This is the third article in a series on the evolution of retail and parking issues. Part One looked at issues with West End’s parking ramp as described in a Twin Cities Business magazine article. Then Part Two followed the evolution of regional retail from urban downtowns to suburban malls to suburban lifestyle centers. Now it’s time for a more in-depth comparison of these centers.
Common Elements of Lifestyle Centers
First some typical characteristics that most lifestyle centers share:
- They have some or mostly regional-type retail, for shopping other than your weekly grocery run or a fast food drive-through to pick up lunch and more highbrow than laundromats and dollar stores. Basically your stereotypical regional mall stores in a different architectural form.
- They all use the Neotraditional style of architecture. From here on out, I’m going to use my term “fake history” architecture.
- They’re located on greenfield sites in wealthy suburbs.
- The general form is strips of shops facing one another across a “Main Street,” generally divided into three or four blocks on each side.
- Parking will be in back, in surface lots, as well as some on-street parking on “Main Street.”
- The anchors are medium sized and feature something other than traditional department stores.
- There will be anchors at least on each end and sometimes also to one side.
Four Lifestyle Centers Compared
Now to compare four lifestyle centers in the Twin Cities. Throughout this article I’ve tended to use Google Street View images, because they capture the area better than I could with my own camera.
The Shoppes of Arbor Lakes opened in Maple Grove in 2003. AMC Cinema 16 anchors one end; Forever 21 anchors the other. Off to the side is another anchor, Whole Foods, and the Maple Grove Transit Station. These all are easy to get to from either surface parking or by walking from the strip of shops. Confusingly, a named Main Street runs down the perimeter while the “Main Street” in the center is unnamed.
Uniquely the center part of “Main Street” was originally a pedestrian mall. Nicollet Mall may have been a wild success, but that success was seldom repeated. I’d speculate here that businesses didn’t want to be too far from short-term parking, and it was counter-intuitive to not be able to drive all the way down the street. Now it’s been rebuilt and opened to vehicles.
Woodbury Lakes, another typical lifestyle center, opened in 2005. You could be forgiven for thinking this another picture of Arbor Lakes.
Architecturally we have the usual hodgepodge of exterior treatments and elevations, cornices, pillars a lot thicker than needed for structural reasons and stone facing that looks like a design student’s fantasy. One side is anchored by an Alamo Cinema Cafe, the other has a “mini-big-box” strip with a Michael’s, DSW Shoe Warehouse and buybuyBABY. A Trader Joe’s is off to one side, but unlike the Whole Foods at Arbor Lakes, it requires a long walk across the parking lot.
Shops of West End
West End is laid out differently than the rest. Here’s an overhead view.
And here’s the mostly vacant south-central block.
In retail you want an anchor always in sight to draw traffic and allow people to get their bearings, at least on each end and possibly the sides, too. West End has an anchor on the north end, the cinema, but on the south end nothing materialized. They didn’t want to build it out for a restaurant, due to the expense, and no anchor retail tenant has emerged.
At least there are real second-story windows, but those lantern-style streetlights went out of fashion 60 years ago and are now another example of fake history. Many modern lantern lights utilize the unique optics of LEDs to their full advantage, and those could have been used.
With no surface parking around it, the west block of buildings has a second side facing outward toward Park Place Boulevard. It’s perplexing why anyone would want to lease a space here, and few do. If dining on a patio of a fancy restaurant facing a faux “main street” is inferior to facing the street in historic downtown Stillwater or the Warehouse District, it’s still superior to this: a five-lane road across which is a grass berm and then the loading docks of a strip mall.
It’s hard to see why a mall-type store would rather be here than “Main Street.” If having a storefront visible to motorists is important to capture customers, then yes, you are highly visible. But those kind of stores tend not to locate in lifestyle centers, and there’s no parking in front for impulse stops.
In this aerial view you can see West End’s relationship to the neighborhood. Maybe the Home Depot and Costco function as unofficial anchors; perhaps you might drive your car to the theater after picking up a float valve and light bulbs. I don’t know.
Central Park Commons
The final lifestyle center, built in 2016, is Central Park Commons in Eagan, located on the old Lockheed Martin plant site. It has the fake “Main Street,” of course, the defining feature. Architecturally it’s the least nauseating of the bunch. Although the form is still fake, with a lot of height and elevation changes for no functional or historical reason, it at least doesn’t have the cornices and pillars of some of the others. Parking along “Main Street” is all diagonal, either to fit more cars into prime spots in front of the building or because of suburban customers like me who can’t parallel park. The result is a wider, and thus less cute, “Main Street.”
