The Suburb to City Retail Subsidy

The Urban Planning “S” Words

It seems in urban planning there’s no shortage of locker room talk to describe development and infrastructure you personally don’t like. For example, the epithet “sprawl.”  Some may say “I know it when I see it,” but too often it’s just an insult with no objective definition; perhaps just a place with bigger back yards than where you live. Here in my home city of Bloomington, if I were so inclined I could call Woodbury “sprawl.” Someone from Woodbury could call Lake Elmo “sprawl.” Many city residents consider the suburbs in general to be “sprawl.” By using the term so loosely, the implication is one lifestyle choice is objectively morally superior.

Nor are the cities themselves immune. There’s been plenty of talk demonizing single family homeowners in places like Highland Park and the Wedge. Having made the biggest investment of their lives into their neighborhood and expecting the character of their neighborhood to remain unchanged, many (understandably) don’t want hulking apartment towers next door blocking their light, invading their privacy, and bringing traffic and parking. If people wanted to live like that, there’s already plenty of single family homes right next to apartment buildings, commercial buildings, and busy streets (as well as neighboring three-story single family homes) to purchase in both central cities.

Then there’s the word “stroad,” seemingly used to describe anything that has more than a pair of narrow travel lanes.  I support “stroads” in certain situations: AADT more than 20,000 with no chance of building a freeway, like 66th Street in Richfield, or to replace the Four Lane Death Road section of West Old Shakopee Road in Bloomington. So I avoid using the term, preferring the laborious “wide suburban style-road.”

“Stroad” under construction, W 66th Street in Richfield

Which brings us to “subsidy.” We all know the claim that the “city subsidizes the suburbs,” which is true, but misses the point that society is full of subsidies. Those like me that choose not to have kids subsidize those that do. Those like me who are unmarried subsidize those who are. Renters subsidize homeowners like me through the mortgage interest deduction. People like me with decent-paying jobs subsidize Medicaid and food stamps for those who don’t.

There’s even a direct cash suburb-to-city subsidy, the 1971 Fiscal Disparities Act. My home city of Bloomington is one of the biggest losers: 8% of my property tax, or half my mortgage deduction (for a citywide total of $19 million) goes into that pool. Saint Paul, full of non-tax paying government buildings and educational institutions, is a big winner (it’s a wash for Minneapolis). But this post is about a more subtle kind of subsidy: how the suburbs bear the burden of hosting subjectively undesirable land uses for the cities, things like guns shops, big box retail, and car dealerships.

Guns, Groceries, Gasoline, Gutters and GMC

Although there’s plenty of Cub Foods in the cities (for now), there’s exactly one Menards (in Midway) and Home Depot (the Quarry). For the most part if you want to fix up your house, and with the age of housing in the cities there’s a lot of it being done, you’re stuck paying outrageous prices at the local cute urban hardware store or else driving. People in the suburbs most certainly use these (there’s nonstop clamoring for a Hy-Vee on the East Bloomington Facebook group). But the suburbs have more of these type of land uses than they would need just for their own residents.

Here’s a map showing grocery stores in green, home improvement stores in blue, and discount / hypermarkets in red.

The map might not look too bad at first glance, but consider population density. And if we assume the five urban Cub Foods locations in green and the Lake Street K-Mart are not long for this world, the map gets extremely sparse in the center. It’s not hard to see that with the coming of Hy-Vee, Cub’s days are numbered. Hy-Vee seems not particularly interested in taking over existing stores, and at any rate the Cub stores are much smaller than their preferred size.

Suppose you need a new car (78.19% of Minneapolis households own one). Sorry, can’t buy one at all in Minneapolis, go to the suburbs. The map is even more dramatic.














Need a gun? (In Minnesota 44.7% of households have one, and this may be under-reported) Sorry, can’t buy one in Minneapolis, go to the suburbs. The last gun store in Minneapolis closed last year amid allegations the city was attempting to ban gun stores through zoning. With 2nd amendment-rights advocates nationwide focusing on castle doctrine and constitutional carry (both bills introduced this year in Minnesota but did not advance), it’s unlikely unofficial bans on commercial retail sales will be challenged anytime soon. I didn’t do a map for gun shops because trying to figure out which pawn shops and sporting good stores sell them would be a herculean task, but it’s worth noting one of the largest ones in the metro is less than a mile outside city limits in Robbinsdale.

What about gasoline stations? There’s still many in the city, but Richfield has double the number of gasoline pumps per capita. Does the average Richfield resident really drive twice as much as the average Minneapolis? Maybe so, but the smaller gasoline stations typical of the cities are going out of business. The business model of a couple of pumps in front and a small store that sells hot dogs and smokes is no longer viable.  When you only make 3 cents a gallon, you need to sell a lot of it to be successful. That means a lot of pumps, so people don’t see a line and decide to drive onto the next station. And in addition, sell a lot of high profit items like donuts and car washes, with a store that has parking so motorists will stop  on their way to work.

Attempts by city gasoline stations to expand to be viable have met with mixed success. Bobby and Steve’s on Washington Avenue and Holiday on Central Avenue were able to expand, despite opposition. SuperAmerica on 40th Street and Lyndale Avenue was not. Unsurprisingly with fewer gasoline pumps per resident in the city, the place was packed when I visited. But if you have a tiny capacity on low-profit items, you cannot be viable no matter how busy you are. For now SuperAmerica is still open, but since it doesn’t offer a car wash or the food offerings that an expanded store would have, it won’t be open forever. City residents tend to yawn when an individual gas stations closes, figuring a passably urban cafe will be better, but what if there’s eventually only a couple of stations in the entire city? Maybe they figure no great loss, the suburbs can build more large stations to accommodate them, which is my point exactly.

