Creative Kidstuff going out of business sale

Upzoning Is the Only Way to Save Grand Avenue

Author’s note: As you read this, please be aware that my family owns a retail store on Grand Avenue and I have personal financial interest in this topic.

Grand Avenue has always been a unique yet fraught shopping destination. Its modern form dates back to the 70s and 80s, when a generation of independent entrepreneurs restored aging commercial buildings, many of which were former automobile dealerships. The result was a mixed use avenue of quirky shops, restaurants, apartments and homes.

From the beginning, the commercial interests of the avenue have been at odds with those of the local residential neighborhood. While Grand Avenue was reinventing itself, the surrounding neighborhood of Victorian homes experienced gentrification and dramatic increases in property values. Disputes between businesses and residents over parking, setbacks, parking meters, signage, parking lots, zoning, parking permits, liquor licenses and parking ramps on Grand have been never ending for at least five decades.

The East Grand Avenue Overlay

The early 2000s were a turning point in these tensions. Over the years, more and more national chain stores like Pottery Barn, J. Crew, Pier One and Ann Taylor opened on Grand while locally owned favorites like Hungry Mind Books and Odegard Books closed, each blaming big box stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders. At the time, I was a member (and subsequent board member) of the Metro Independent Business Alliance (MetroIBA), which was launching a new Twin Cities Buy Local movement. One of MetroIBA’s first initiatives was to preserve space for locally-owned businesses on Grand.

The Oxford Hill development, built in 2005, was four stories and included a CVS pharmacy and a Starbucks. May 29, 2020.
The Oxford Hill development, built in 2005, is four stories and includes a CVS pharmacy and a Starbucks. The building was temporarily boarded up during the civil unrest following the murder of George Floyd. May 29, 2020.

The issue came to a head with the Oxford Hill development, a four story mixed use building at Oxford and Grand built in 2005. Not only did Oxford Hill’s height rankle its neighbors, but its core tenants, CVS and Starbucks, threatened a nearby independent pharmacy and an indie coffee shop. It seemed that everything unique about Grand Avenue was under threat.

In response, MetroIBA and the Summit Hill Association (SHA) lobbied the city to institute a ban on “formula” businesses on Grand, which would have barred new chain stores and franchises. The city, however, was apprehensive about legally defending such an ordinance, and the discussion pivoted instead to zoning changes. In 2006, the city council implemented the East Grand Avenue Overlay District (EGAOD), which limits the size and height of new buildings on Grand from Ayd Mill Road all the way to Oakland Avenue, a block east of Dale. In the hope of preserving and encouraging small-scale locally owned businesses, EGAOD prohibits any new buildings greater than three stories.

Seventeen Years of Stagnation

Unfortunately, EGAOD did not help small businesses. In fact, in the 17 years since it was adopted, the eastern half of Grand has lost a host of retailers, both large and small. Creative Kidstuff, Bibelot, The North Face, Pier One, Ann Taylor, Garden of Eden, Lululemon, J. Crew, Anthopologie, Baby Grand, Ten Thousand Villages and the Grand Collective have all closed in recent years. Some have been replaced with new retailers like Freewheel Bikes and Good Things, but most storefronts either sit empty or have been replaced by non-retail businesses. It’s fair to say that Grand Avenue as a shopping destination is dying.

Today, the threat of big box stores invading Grand seems almost quaint. The truth is we are living through a retail apocalypse. Every product imaginable is just one click away, quickly delivered by one of the world’s most exploitative corporations. Unlike 20 years ago, someone from Woodbury or Eagan has fewer and fewer reasons to drive into the city to visit Grand. With each closure, Grand’s critical mass of attractions is further diminished. Every surviving business suffers as a result.

Anthropologie unexpectedly shut its doors at the height of the holiday shopping season. November 28, 2022
Anthropologie unexpectedly shut its doors at the height of the holiday shopping season. November 28, 2022

Grand Avenue’s retailers and restaurants would benefit greatly from more residents living in the immediate neighborhood. Hundreds of new families living within walking distance would help fill vacant storefronts with new businesses. And those new businesses would attract more visitors to the avenue.

But no new neighbors have arrived since the overlay took effect. With the notable and fiercely contested recent exception of the Dixie’s development at 695 Grand, absolutely nothing has been built on the eastern half of Grand since 2006.

A few of the many recent housing developments built along the western half of Grand Avenue, where EGAOD doesn’t apply. April 16, 2023.

One failed project helps illustrate why. In 2019, Lunds & Byerlys proposed a five story multi-use development at Avon and Grand, the heart of the avenue’s shopping district. But, after spending $6 million on land acquisition and hosting several wildly contentious public meetings, they put the project on indefinite hold. The public relations cost of overcoming the overlay seemed more than Lunds & Byerlys was willing to pay. The development would have housed 69 families above a full service grocery store with underground parking.

