This especially when factored out across all trips (eg, no local grocery to have to drive 5 miles @ $1 per mile for a pound of flour). We may save $5 on each big trip but loose that $5 and more with the smaller trips that now require a much longer drive because the local store closed because we went to Costco.

    As well, if we implement a more fair wheelage fee for driving we may also see people desiring less costly forms of xportation than individual cars.

    * There’s another issue of who pays for the additional car traffic of a Big Box or the tax revenue lost by so much space taken up by parking instead of revenue producing businesses.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke November 3, 2016 at 10:59 am #

      This last part is crucial, IMO.

    • Rosa November 3, 2016 at 10:29 pm #

      Lots of us love the big boxes and use them all the time. The ones in the city – including Midway, which is where I used to do all my big-box shopping by bus, because it was on both a line to downtown and then the 21 to get back home – but also the Quarry and the Target/Cub combo at Lake & Hi – are all heavily used by people on bikes, bus, and foot. Having the same kinds of cheap, all-in-one store is huge for keeping families that could afford the ‘burbs in the city.

  5. David Markle
    David Markle November 3, 2016 at 11:30 am #

    Of course big box stores originated in suburbs and along highways on the edges of communities, areas where the automobile dominates retail commerce. Then they invaded inner cities. The box box stores’ own parking lots tend to be nightmares for pedestrians and drivers alike. And if you think the lots around the Midway Target, Cub and Menards are bad, go to the Arbor Lakes complex: suburban hell.

    • cobo Rodreges November 3, 2016 at 1:50 pm #

      Oh god… Arbor lakes! I can’t think of a retail area that is worse to drive around while also impossible to walk through.

  6. Nathan Roisen
    Nathan Roisen November 3, 2016 at 1:19 pm #

    I agree that a building with active storefronts would make good urban experience at this corner, but decided against proposing it for a couple of reasons:

    1) I’m not a developer. Such a proposal enters the world of financing, proformas, and market conditions that I have zero comfort writing about. Who is to say that replacing a functioning strip mall with a mixed-use development at this location “pencils out” now or in the future? Definitely not me.

    2) The wall is really only needed to navigate grade change at the part of this stretch nearest to Hamline Ave – probably 50 or 75 feet in length would need to be taller than 36″. The remainder of the way it would only need to be a short wall that could double as a seating location, which I think would improve the pedestrian experience.

    3) If this parcel were to be considered for a mixed-use development by a developer, the immediate instinct would be to maximize return on investment by creating as small a sidewalk as could be approved by the city. Maybe 12′, if the Hamline Station building across the street is any indication. This proposal establishes a much more generous pedestrian zone that can truly accomodate the number of people that use it.

    4) If this proposal was to get built (major hypothetical there) it would not preclude a future development from taking place on the parcel occupied by the strip mall. However, at that time, the developer would be forced to contend with an existing, well used pathway, and interact with it in a potentially interesting way.

    In short, I think there is value in looking at the big-box dominated parts of our cities (like mentioned in the article, there are lots of this kind of place in MSP) and finding ways to smooth over their roughest edges so that people using them today can enjoy a better pedestrian experience.

    • Mike Sonn
      Mike Sonn November 3, 2016 at 2:25 pm #

      I hope I didn’t sound down on your idea, I love it! Those Midway parking lots are a pox on our St Paul house and anything that can immediately be done should be.

  7. Lauren B November 3, 2016 at 1:30 pm #

    Love this! I commute to work via the Green Line, and sometimes take the train to Target over lunch. It’s so demoralizing to get off the train on University and have to walk those two long, ugly blocks to the store. It’s clear that the presence of pedestrians is not valued and that the pedestrian facilities are the absolute bare minimum.

    I agree with the criticisms of the retaining wall, but it would still be light years better than what’s there now. Of course, the ultimate improvement would be to get rid of at least half the Target parking lot and put buildings there instead (has that gigantic parking lot EVER been even half full?).

  8. Scott November 3, 2016 at 4:39 pm #

    I love this idea. As bad as Target is (and it’s really bad), the Cub Foods is even worse. Whoever designed that ought to have his architect’s stamp shoved firmly up…

    And whoever at the City approved that site plan deserves the same. These had to be two of the most supremely incompetent individuals who ever picked up a pencil and pretended to be professionals.

    Hamline would seem to function perfectly well as a 3 lane street. So long as there was a center left turn lane to keep traffic moving, I think it would be fine. Actually a lot safer, as it would prevent the lane jockeying at the southern intersection where there is no light and no left turn lanes. Back in the day, that was behind the Target, not in front of it…the store entrance used to be at the northern intersection where the left turn lanes are. When the built the new Super Target behind the old regular Target they made the intersections a lot more dangerous. There went that incompetent site plan reviewer again.

  9. Diane Lindgren November 3, 2016 at 7:51 pm #

    The big box stores and their parking lots may be ugly and inconvenient for the pedestrian but University Avenue, the way the light rail is situated, is dangerous to cross and ugly to look at.

  10. Drew Ross November 8, 2016 at 10:48 am #

    Yes. Very good idea and much needed. As others have noted, Hamline needs ped & bike friendly development from University down to Marshall, at the least.

    A couple of usage notes to consider. A lot of cars park daily in the parking lot east of Verizon/Noodles bldg., along University. Is this de facto public parking for the Green Line? Then, pedestrian access from this lot to the GL station would be a nice touch, such as in the Hamline/University corner.

    Pedestrians cross Hamline east-west at the southern most Target entrance. This is a pragmatic place for pedestrians to cross. There is no ped anything there. To cross legally, they would have to go to the semaphore to the south. Some sort of pedestrian way with an island would address the safety needs.