The tiny SuperAmerica at 40th and Lyndale.

How long will this tiny SuperAmerica at 40th and Lyndale be able to stay open?

A more viable gasoline station in Bloomington

The Reasons for This

It’s not hard to see why things are this way, but I will spell them out. Land is simply more valuable in the cities, and is less conducive to things that take up a large surface area relative to their value. And can you imagine the outcry if Home Depot wanted to build a standard prototype in the city, even on decaying low intensity industrial land?

Again, I don’t think it’s because city residents don’t patronize these types of stores. The locations right at the periphery of the city seem to argue against this. There seem to be plenty of people in the city that, aside from having a shorter commute and smaller garage, live more or less like anyone in the suburbs.  Again I point out the 80% car ownership figure, and when I’m unlucky enough to brave the horrific congestion on I-35W at rush hour, the Diamond Lake, 46th, and 36th ramps are full of people getting on the freeway. These are not suburbanites driving home to Blaine from an overnight visit with relatives in the city. Even at the Soo Line Apartments, which is right next to a light rail stop, skyway connected, in middle of downtown, and provides no on-site parking, 70% of residents keep a car anyway.

Finally, going forward I imagine that with all the talk of local ordinances that would dramatically drive up the costs of doing business or reduce convenience for customers, this pattern is only going to be reinforced. The downtown food trucks that cater to  office workers getting lunch aren’t going to move to the Bloomington Home Depot parking lot.  But I foresee businesses that have some discretion on their location will choose to locate outside the city. Is it coincidence that Hy-Vee is opening just out of reach of these ordinances?

So what’s the point of this? I’m not suggesting that Minneapolis raze a neighborhood of affordable homes to build a 47th and Cedar Menards to go with the new Starbucks drive-thru there. Just that we all acknowledge that we all live together in an intertwined society full of subsidies, “stroads,” and “sprawl.” Let’s try to acknowledge that sharing goes around in all directions; people have wanted and expected space and privacy since the beginning of the nation even though it’s only in the post-war years we’ve been in a position to provide it to the masses.  Using “s-words” to describe lifestyle choices, as well as over-simplistic, over-idealistic  solutions to real problems like congestion such as “live near where you work” or “ride a bicycle” only anger people rather than contributing to discussion.

The Richfield South Minneapolis Home Depot

The Richfield South Minneapolis Home Depot

About Monte Castleman

Monte is a long time "roadgeek" who lives in Bloomington. He's interested in all aspects of roads and design, but particularly traffic signals, major bridges, and lighting. He works as an insurance adjuster, and likes to collect maps and traffic signals, travel, recreational bicycling, and visiting amusement parks.

87 thoughts on “The Suburb to City Retail Subsidy

  1. jeffk

    I don’t think you have a very good bead on what a “subsidy” is. A “subsidy” is monetary. Money flows from cities to suburbs by a million different channels, which have been discussed at great length on this blog. If you want to make the “lifestyle choice” to live in one, by all means; I will keep fighting for you to have to pay something resembling the cost.

    Those of us working for a more urban Minneapolis are attempting to build a city where driving to the suburbs for groceries is unnecessary. Somehow people ate before Woodbury existed, and, somehow, literally everyone I know still does without driving there.

    As for city residents that think they have the right to block all development for a half mile radius around them, isn’t more natural to ask if they wanted to live in a place that was guaranteed to have single family zoning, for them to live in a suburb? After all, Minnesota has, by population, maybe 20% of it’s residents living in places that are remotely urban – so tell me why we should have to dilute that already tiny fraction when these people already have so many other choices. It’s not like the city was originally built with single family zoning in place; those of us who live in multi-family residences, of course, subsidize them by paying more taxes per unit of infrastructure, not to mention provide customers for the local businesses they presumably enjoy. They get the benefits of city living, but will fight tooth and nail to get the benefits of suburban living as well, and the rest of us will pay.

    I’m sorry using accurate words like “subsidy” to describe the places you like hurts your feelings, but I don’t buy this as an attempt to stop their use.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      Why do you mock the somewhat figurative use of the term subsidy, and then do the exact same thing? “subsidize them by paying more taxes per unit of infrastructure”

      The argument is that suburbs are subsidizing central city residents by providing big box destinations that are not that valuable per acre, and that have significant traffic externalities to their immediate neighborhood.

      Example: if all suburbs had zoning codes as exacting as Minneapolis, and you could not buy a car within 50 miles of MInneapolis, that might force the hand of Minneapolis to be more flexible. Because — as you note yourself — there are plenty of nearby places to buy a car, etc, Minneapolis has the luxury of demanding higher-intensity, more valuable land use.

      Minneapolis gets more money in property taxes, because the suburbs are willing to accept less, and meet Minneapolis’s residents retail needs. Why isn’t that a subsidy?

      1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

        This line of reasoning assumes Minneapolis is better off now from a tax base perspective than before suburbs pulled population, businesses, and shopping through their own planning (and aided by free interstates and state highways plowed through urban neighborhoods that gave/give urban residents with cars access to shopping).