So, when Peter Kenefick, the owner of Dixie’s and Saji-Ya restaurants at 695 Grand Avenue, proposed replacing his buildings with a five story multi-use development that would house 80 families, the odds were stacked against him. First, he’d have to revise the underlying zoning for his property. Then, like the the Lunds & Byerlys proposal, he’d need a zoning variance for the overlay district. All of which would require approval from the Summit Hill Association, the Planning Commission and the city council.

 Demolition of Dixie's and Saji-Ya at 695 Grand Avenue. May 4, 2022.
Demolition of Dixie’s and Saji-Ya at 695 Grand Avenue. May 4, 2022.

The process was excruciating. The term NIMBY is, of course, extremely reductive. But it’s hard to use a different term for opponents of this project when their core argument simply boils down to “Not in my back yard.”

My daughter, Abigail Adelsheim-Marshall, served on the SHA board and had a front row seat to all the drama. NIMBYs accused board members of corruption, of being paid by the developer. They circulated petitions and threatened lawsuits. They argued that dense housing developments should only be built elsewhere, like on University Avenue. They complained about shadows cast into the backyards of Summit Avenue mansions and increased alley traffic. And, despite the project’s two levels of underground parking, they complained about parking.

The historic charm of surface parking, single story commercial buildings, and a six story condo building built in 1981. April 13, 2023.
The historic charm of surface parking lots, single-story commercial buildings and a six-story condo building built in 1981. April 13, 2023.

Many opponents cited Grand Avenue’s “charm” and argued for preservation of the neighborhood’s historic character, which would somehow be destroyed by an apartment building. Yet Grand Avenue’s buildings are no more “historic” or architecturally significant than Payne Avenue, West 7th Street or most any other streetcar corridor in Saint Paul. The only difference is the wealth and ethnicity of the surrounding neighborhood. Aesthetic NIMBY arguments like these are expressions of classism, often mixed with thinly-veiled racism, which have been used throughout the country to justify exclusionary zoning.

In the end, SHA endorsed the development, as did the Planning Commission. But some last minute NIMBY lobbying nearly killed the project in the city council, where its variances barely passed on on a 4 to 3 vote. After over a year of intense debate, the Dixie’s project could finally proceed and is now nearing completion.

St. Paul Recognizes that EGAOD Needs Reform

The Dixie’s project highlighted three problems for the City of Saint Paul:

  • First, the Summit Hill neighborhood was deeply divided about density and the future of Grand Avenue.
  • Second, the Dixie’s developer made clear that with land acquisition, materials and labor costs, it’s impossible to build a new development under three stories. If underground parking is included, five or six stories is the minimum economically viable height.
  • Third, the city realized that EGAOD was out of compliance with the city’s Comprehensive 2040 Plan, which calls for dense housing development along transit corridors like Grand Avenue and at neighborhood nodes like Grand and Victoria.

As I understand it, when local zoning conflicts with a city’s comprehensive plan, the city must follow its comp plan or risk legal exposure. The city realized it was time either to revise or repeal EGAOD.

Grand and Victoria, partially boarded up in fear of civil unrest. May 31, 2020.

Working with SHA, city planners decided to convene an EGAOD Citizen’s Advisory Committee to discuss the overlay district and recommend changes. Reluctantly, I volunteered and was chosen to serve with twelve fellow citizens.

The Citizens Advisory Committee

I say reluctantly not only because family commitments and our small business keep me very busy, but also because I agree with the Strong Towns view that most public engagement is worthless. In fact, it can even be worse than worthless and we should probably stop asking the public what they want.

At our first meeting, it was immediately clear that this process would fall into all the community engagement traps Strong Towns describes. For starters, the committee was entirely made up of people with the time and wherewithal to devote multiple evenings to an arcane discussion about zoning. Most of us were middle aged or older. Most of us were middle class professionals. None of us represented any of Saint Paul’s communities of color. By design, we were evenly split between NIMBYs and YIMBYs.

The city hired a planning consultant, Michael Lamb, to facilitate the discussion. None of us were urban planning professionals, economists or landscape architects. Yet at every meeting Lamb led us into discussions centered on planning jargon like setbacks, curb cuts, human scale development, active ground floors, historic character and balanced movement. None of us had the expertise to draft zoning regulations based on these concepts. We just cared about the future of Grand Avenue.

Lamb tried to interject context with a few guest speakers. So, we got to hear a bit about the challenges facing the retail industry, infill urban development and the city’s public housing program (surprise: there are no public housing facilities within Summit Hill). He riffed on the history of Grand Avenue as a streetcar route, but failed to mention how the neighborhood benefited from years of redlining or how neighboring communities of color were decimated by freeway construction and urban renewal.

Seven meetings and seven bike rides to the Linwood Recreation Center. January 9, 2023.
Seven meetings and seven bike rides to the Linwood Recreation Center. January 9, 2023.

