Cars are Tragedy not a Boon for Small Businesses

Scout Boutique Before

Celebrating their one-year anniversary in business.

I’ve been going past the red brick triangular building at West 7th and Leech for most of my life, and for pretty much the whole time, it’s been a dilapidated, sad place. For a while in the early 2000s, the building housed a marginal coffee shop. It was once one of many such cafés in St. Paul that struggled along with barely a paying customer for half the day. My good friend from high school worked there there as a barista, and my buddies and I would stop by to keep him company, get a cup of coffee, and shoot the breeze as he worked his minimum wage job and kept the building technically occupied. Like lots of parts of West 7th Street, which runs at an angle from downtown St. Paul to the airport, the old building was in a weird location on an oddly-angled corner, a forgotten spot amid the auto shops and parking lots. 

That said, it’s always been a beautiful building. The three-story building was built in 1902, and its acute triangular shape comes to point on the corner in a dramatic fashion. The cornice and red brickwork are straight from of another era, and the half-circle wrought-iron balconies offer the kind of detail you will rarely find in a mundane city like St. Paul. For as long as I can remember, the beautiful potential of the spot was cloaked with neglect. After the coffee shop closed, the storefront was vacant for at least a decade, another part of St. Paul just waiting for the rainbow.

That’s why it was such a lovely boon when, about a year ago, a new thrift shop opened up in the long vacant spot. The store was called Scout, and the shop owners had an amazing sense of style and design. The whole place was full of local goods, vintage clothes,  and they sold hand-made banners that said GIVE A DAMN.

Here’s a glowing review of the store that appeared in Minnesota Monthly earlier this year, describing the vibe:

[John] Migala handles a lot of the day-to-day operations with more than 20 years of retail, sales, buying, and product design experience behind him, and Thompson brings his creative background to a lot of the digital and marketing front. Both still have other full-time jobs, so for now, their store is running on passion, overtime work, and people who also believe in what Scout can become.

The store reminded me of the shop that David Rose opens up in the TV show Schitt’s Creek (if you’ve seen it), all full of artisanal goods and curated by a lovely couple. In this particular spot in Saint Paul, it was a godsend. 

Imagine pouring all your free time, every spare dollar, years worth of energy and sweat equity, and a lifetime of passion into a business in a marginal, historic, beautiful building in a marginal, historic, and beautiful city. Imagine having the business actually succeed, getting through the first difficult year, jumping through all the regulatory hoops, and (finally!) becoming a stable part of the neighborhood and your life. Imagine having your bucket list dream come true, after years of thankless work. You finally have a business that reflects your carefully crafted sense of self. 

I imagine that was what it was like to be John Migala and Ben Thompson, the owners of Scout Boutique, up until last Friday. 

Then everything changed when an SUV speeding down West 7th Street plowed into the front of the building. 

Scout Car Crash

The crime scene tape on the sandwich board is a nice touch.

Read about it for yourself (emphasis mine):

Crews were on scene stabilizing the basement and main floor before they could remove the SUV. West 7th Street was shut down for a period of time to establish a collapse zone as a precaution.

The vehicle was safely removed from the building without collapse, but the store and apartments have been condemned. The sidewalk will also be closed until further notice due to safety reasons.

Officials did not immediately say what led to the crash.

Imagine pouring your soul into a business, and then, in less than thirty seconds, one person in a speeding car does something reckless (or something) and your store is shuttered, and the hundred-year-old building is condemned.

This is the kind of unnecessary tragedy that happens all too often in St. Paul. This wasn’t even the first car to run into a thrift store on West 7th and close it down in the last year or so. There are dozens of examples that I can personally name where speeding cars have slammed into local businesses and shut them down for a time. 

Please note: this store is a block from the spot where Jose Hernandez,  a dishwasher riding a bicycle home from his work on Grand Avenue after his late-night shift, was hit by a speeding driver and killed back in 2017.

Cars run into businesses all the damn time in this city. They slam into the sides of buildings that house pizza places (I can name more than one), lingerie shops, fire stations, corner stores, hardware stores, bars, schools and countless other things. 

This is not to mention people’s houses and bodies, which are also plowed into all the time by people driving cars way too fast in this city, as is the case for the poor folks who were forced to leave their homes that very day because their affordable housing was condemned or for the dozens of people who have been killed over the last few years.