        You and Monte are implying the causality is that places like Richfield and Bloomington and Woodbury only have these low-value, high-parking land uses because the big bad core cities forced them to have it to accommodate their big-box hungry residents. That’s not true. Minneapolis and St Paul bent over backwards post-war to raze neighborhoods to sell off for big box stores to stem the tide. But that wouldn’t have been necessary if that’s not how places like Richfield purposely planned their development, in part to serve their own residents but also to offer businesses (new and existing ones in the core) new/modern places on cheap land to build their office/warehouse/whatever.

        Sure, Minneapolis has the “luxury” now to say “no car dealerships.” But we used to have car dealerships. The Magers & Quinn building – an urban, pedestrian-focused building – used to sell cars. There are many other examples in the core cities. I suspect Minneapolis and St Paul don’t have a problem with *car dealerships* but the modern format they take on. We used to have far more retail and groceries than we do now. And sure, I’ll even agree that since 1950, the small retail shops would have given way a bit to larger format stores. But without the ability to drive for cheap on a freeway to a suburb, many big box stores would have opened more urban formats.

        New developments like Target in Uptown, the Aldi in a 6stick building on Lyndale could have been the norm decades ago. In the past, we had Woolworths and others taking up the ground floor of mixed-use buildings. Even hardware chains like Ace or Hardware Hank bring national purchasing power (cheap prices) and predictable inventory to walkable hardware stores. I have eaten at urban-format McDonalds in other countries. The blame certainly lies in part to central cities for zoning out mixed-use density in many places, but the bulk of it goes to the broad land use and transportation investments that allowed/influenced such sweeping social changes.

        1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

          I agree that this is more of a double-edged sword than Monte’s account alone provides. You’re right, nobody *forced* Richfield to allow HD/Target, or any other city to build anything else. And there are certainly benefits to the suburbs building them: jobs, tax base, and an amenity that our residents use, too.

          I still believe that, because the inner ring cities made that choice, they allowed for higher and better uses in Minneapolis. That is a subsidy of better development, whether by free will or not.

          And I agree about things like Uptown Target — this is exactly the middle ground I’d like to see in both central areas and (perhaps on a slightly larger scale) in the inner suburbs. I think Richfield’s new car dealerships (Audi and Honda) also show an urban form that would probably be acceptable in many parts of Minneapolis.

          1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

            There is (or was not that long ago) an auto showroom on Park Ave in New York (can’t remember which luxury brand). There’s been a Citroen showroom on the Champs Elysees for ever. There’s a showroom for pretty much every brand up luxury car you can think of in the financial district of Shenzhen.

            There’s an urban way to sell cars but for whatever reason we don’t do it much.

            1. Justin Doescher

              The Gold Coast in Chicago has a few high end dealerships in a row, so it’s a great photo op.

      2. jeffk

        It’s not a subsidy because it presumes big box garbage is somehow necessary, which it is not. And further, that somehow suburbs are paying more per capita in taxes to take on the burden of an inefficient development pattern for the joy of city users, which they are not. Everyone pays for that development pattern.

        1. jeffk

          … further, the entire premise of taking on the big box burden admits that they are in fact subsidized, so why would we even do that? Is the idea that big box stores are some kind of greater good that we should support when the market can’t, like parks and schools?

        2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

          Garbage is in the eye of the beholder, as Monte points out, as many people shop at these places. (Not me though…) They are garbage from a land use perspective, but many people don’t look at them this way.

      3. Tim

        I think the relatively small size of Minneapolis plays a role here too. If the city had a larger geographic footprint, restrictive land uses would have a more significant impact and might get more pushback, since people would have to travel farther to be able to visit these businesses.

        1. Justin Doescher

          Yup, cities with much larger geographic footprints have plenty of big boxes inside the city. Sometimes surrounded by lots of dense housing. See the South Loop in Chicago as an example.

      4. Ian Young

        It seems to me that the reality of the relationship is complex and framing it in terms of subsidies might strip away a lot of that nuance. I wonder if a better way to think about it would be in terms of an ecosystem. Suburban big box stores play an important role in the ecology of modern American commerce. Saying that is not passing judgment on whether it’s a *healthy* part of the ecosystem, but the reality is that there are a number of dependencies between the urban and surburban, and they don’t all travel in one direction.

      5. mplsjaromir

        There are still automobile dealerships in Minneapolis. They were not eliminated by zoning. Dealerships left on their own volition; less expensive, less valuable land to had in the relatively close suburbs. Even Manhattan and Paris have new car dealerships. Dealerships could change how they sell cars. Dealerships choose the suburbs, because its cheaper and Minneapolis isn’t that big.

        The suburbs choose to debase themselves, because a car lot is better than nothing. Final ruling, no subsidy.

        1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

          When Borton Volvo closed three years ago, there was prominent reporting about it being the last central city auto dealership to close. There are still small used-car lots, but I’m pretty sure that was the last new car dealership in Minneapolis.

          Auto dealerships are allowed in a couple of zoning districts, as conditional uses. I am not sure what the conditions are that would allow them to operate, or how feasible those are to comply with.

          None of this is to say that limiting car dealerships is a bad thing. My point is simply that: given current mode choices by Minneapolis residents, auto dealerships are something the majority of residents need, at least some of the time. It is only feasible to limit them because another city has been willing to take that use.

    2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      There’s no reason a subsidy has to be monetary.

      Instead, I’d push back on the notion that any of these things are buying built in the suburbs primarily or even secondarily for residents of the city. A low-cost grocery like Cub most definitely is being built for nearby residents, not expected outflows from the city.

      Car dealerships certainly have a much larger pull radius that includes the city, but I’m not going to feel too much guilt over a once a decade trip to get a car.