As the meetings wore on, I grew increasingly frustrated and let my frustration show. I was continually trying to add important context that Lamb was leaving out: Doesn’t the city’s climate action plan support increasing housing density? The Twin Cities has an acute housing crisis — shouldn’t we build more housing? What about the city’s revenue shortfall? Shouldn’t we be doing everything we can to grow the city’s tax base? None of these concepts were on Lamb’s discussion agenda. I repeatedly tried to steer discussion to these topics. I’m sure other committee members saw this as rude and disruptive.

After the fifth meeting, I took these concerns to the city’s planning staff. To their credit, they addressed all of these issues in a presentation that took up most of the sixth meeting. By that point, though, we only had one meeting left and still hadn’t really discussed the merits of the overlay’s three story height limit — the one issue we had been charged to resolve.

In the end, Lamb produced a document entitled “Principles for A Better Grand Avenue” (above), with seven points of mostly manufactured consensus. The document supports increased housing density and, from my point of view, is mostly unobjectionable. But many of these principles were only discussed in a lightning round during the very last meeting and few actually had consensus support. Indeed, I just received an invitation from a staunch NIMBY committee participant to re-litigate the committee’s recommendations on building height at an eighth “casual” meeting. Um, no thank you.

The worst part is that the advisory committee never discussed a complete repeal of the East Grand Avenue Overlay, which would allow each property to revert back to its underlying zoning. It was never on the table. Yet, it’s the only sensible way forward.

It’s Time to Repeal EGAOD

Now that the citizen advisory committee’s work is complete, city staff will draft recommendations to the Planning Commission sometime this summer. The city council will likely vote on any changes this fall.

For my part, I strongly believe that the city should repeal EGAOD in its entirety. Below is my statement to the city planning staff at the conclusion of the citizen advisory process. This is what I’ll be fighting for in the coming months. Please join me by emailing Saint Paul senior planner Spencer Miller-Johnson at spencer.miller-johnson@ci.stpaul.mn.us. Let the city know it’s time to repeal EGAOD and begin welcoming new neighbors to Grand Avenue.


Upzoning Principles for a Better Grand Avenue

These are the economic realities currently facing Grand Avenue and the City of Saint Paul:

  • Grand Avenue’s status as a retail and restaurant destination is rapidly diminishing. The unrelenting rise of eCommerce has led to a slew of closures, often leaving unattractive empty storefronts. Recent examples include Anthropologie, J. Crew, Pier 1, Ten Thousand Villages, North Face, Ann Taylor, Creative Kidstuff and the Grand Collective. These closures affect the continued viability of the avenue’s remaining businesses unless more customers can be attracted to the area. The best way to do this is to encourage dense, urban development all along Grand Avenue.
  • The Summit Hill neighborhood has benefited from a century of favorable lending arrangements while neighboring communities like Rondo, Frogtown and the Fort Road Neighborhood have suffered from redlining, disinvestment and freeway construction. The result is an immense income and wealth disparity between Summit Hill and its immediate neighbors. Building density in Summit Hill, preferably with the inclusion of affordable units, will begin to redress these disparities.
  • The city of Saint Paul is suffering from an ongoing revenue shortfall which hinders the city’s ability to perform basic services–everything from library staffing to road maintenance. Growing the city’s tax base with higher density land use in wealthy neighborhoods like Summit Hill would generate significant tax revenue and help alleviate this problem.
  • The city’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan specifically calls for more dense urban housing developments along transit corridors such as Grand Avenue.
  • The Twin Cities is in the midst of a severe housing crisis and rents and home prices are at record levels. The lack of housing supply for all incomes impoverishes families, promotes displacement and leads to evictions and homelessness. The best solution is to build more housing everywhere in the city, even on Grand Avenue.
  • The city’s Climate Action and Resilience Plan specifically calls for increasing mixed-use and higher density development throughout the city. It also calls for increasing cycling, walking and transit while decreasing driving. All of these initiatives will be served by increasing density along Grand Avenue.

These economic realities lead to just one conclusion: We need to abandon the East Grand Avenue Overlay, which currently prohibits new economically viable multifamily buildings. The fact that there has been no new development on the eastern half of Grand since the overlay was adopted (except for the notable and contentious example of 695 Grand) is proof enough that the overlay is a failed policy. There is no sensible, wise or equitable reason to keep the overlay in place.


All photos by the author. Image at top: Creative Kidstuff liquidation sale. April 4, 2019.

Dan Marshall

About Dan Marshall

Pronouns: he/him

Dan Marshall lives in Hamline-Midway, is the father of four kids, owns a retail shop in Saint Paul with his wife and daughter, bikes all around town, and holds a history degree from the U of M. He aspires to create mildly interesting local content for Streets.mn readers. @DanMarStP