I get so frustrated about this particular example because West 7th has been a death trap that positively encourages speeding and reckless abandon for decades. The four-lane design here, combined with the wide angles of the intersections, is a recipe for crashes and fatal mayhem.

I wish that business associations and city leaders tasked with economic development would see traffic and speeding drivers as a problem rather than the something to be desired. Long ago, we should have re-designed this street to make the sidewalks wider, the corners tighter, and removed a the extra lane of traffic that encourages people to speed and weave around other drivers. 

I’m amazed there are any historic buildings left on West 7th Street, and unless we begin change the environment, there might not be very many that survive long into the future. According to their Facebook page, Scout will re-open. Hopefully the residents of the apartments in 327 7th Street won’t be displaced for very long.

It’s time to stop the mayhem of car culture in St. Paul, calm traffic, and let our city thrive again. 

Grand Ave Building Crash 2 Grand Ave Building Crash 1

53 thoughts on “Cars are Tragedy not a Boon for Small Businesses

  1. John Maddening

    The driver is on the hook not only for the building repairs, but also the related expenses of the tenants of the apartments (moving expenses, etc.) and the lost profits from the store, right?


    1. Brian

      The driver probably doesn’t have enough insurance (or assets) to cover all the damages. Sure, you can sue but the the driver would probably just have to declare bankruptcy.

  2. Scott

    I agree that West 7th could use a complete traffic calming makeover. A couple months ago, I was traveling east/north on West 7th in my car and came across a pedestrian crossing the road at the well marked cross-walk in front of Mickey’s diner. I was in the left lane and came to a gradual, controlled stop, and then was passed in the right lane by probably 10 to 15 cars, many of them were behind me and went around me, many with very angry drivers, and all going well over the speed limit. Perhaps it was so striking to me because I had very recently moved back to the Twin Cities from Portland, OR, where most folks seem to be more used to stopping for pedestrians, especially in such well marked cross-walks. My wife is originally from Denver and had always commented on how aggressive drivers in Denver are, and she was shocked at how aggressive drivers in the Twin Cities are. I would say that in the 16 years that I was away, drivers here have become generally much worse and much more aggressive.

  3. jack

    What a tragedy for the shop owners and the tenants. That building must be saved!

    Are they still planning light rail down West 7th?

  4. Calvin McKenney

    I think Minneapolis is much better about this, foot traffic is pretty heavy nowadays in several parts of town so people seem to have become adapted to having to wait for pedestrians. St. Paul is still a substantially more desolate and forgotten about urban space that a pedestrian is a much more rare and therefore annoying occurrence for the drivers on that side of town.

  5. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

    And just a reminder that car traffic is so prized on West 7th that Ramsey County and St. Paul are proposing to spend two billion dollars on a new transit line down the corridor but are unwilling to cede a single lane of car space in this stretch that would allow that transit investment to operate more smoothly and reliably.

    1. Brian

      They are smart enough to realize that lot of people will still drive for any variety of reasons. Not the least of which is a transit system that only barely serves Minneapolis and St. Paul. If you live in a suburb you don’t get any transit service unless you want to go downtown in the morning and back to the suburbs in late afternoon/evening.

      1. Rosa

        Why does that mean they can’t give up some space and possibly tolerate delays? Some people drive us not the same as we must make driving as fast and easy as possible. I mean, lots of people walk, why don’t all the intersections prioritize them?

        1. Brian

          The pedestrians downtown already take priority if given to them or not. I drove downtown for the first time this week since January and pedestrians pay no attention to traffic lights. I had the green and pedestrians just kept crossing in front of me against the light.

          I am all for spending more money on bike paths and transit, but not at the expense of removing space for cars. Underground rail is better for passengers since it goes faster due to no stops between stations. It also doesn’t use street level that other transportation modes can use.

      2. Brian

        Two real world examples of suburban transit wanting to be at the airport at 1 pm on a Saturday:

        Southern Shoreview: Transit is possible, but it takes 1 hour 17 minutes versus maybe 35 minutes by car.

        Arden Hills close to 35W and 694 interchange: Used my parent’s address and no stop within 1 mile so Trip Planner could not give a route. A car takes about 35 minutes again.

        For those who have no car that 1 hour 17 minutes is better than nothing. Most with a car would choose their car over transit simply based on time. If you have no car in today’s world there are a lot better places to live where transit is better.