  2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    Does the average Richfield resident really drive twice as much as the average Minneapolis?

    Of course, this is somewhat knowable. According to the H+T index, this is the projected VMT per household:

    Minneapolis: 16,240
    St. Paul: 17,933 (10% more than Minneapolis)
    Richfield: 18,404 (13% more than MInneapolis)
    Woodbury: 23,583 (45% more than Mpls)

    But, I would think that the limitation on gas stations would make those older central city gas stations more viable than an equivalent-sized station would be in the looser-regulating suburbs. After all, people have to buy gas somewhere, and the concentration of customers to pumps may be a lot greater.

  3. Luke Peterson

    It feels like you’re missing a bunch of chain grocery stores on your first map like Aldi, Lunds, and Whole Foods. Unless of course you were only trying to show Cub.

    1. Monte Castleman Post author

      The map was only for “Big Box” type grocery stores, of which Cub is the only example now that Rainbow is closed. Similarly there’s local places you can buy nuts and bolts, but I’ve only shown Home Depot and Menards. The point was how the suburbs bear the burden of hosting low cost big box retail, not to show every possible place to buy stuff at any price.

      1. Joe T

        I think that Cooper’s and Aldi are discount and big box.

        The flaws in the analysis may weaken the argument, but do not refute it. The strongest analysis is the car dealerships. Do city residents only buy used cars? NO! There should be at least one new car dealership in the cities.

        The more important questions is, “are these stores being used by a large number of urban residents?” if so, then this subsidy exists. If not, then these are land different land uses are serving their own residents. I know my family sees the savings from using suburban locales, and once we compared the gas to reach these places, saw that it was a wash, if not more expensive, to shop in the suburbs. Are other families doing this? How many? This is harder to get data on, but is certainly possible for an institution like the U of MN with MnDOT help to conduct such a study.

        1. Rosa

          it’s a multi-part argument, though; one, that lots of urban residents use these big box stores (which is pretty inarguable); two, that if they couldn’t they would suffer or move to the suburbs or something; and three, that the big box stores are a cost that the suburbs wouldn’t bear if not for the cities.

          Three seems arguable either way, to me; I grew up in a place far enough from cities that there is absolutely no chance they’re catching shoppers from them, and I visit my parents often in very small towns chosen for their nearness to nice RV parks. Both have big box stores and have for a long time. There are absolutely costs – my hometown is on the 2nd or 3rd wave of big boxes and seeing the old ones stand empty is just infuriating. But I would bet the tax revenue generated in suburban stores is higher than in a non-metro-adjacent town, and sales tax benefits from adding urban shoppers to the mix too.

          Random anecdote: back Before the Internet, my teenaged brother would ask for two things for Christmas: a Best Buy gift card and a daytrip to the nearest Best Buy, 60 miles away (or maybe 200. We did come to Minneapolis for size 13 steel toed boots for him, but I think there was a Best Buy in the nearest college town.)

  4. Jeb RachJeb Rach

    A couple of things:

    The new car example doesn’t sway me at all because our state legislature restricts new car dealerships so they can’t open one of the same brand within some number of miles (I think 10, but I could be wrong on that.) Since new car sales are already a relatively infrequent function, if you’re going to be restricted in radius why not place them in the nearby suburbs with easy car access? It may well be possible that if they weren’t restricted that we’d see a few new car dealerships in Minneapolis proper, even with the high land use costs.

    The grocery store argument also seems to be missing a lot of data points. I’m seeing few to none of the Aldis, Lunds, food co-ops, Kowalski’s, Whole Foods, etc. that, while not necessarily “big box” retail, certainly offer many Minneapolis residents access to groceries. (I’m not seeing the Target in Dinkytown either.) Especially for groceries, it seems intentionally misleading to exclude a large portion of grocery stores simply because they’re not the “big box” style.

    1. Monte Castleman Post author

      The point was to show big box, low-cost places like they type you’d drive to in order to save money and stock up for the week, not every possible place to buy food. And it shows that aside from Cub, Minneapolis have few low cost, big box grocery stores so if Cub closes residents will have to drive to the suburbs to save money on groceries, and in turn the suburbs bear the externalities for hosting them.

      The Dinkytown Target was excluded because it is not a big box format. Isn’t this more a neighborhood place to pick up light bulbs or paper towels, not some place you’d drive to for a big shopping trip?

      1. Joey SenkyrJoey Senkyr

        I see what you were going for, and don’t necessarily disagree with excluding the likes of Whole Foods from the grocery map, but Aldi is exactly such a “stock up on staples and save money” type of grocery store.

      2. Jeb RachJeb Rach

        I’ll admit I’m not familiar enough with the Dinkytown Target to know the exact format.

        However, I still think the premise that people in urban areas need (or desire) to drive to a big box store to do the majority of their shopping is a flawed premise to start with. I can easily go to Aldi and save just as much money, if not more, than shopping at Cub. I can go to the Asian supermarket a couple miles down the road and get cheap veggies that I may not find at Aldi, and the food co-op has just as good, if not better, selection on the things that I want to buy “natural” or “organic” than Cub does.

        I’m on the St. Paul side of the river currently, but my latest grocery trip involved mainly Aldi and Mississippi Market Co-op. After buying my groceries there, I had two items on the list left (which I went to the Midway Cub to buy, since the Rainbow there closes at 9.) I don’t usually do big shopping trips outside of groceries; I’ll often buy the things I need on Amazon. I do go to Menards and Target in Midway somewhat regularly, but they’re still in the city proper and I don’t see either of them moving anytime soon.