As mentioned in the Twin Cities Business article that started this series, “Central Park Commons represents the latest thinking in suburban lifestyle centers.” If so, the latest thinking is this: no medium-sized anchors at each end of the strip that are both walkable and parkable. Instead they’re typical suburban big box anchors — Total Wine, Hy-Vee, Hobby Lobby — pulled way back, presumably in order to maximum surface parking in front of them. If West End is pretending that Home Depot isn’t the real anchor at West End, there’s no pretense here pretending Hy-Vee isn’t the anchor at Central Park Commons.
As it turns out the “driving yourself from Hyvee to Punch Pizza” line in the original article mentioned in part one might be hyperbole. I both drove and walked and found similar times, and while walking that distance may not be fun, neither is driving through a parking lot. I also question the premise of why you would get a bunch of groceries and then have the ice cream melt in the car while you’re eating pizza. But I think the point stands that it’s a lot less pleasant and convenient to walk from the anchors to the “Main Street” than any of the other three.
Finally we have The Grove, located in Maple Grove, which opened in 2005.
Notice the clock tower added to the usual fake history architecture. It’s a good thing they have a clock in case you shop here but can’t afford a phone or wristwatch. The Grove seems to have a larger proportion of local-type stores, and there are no anchors, unless you count Target, Parkway Transit Station and Maple Grove Hospital, all of which are separated by huge surface lots and five-lane roads. Due to its smaller size, lack of anchors and retail mix, The Grove may not be a true lifestyle center, but Wikipedia calls it that, and it does share some elements.
So in part one we went over why parking ramps are subjectively inconvenient or otherwise disliked by people. But can we see if West End is objectively inconvenient? Time is a good objective measure of convenience. As an experiment, I picked a random store from the online directory of West End and three other lifestyle centers, a regional mall and a strip mall. I deliberately did no other research and went to see how long it would take to get to each store. I set a timer from when I turned into the driveway until the time I parked in a place that looked promising. Then I started timing as I got out and walked to the store, ending when I touched the door.
This would be the experience of a new person trying out the area:
- West End (lifestyle center with ramp): Apricot Lane- 1:38 drive, 2:28 walk, total 4:06
- Central Park Commons (lifestyle center): Central Nails- 0:54 drive, 1:40 walk, total 2:34
- Arbor Lakes (lifestyle center): Claire’s- 0:25 drive, 5:29 walk, total 5:54
- Woodbury Lakes (lifestyle center): Buckle- 1:06 drive, 2:52 walk, total: 3:58
- Burnsville Center (regional mall): Justice- 1:15 drive, 4:25 walk, total 5:40
- Hub Center (strip mall): GameStop- 1:40 drive, 1:04 walk, total 2:44
Once I knew the layouts of the stores and parking areas, I did a second run of the drive and/or walk to illustrate a “best case” scenario: someone knowing where the store was and how to park close. Here’s the list with some improved times:
- West End: Apricot Lane- 1:38 drive, 1:48 walk, total 3:26
- Central Park Commons: Central Nails- 0:59 drive, 0.23 walk, total 1:22
- Arbor Lakes: Claire’s- 1:15 drive, 1:19 walk, total 2:34
- Woodbury Lakes: Buckle- 0:33 drive, 2:42 walk, total 3:15
- Burnsville Center: Justice- 1:35 drive , 2:35 walk, total 5:10
- Hub: Gamestop- 1:22 drive, 1:04 walk, total 2:22
Here’s a chart in seconds:
All the runs were on a typical Saturday afternoon before the pandemic, and in all cases I picked a spot in the main parking area rather than an on-street spot on Main Street. These were rarely available and in some cases were parallel parking or time limited. So what do we make of these data points?
- The regional mall is a clear loser, probably a key reason — along with the implosion of department store anchors — that regional malls are going away.
- Central Park Commons was the clear winner. The relatively open design makes it easy to find where you’re going when entering via car, and the abundant surface parking makes it easy to park next to where you’re going.
- The others are more scattershot. West End was the worst of the lifestyle centers, but not by much.
- The high first-pass time at Arbor Lakes was less about the fundamental design than because I randomly picked a store on the extreme opposite end from the entrance nearest the freeway.
To the extent that West End’s problems are people-hating ramps, it’s obvious for the reasons listed in part one — fear of crime, subjective inconvenience, tight spaces — rather than objective inconvenience.
The fourth and final part of this series will focus on another regional shopping destination with a parking ramp problem: Stillwater.
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