        1. Will

          What are the chances that someone going to the airport from those two locations would even use West Seventh and thus need all that extra space?

          1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

            To be fair, the best route from the St. Paul suburbs to the airport is 35E to W. 7th, but that’s not the part of W. 7th where this crash happened.

            Also, people wanting to use a city street to get to the airport is no excuse to keep that street deadly.

        2. Pine SalicaPine Salica

          ” If you have no car in today’s world there are a lot better places to live where transit is better.”
          Two things:
          1) cost of living vs non-car-infra accessibility – we do pretty well if you care about both.
          2) why is this a reason to not improve it? to heck with your nihilism.

      3. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker

        See, this is kinda the problem right here. I say, “let’s give up a couple car lanes on West 7th (a five lane road) so that transit never gets stuck in traffic,” and your response is “but people are still going to drive.”

        Nobody is arguing for banning cars on West 7th. Cars would still have most of the lanes on West 7th. But at the cost of 40% of that space, you could dramatically improve the quality of transit offered on West 7th. That’s the trade-off that’s on offer.

  6. Peter

    One incident makes all cars evil? Please. Pretty reckless of the author to make such a bold claim about all cars based on one accident. Using his logic, Chicago should have banned cows after one kicked over Mrs O’Leary’s lantern and started the great Chicago fire. Many a quaint building, renters and businesses were displaced as a result of the inferno. I have shopped the store. Yes it is beautiful, but I would guess that 90% of their customers arrived via private automobile. Accidents happened. No where does it state what caused the accident. Medical incident? Another car? The City is planning a street car for West 7th. It will eliminate some street parking. This loss of parking and the two year construction period will kill small businesses like this one as customers won’t be able to access the store. Just look what happened on University Ave during the Green Line construction. The street car is a bigger threat than the automoblile to this business.

    1. Rosa

      Nobody said evil – he said too fast. That’s what caused the damage – excessive speed. And it happens all the time but anything that would slow cars is viewed as demonizing all drivers. This isn’t one accident either – did you read the litany? It’s a pattern

      1. Brian

        Has it been officially determined the car was speeding, or this is just the automatic assumption that any vehicle that crashes was speeding?

      1. Peter

        2am. Drunk driver. Completely different issue. Store reopened. This is why businesses carry insurance as do drivers. Where was your outrage when a Green Line Engineer blew a stop sign at Raymond and killed the driver and seriously injured his passengers? You can repair buildings and businesses, but when you’re dead you’re dead.

        1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

          Not a different issue, IMO. Streets that encourage speeding do so for the sober and the intoxicated alike.

          The Green Line crash was very sad, as are all the preventable fatalities that happen on our streets. I am at a loss to figure out how to prevent a Green Line operator from running a light, other than to push for well-paid and well-trained operators, whereas street design and regulation of drivers is something we can change.

          1. Andrew

            Positive train control linked to the traffic light system… if the trains always get green as they approach, they can’t possibly run a red.

  7. Christa MChrista Moseng

    The pro-car comments on this post are a pretty succinct example of the catch-22 car-dependency tango.

    Transit isn’t good enough for anyone to take fewer car trips, but also you can’t improve transit because everything is built around the car and you dare not try to change it because, etc., etc.

    Transportation improvements are a public good and a public necessity. The flim flam about why those improvements shouldn’t trade some car convenience for the convenience of another, more socially beneficial mode, are all so much self-serving rationalizing.

    1. Will

      Or that other common comment: “well, mass transit won’t work for this specific example, so let’s not bother.”

  8. Rich

    I live in Lowertown off Kellogg, trust me, many drivers treat this like a freeway. It doesn’t help that much of downtown St Paul is torn up this summer. Lanes are constricted, lights are not synchronized. This leads to all sorts of aggressive driving. I will say though that on my walk home today from the Science Museum, the very first car at both Wabasha and Robert, making a right on yield during rush hour, stopped for me as I approached the cross walk. Not all car drivers are evil.

    1. Will

      I’m thankful for those few that still pay attention to the traffic light at St. Peter and 4th to allow pedestrians to cross. Most keep going through, because, hey, it’s closed to car traffic.

  9. stevnim

    Just my thoughts, but streets that become overly dangerous should be last on the list to have potholes repaired.

  10. Jake

    Bill, I’m a big fan of your work and I live in the W7 neighborhood. What can I do? I feel kind of powerless against car culture. W7 would be a great road for some traffic reductions.