        I don’t have any major issues with the suburbs existing, but the idea that the urban areas need the suburbs for their big box stores doesn’t hold all that much water for me.

          1. Tim

            While I don’t agree with all of the arguments made in the post, I do know a lot of South Minneapolis residents who do the bulk of their shopping in Richfield or Edina (or sometimes even further afield, if they belong to Costco, for example).

            His statement “There seem to be plenty of people in the city that, aside from having a shorter commute and smaller garage, live more or less like anyone in the suburbs” certainly rings true in my experience. Granted, not everyone lives that way, but I think that people on this site sometimes make the urban vs. suburban lifestyle difference to be a bigger thing than it actually is for most people.

            1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

              I agree 100% on this point.

              Everyone has their own anecdotes, of course, and I’ve heard many here from people who make choices to walk and bike more, and go to local stores whenever possible. I think that’s terrific, but that doesn’t mean it’s typical. A large part of my own experience in single-family-residential Minneapolis is with my boyfriend, who lived in the Corcoran neighborhood and (even before we met) did nearly all of his grocery shopping at the Richfield Target. His mom lives in the North Loop, and does nearly all of her shopping at the Fridley Target or Cub.

              Maybe those aren’t typical cases either, but for locations like the Cedar Point (Richfield) and Park Center (SLP) Targets, clearly City of Minneapolis folks are in their market area, and contribute to their location choice.

              1. Peter Bajurny

                As an actual Corcoran resident, I have no idea why you’d drive all the way to Richfield when there’s a Cub just a few blocks away.

                Likewise I have no idea why you’d drive from the North Loop all the way to Fridley when a few blocks west of 94 on Broadway is a Cub, or a few more blocks east of 94 (it’s a very short drive!) is the Quarry Cub.

            2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

              That’s certainly correct, although I doubt people are driving to the ‘burbs for Cub.

              Home improvement mega stores, sure. And definitely Costco, which I keep thinking we should join except that I don’t want to have to drive to it.

        1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

          A lot of people do. Maybe not a lot of readers, but a lot of people who live in the city drive to Cub* in the suburbs.

          * insert other big box here.

          1. Rosa

            or Costco. I personally like the Lake Street Cub just fine but I know a lot of people who hate it and go farther away, and nobody I know in North goes to the Cub there if they can help it. Though not farther than an inner-ring suburb (or the Quarry, which you get to on the highway from most places but is actually still the city.)

              1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

                Far be it for me to make fun of typos, but this amuses me as Cosco is a massive Chinese shipping company and it does seem like any snacks and supplies they have would be in bulk.

              2. Rosa

                my husband’s office, in St Anthony Main, stocks their kitchen with snacks from Costco, because there’s a corporate account.

    2. Carol A Overland

      Exactly, this is a big box focus. The cities are consciously instead focused on smaller. Coops are thriving and expanding ($15/hr, Seward!!). Thrift stores abound. Salvage stores thrive too. That’s what I miss most about living in Mpls, walking to Welna, the 7-11, now SA right there too, and real food restaurants, not chain big box troughs.

  5. Carol A Overland

    Well, “you’re stuck paying outrageous prices at the local cute urban hardware store” doesn’t describe my experience in the city, i.e., Welna, which was crawling distance from my home in Phillips, and the local gas station was, and is, next to Welna, both in Phillips and Seward. I suspect there are many other similar local stores providing superior service and the smaller items people need at reasonable prices. But yes, some of the big ticket items have moved or gone out of business (Sherer Lumber, and the one in Uptown) (is that car dealership still by the downtown Mpls library, I believe not). The car dealership also moved out of downtown Hopkins! Lumber has lumbered out of Mpls and St. Paul, but if you google ‘lumber yard Minneapolis, yes, there are some. The map in the article doesn’t show “home improvement” ReStores, Bauer Bros. (with legendary Old Colony” gas nearby), and the like. Drive down Hiawatha, Broadway, Washington, Hennepin, Central, and count the gas stations. Car lots?Desireable? Needed? What percentage are Craigslist (that’s where I get mine). The analysis above presumes big box big corp sterile stores with large parking lots is what people want, and also presumes that people want to buy new, and for both, not necessarily! There are independent businesses staying, thriving, in the cities. And marketing and buying have changed. It’s not necessarily a bad thing!

    And regarding subsidies, subsidies aren’t just money. They’re zoning perks, too, which is what this is focused on.

    1. jeffk

      If we just gave money to Welna like we give big boxes in the form of taxes breaks and infrastructure, I bet they could have low prices too.

  6. Louis

    Size does matter. Minneapolis, St Paul and all the suburbs mentioned here should have merged years ago. We’d be a world class metropolis and attract the investment and prestige that comes with size and a forced common purpose.

    Everything about this snarky and overwrought post would be moot.

  7. Matt SteeleMatthew Steele

    It seems like this is a map of things the author prefers while specifically excluding things that fall outside of that preference. And it misses how the land use patterns in a city exclude the need for these suburban amenities in large part.

    First, nobody *needs* a *new* car… especially not when you’re able to avoid an hour or two in it each day. My *new* car is 10 years old, bought when it was 5 years old. Yes, I went to a big Bloomington dealer to buy it (I took the 515 bus to pick it up, then walked down American Boulevard enjoying the wonderful stamped concrete boulevard as I went. I’m perfectly fine dealing with a journey to the suburbs every 5 or 10 years when I need to buy a car. In fact, I drove to Eau Claire, WI to get the car I had previous to this – people will do crazy things like that to save thousands of dollars and get precisely what they want on a purchase they make once or twice a decade. When it comes to service, there’s nothing better than having a cheap and honest repair shop literally a block away from home, making it easy to drop off or pick up a car for work. That’s a car convenience that would be next to impossible with modern use-based zoning codes. (BTW who would buy a giant GMC? My block is mostly old compact cars, Priuses, and Subarus).

    Groceries. I’m not sure why there’s a fascination with big box grocers. They seem so overwhelming in scale, and they are built around a model where it’s inconvenient to shop a few times a week so people bulk up for weeks at a time (and have the storage space for that food, too). I have a SuperValu 3 blocks from my house, where I can often get one or two things on my walk or bike back from the beach. I have a co-op on my bike commute home, and an Aldi nearby. With all these places being so convenient, I’m not sure why I’d want the hassle of having to stock up at a big box grocer.

    Gas. I have to imagine your average Minneapolitan gases up far far less than your average suburbanite. We gas up maybe once a month. I hear there are suburban commuters who gas up 2 or 3 times a week. So yes, the vintage Shell with the four pumps works just fine for my neighborhood, and I’ve never had to wait for a pump. And the owner is a real nice guy who is active in the neighborhood. No, I don’t want a gas station anywhere near me which looks like your definition of “viable.”

    I guess I’m just not getting why any of this is a big deal. This assumes everyone has the same needs and the same preferences, when it’s clear that people who live in more urban and walkable neighborhoods have different needs and largely have different preferences.

      1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        I wonder what the spread is between mean VMT and median VMT. My guess is that median VMT would be noticeably lower. One person who drives around the burbs as a sales rep all day or who drives 40 miles each way to their workplace would overpower 5 or 10 people who bus/bike to work or work from home (there are 9 people on my block alone who work from home these days). Additionally, many of the people who have driving-intensive daily routines will frequently be in suburbs or exurbs when it comes time for them to fill up. I’m not sure how valuable the average is here.

    1. Monte Castleman Post author

      I admit I used the term “need” loosely. After all no one actually “needs” anything but food, clothing, and shelter. But point is that even if you buy a used car from one of the small used car dealers scattered throughout the city or from someone at Craigslist, at some point it took up space as a new car on some vast suburban surface lot.

      1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        At some point it took up space in a car factory somewhere, but we don’t worry about that do we?

  8. cobo Rodreges

    Small hardware stores can save you money on hardware (nuts, bolts, fittings, Diy plumbing fixes, etc), Due to the fact that you can buy just what you need rather than a whole box. And they can save you time if you live near one. But I agree things like power tools, mulch etc can cost more.

    I know that I go to home depot much less since I discovered my local hardware store. It allows me to have soo much more time to get the job done.

  9. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    You leave out something important when you don’t mention that suburbs have often actively courted these businesses.

    Also, your grocery map is missing a bunch of stores. Hennepin & 12th L&B, northeast L&B, Highland Park L&B, downtown & St. Paul Whole Foods, both Seward Coop locations, The Wedge, Kowalski’s on Hennepin, Lyndale and Chicago and Grand Ave in St. Paul, Oxendale’s on 34th Ave, Bergan’s Supervalu on Cedar. Sure, most of those are more expensive stores, but I kinda doubt many people are driving to the suburbs to go to Cub.

    1. Justin Doescher

      Sorry this was meant as a comment to the author, not to Adam. Not sure why it ended up here.

  10. Joe

    I know you specifically only chose big-box stores for your maps, but it entirely misses the point that I don’t need to shop there. I live in Minneapolis, and haven’t bought groceries at a big-box style store in years. I haven’t visited a big-box hardware store in years either. I’ve bought one car in the last 10 years, it was used, not through a dealer.

    So your argument boils down to:
    *You subsidize my lifestyle with your big-box stores once or twice every 5 years.
    *I subsidize your suburban lifestyle every single day.

    I think you win that trade-off.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      And honestly, I only go to the big box stores in Richfield because I can easily bike to them. Without the bike trail, I’d go elsewhere within the city.

      1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

        The Ikea in Groningen (NL) will often have more bikes than cars (though not always). They also provided free loaner cargo bikes — everything from bakfiets to large flatbed trikes.

      2. Ian Young

        Hah, I guess I’m not the only one who’s discovered the big box life hack of that bike trail. I hope someone has told Richfield that they did a good job. They are definitely going to be getting more of my money than the rest of the suburban ring thanks to that trail.

      3. Rosa

        us to. And only for large items the closer-in stores don’t have.

        If the Southside Farm Store ever stocked guinea pig bedding I’d never be at Petsmart (though that’s a bad example, we go to the Quarry for that.)

  11. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    I wonder to what extent the days of big-box are somewhat numbered anyway? People like the prices but not the stores. What shoppers likely don’t account for though is the cost of driving ($1/mile?) to and from a big box. That cost could eat up any savings. Increasingly people are also preferring smaller stores closer to them, particularly with grocery’s.

    I don’t think city’s and county’s understand the costs to them of big-box stores either in terms of greater road and related costs, making a city less inviting to people who might want to live or locate a business there, and other bits. They see the tax revenue but not all of the actual costs.

    How much tax revenue for Vadnais Heights do these parking lots generate? Does the revenue from Walmart and other stores make up for the lost revenue on the parking lots? Costs of roads and maintenance? Other costs?

    Vadnais Heights MN Parking Crater

    It will be interesting to see what impact Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods has.