  11. karen Nelson

    there is a different way to live, many other cities and countries and even towns in WI do it, 20-25 mph max on any surface streets, nice pedestrian friendly street fronts, far less deaths and injuries.

    It isn’t end of world to consider what is so nice and safer in other places, that we could do also have
    …. for the low low price of:

    …drivers slowing down and adding a few minutes to their trip times at the most.

    We can save many lives and make our streets more pleasant and thriving without taking one car trip away from one person who loves their cars so much, just by slowing peak speeds of cars.

    And once we slow traffic down simply by better road design (usually even less expensive versions of our streets), lower speed limits, and better enforcement (that can pay for itself), then a wonderful thing happens – some people, not those who love their cars so much, don’t worry we aren’t taking them, but some of us, will chose to walk, bike or take transit because our streets will be safer and work better for non-car options.

    So car lovers, you don’t have to give up you car to save lives and reduce car traffic, just slow down, relax, and let pedestrians and cyclists have separated real estate, out of your way, that you don’t need for your cars anyways.

  12. Andrew Evans

    Is it really better road design or lack of enforcement and laws that don’t really have any teeth?

    Pretty sure drivers would go the speed limit if there was a decent chance that over the course of a period of time (week, month, few days) their speeding would be caught by a traffic officer.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      Pretty sure they wouldn’t unless they were caught with a frequency that’s not possible without cameras. Also, design doesn’t impose fines on people who can’t afford them.

      1. Andrew Evans

        Pretty sure everyone mostly behaved themselves 10+ years ago when MPD still had a traffic unit. Cameras aren’t the only answer.

        If someone can’t afford the fines then they shouldn’t be driving like a Richard.

  13. Kit McCullough

    What about all of the buildings that flout traffic laws? If only buildings would pay attention/look up from their phones/wear reflective bright colors/not walk out in front of cars they wouldn’t get run into so much. It’s not always the driver’s fault! Buildings need to take responsibility for their own safety.

    1. Andrew Evans

      Honestly if I was a building owner in an area that had driving issues, I’d take some measures to put up barriers or things like you mentioned. It may not completely work all the time, but if effective it could be cheaper than what happened to the building in the article.

      If my house wasn’t on a hill from the road and across from an intersection, I totally would try and put some larger cement pots or something out in the yard.

      1. Kit McCullough

        Whenever there is an article about dangerous street design that results in the deaths of pedestrians and/or cyclists, the comments always devolve into a litany of complaints about pedestrian/cyclist behavior and how they need to take responsibility for their own safety. My sarcastic comment was meant to point out that finally, in this case, we can’t blame the victim. But, I guess, maybe we can.

        1. Andrew Evans

          So we just ignore any changes that can be made to buildings or streets?

          I get that it’s not the complete answer, but it’s something that can be done by (in this case) property owners to mitigate or try to mitigate potential damage.

          I’m not saying it should be a hard requirement, only that there are steps that can be taken. The same way that having a security system with signs posted and or owning a firearm are steps that can be taken to avoid or mitigate a break-in. In that case we still blame the criminal, but accept that homeowners can take steps to secure their properties.

  14. Paul the Apostle

    “the half-circle wrought-iron balconies offer the kind of detail you will rarely find in a mundane city like St. Paul

    I’m surprised to see a comment like this from someone who supposedly walks the streets of St. Paul frequently. St. Paul is filled with these kinds of details all over the place, which is one small reason why I chose St. Paul as a place to live instead of an architecturally mundane city like its Teardownapolis neighbor across the river.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      I don’t see very many balconies like this. High ornament in the remaining buildings is kind of rare to my eye. I think many of St. Paul’s historic buildings, especially on a street like west 7th, were fairly utilitarian.

  15. Ryan

    There are a number a streets just like West 7th that need an overhaul to increase safety for pedestrians. Lyndale Ave South and West Broadway in Minneapolis are two additional examples of deadly 4 lane streets in need of an overhaul in the name of safety.

  16. Lou Miranda

    OMG, I know Ben. I didn’t realize this was his shop.

    What a sad thing to happen to these entrepreneurs. When transportation is individually owned, it is inevitably marketed for speed, acceleration, sportiness, and/or insulating you from your environment, all things that lead to toxic street environments for anyone that isn’t in a car—including, apparently, buildings.

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