  12. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    I think gas stations will also be disappearing – city & suburb and eventually urban. Every major car manufacturer is turning their focus to electric vehicles. Muffler, brake, and many other car related shops will disappear as well.

    If people don’t own cars, will we need dealers? It’s hard to predict what will happen with autonomous carshare but my guess is that there will be many fewer individually owned cars. From a monetary standpoint car ownership will be very difficult to justify and autonomous carshare will eliminate some of the most disliked aspects of taxi’s and non-autonomous carshare.

    1. Jeff

      I read yesterday that an electric car has 20 moving parts as compared to a car with an internal combustion engine with 2,000 moving parts. Given that, and given the likelihood with driverless cars that we’ll subscribe to a fleet service rather than own a car, my sense is that business-to-consumer auto shops will be very rare.

      1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

        This is fascinating and I am curious to learn more about the effect electric cars might have on the ubiquitous auto parts and repair shop industry.

    2. Rosa

      It’s kind of crazy seeing how many fewer car repair shops we have than there used to be, sometimes it seems like the city is just littered with them. My dad was a truck mechanic and driver, and he has this whole thing about how better tire technology let his company close half their service places back in the ’70s. We just bought a newish car (the last one was 17 years old and was running fine til a light pole fell on it) and don’t expect to buy another for 15 years or more. It won’t take giant changes like all shared or autonomous vehicles to keep making there be fewer and fewer car places.

  13. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    Another thing to consider, for those who purchase cars new: The new car dealership landscape is something largely created by state laws regarding franchising and distributorship (a protectionist industry cartel just like the liquor industry). In 2017 it’s amazing to me that we can’t simply order a car online with all the features we want and have it delivered to our door.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      Good point. Actually, Tesla’s are ordered online. Even if you go in to a store they will sit you down at a computer to order it yourself. A lot of people have ordered them and had them delivered without ever going to a store, particularly those in states that protect the dealership model and won’t allow Tesla to sell direct.

    2. Monte Castleman Post author

      Do people really want to be placing an order for $30,000 items on Amazon or someplace without having test driven one, without seeing one in person, without looking at some of the other brands?

      1. Morgan Bird

        You don’t need an enormous lot full of cars if you’ve just got a few models for people to test drive and then ship straight to their home.

  14. Ryan Ricard

    Interesting post that’s going to take a little digesting, but I’d like to engage a bit with your aside about Highland Park in the mean time. (Cards on the table: I live Highland-adjacent and would like to see some additional housing density, especially along Snelling and on the Ford Site)

    You say that folks moved to Highland “expecting the character of their neighborhood to remain unchanged”. I’m not sure that’s a reasonable expectation in a growing city that’s in demand for a whole slate of quality-of-life reasons. New residents are either going to bid up existing housing (leading to higher property values/taxes) or they’re going to move into new housing (higher density). We can disagree about which situation is preferable, but both are going to cause a set of changes.

    In addition, the single-family homeowners in Highland need to be aware that renters already make up 50% of the neighborhood (source: and that their place and voice in that hard-to-define sense of “character” is equally valid. If people think that living next to busy streets (Ford, Snelling), apartment buildings, or a mix of businesses is undesirable, I’d say that Highland Park was an odd choice.

  15. David MarkleDavid Markle

    Complicated subject.

    Not just big boxes–for example I think Graybar may be the only big electrical supply house left in the central city.

    And what about the big delivery firm DHL? I understand that all the packages they handle go to and from St. Cloud.

    Big box stores first appeared in the suburbs, didn’t they? I have the impression that many young families land in the suburbs because they want to keep their kids out of central city schools.

  16. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

    I think part of the discussion here is you seem to be making an implicit assumption that certain types of businesses can only exist in certain types of boxes. But of course, typically big box businesses like Target have long since figured out urban models that allow them to operate in places like New York City.

    Not every corporation has done that or has urban expansion as a part of their business plan. And some, like IKEA or Home Depot are fairly ill-suited for the purpose. But those businesses are also fundamentally different. You might go to an IKEA once, when you move to town, and that’s it. You might go to a Home Depot once a year on average. Going to these stores is an event, and they don’t need regular foot traffic and an urban model to succeed.

    I don’t really see the problem here, to be honest.

  17. Ian Young

    Monte, thanks for an interesting article. This is a perspective that’s a bit outside the mainstream of, but I think it’s healthy public discourse to have this sort of diversity of opinions, especially when they are well stated and supported with evidence. You’ve stimulated discussion and asked us city-dwellers to reconsider our assumptions, and I’m all for that.

  18. Rosa

    Monte I think you would have made your point more strongly with fabric/craft stores than grocery stores – there’s a ton of tiny, cheap grocery stores you left off the map, and we apparently do just fine with half as many gas stations (we have a ton of non-gas corner stores instead, but there are still a lot of gas stations, nobody’s unable to buy gasoline.) But fabric, like guns, you pretty much have to go to the suburbs for.

    1. Joe

      What about digs, Treadle and the sewing lounge? Those are the only places I’ve ever bought fabric, all in the city. But then I don’t do all that much with fabric, so maybe they are missing key things that you have to go to Michaels for.

      1. Rosa

        or maybe i’m just old and out of touch! Where are they? There was a place by Hi Lake for a while but since it closed we end up out at SR Harris or JoAnn’s or Michael’s (thankfully middle school seems to have fewer art projects than elementary did, I haven’t had to buy styrofoam balls or decorative tacks for a year.)

          1. Dana DeMasterDanaD

            Hmong Marketplace has lots of satin and lining to make fancy dresses. Not so much on the cottons or other things.

            Treadle Yard goods is on Hamline and Grand. Great place – get lots of things there, but their selection is a lot of cool cottons and very short on other things.

            Sewing Lounge is on Selby near Chatsworth. Their selection feels very curated so if you are looking for something specific it isn’t the best place. It is the best if you are looking to be surprised and find something unique.

            Knit and Bolt is the old Crafty Planet space on Johnson Parkway in Northeast Minneapolis.

            I adore SR Harris, but that is a suburban day trip. I try to combine a bunch of big box shopping into that trip.

            Joann’s is the Evil Empire and I refuse to shop there. Besides, their selection is becoming just fleece, costumes, and cheap quilting cotton.

            1. Rosa

              and iron-on patches and snaps, which are my main supplies these days. I miss Target and Walmart having basic sewing supplies, truthfully.

              We have a great neighborhood quilt store here in Powderhorn, people drive in from the suburbs and park up the neighborhood every weekend to go to it, plus my mother-in-law loves it. But like all the Serious Knitting Stores, they’re not quite what I need.

              1. Dana DeMasterDanaD

                Treadle Yard Goods has a great selection of snaps (I’ve been doing lots of pearlized snaps lately) and has iron-on patches.

        1. Joe

          Digs is 38th & Grand Ave in Minneapolis.

          Treadle is Hamline & Grand Ave in St. Paul.

          They like to stick around the Grand’s.

    2. Jordan R Backstrom

      Rosa your comment hits home for me. My girlfriend does a lot of cake decorating and other crafts, and for that, we need to venture out to Michaels. Groceries, gas, hardware, household supplies are within a short walk or bike ride. But when it’s time for crafting, it’s off to Woodbury.

  19. Paul

    No doubt parts of Minneapolis are underserved by affordable chains, but I don’t really agree with the analysis or even the “subsidy” concept here. Are the core cities also “subsidizing” the suburbs by making more interesting entertainment and restaurants available — creating more wear on roads, etc.?

    My sense is this whole comparison is going to feel even more outdated in a few years when Amazon takes over even more of the grocery business. It’s certainly already made the concern about the availability of home improvement and auto parts stores less of an issue.

    And BTW, I remember a time (early 2000s?) when their was another home improvement store in Midway (Knox). I guess those effete, chardonnay-drinking St. Paulites started buying all their stuff at those boutiques on Grand Ave… 😉

  20. Justin Doescher

    Big box stores, while popular, are pretty unnecessary, and their popularity is declining in favor of Amazon and smaller, local stores. They could all go away tomorrow and both the cities and the suburbs would get by just fine with small and medium-sized retailers. Even the national chains could just build smaller stores in mixed use developments.

    Suburbs and smaller cities court these stores intentionally, and oftentimes build them on otherwise empty or underused space, for the convenience of their residents. Some city people may use them as well but that’s not really a bad thing for the suburb since they get the tax revenue.

    To me the idea of a subsidy is propping up something that can’t sustain itself, and large super stores that are intentionally built to serve nearby suburban residents doesn’t really fall into that category for me. And if you don’t like these super stores in your area, lobby to get rid of them in favor of a better use of that land.

    And as for gas stations, they close because the land got a lot more valuable and it wasn’t worth it to have two across the street from each other, like at 40th and Lyndale. That will probably happen in the suburbs eventually, and I imagine in the older, “town” type suburbs like Excelsior and Wayzata, that is already happening, because they’re dense and the land is fairly valuable.

    And the remark about “cute” hardware stores with “outrageous” prices just seems like a swipe at urban living and local shopping. The hardware stores by me are both Ace franchises and the prices and selection are both pretty damn good. Service is way better than any Home Depot too.

    And I really don’t think anyone here hate suburbs or thinks they shouldn’t exist, I think we’re mostly people who, yes, prefer cities, but we just wish that suburbs were built a little more sustainably and sensibly, and that people had more options for getting around and living, and that the focus of our planning didn’t revolve around the single occupant private car and large lots with single family homes stretching as far as the eye can see.

  21. GlowBoy

    I’m not sure I saw this mentioned above, but it should also be pointed out that Minneapolis’ boundaries are drawn unusually tightly. My understanding is there was a 1920s law that prevented Minneapolis from annexing areas around it. Significant sections of today’s Richfield, Edina, SLP, Golden Valley, Robbinsdale, Brooklyn Park, Columbia Heights, Hilltop, St. Anthony and Lauderdale might now be part of Minneapolis (and in some cases not exist) if the city had grown as other cities I’ve lived in (Seattle and Portland) were allowed to do. This is why each of those other two cities has a population of 650,000, compared with Minneapolis’ mere 400,000, and despite Portland anchoring a considerably smaller metropolis.

    In other words, if you drew Minneapolis’ city limits as they’re drawn around Seattle and Portland (and I’m sure many other cities), it would include new-car dealerships, big-box stores, etc., as those other cities do. The lack of these businesses isn’t completely due to city policy.

  22. Allen

    In 2017 it’s amazing to me that we can’t simply order a car online with all the features we want and have it delivered to our door.
    ” ~ Matt Steele

    Mr. Steele, I’ve been shopping for a new car. While it’s not widespread there are sellers toying with this feature. It doesn’t seem available for new cars ( maybe because of state dealership restrictions? ). But there are some used car sellers like Vroom that let you buy the car online and deliver it to your door.

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