Nathaniel Hood

Nathaniel Hood is a transportation planner and blogger living in St. Paul. He writes for Strong Towns and Streets.MN.

What the Trader Joe’s proposal says about Minneapolis

Posted by: Nathaniel Hood under Society, Politics Updated: July 11, 2012 - 1:24 PM

The events that unfolded during the Uptown Trader Joe’s debate tell us a lot about ourselves. It uniquely touched on many facets of Minneapolis life, and interestingly enough, these were cultural mêlées as much as they were land use battles.

Trader Joe’s wants a liquor store. Wine and beer are essential to its business model. This placed it face-to-face with the new controversial liquor requirements that were championed by very Minneapolis City Council Member whose district the development was slated to break ground.

Uptown is a neighborhood undergoing tremendous change as condos, apartments and new spaces are built to accommodate the growing demand from young, urban professionals. Uptown’s new residents, mostly older Millennials, have been willing to pay a premium to live in small spaces in one of Minneapolis’ most trendy and urban neighborhoods.

In 2010, new liquor restrictions, along with stricter patio requirements, drove a cultural wedge between Uptown’s long-time residents and younger arrivals who are more concerned about having new, exciting places to go than whether or not patio music should cease at an earlier time.

The grievances of long-time residents are not hard to understand. They have a lot invested in their neighborhood. Uptown has changed in the past decade and most of these changes seem to accommodate the tastes of the new residents. Change can be a hard pill to swallow. I certainly empathize. Loud music, intoxicated bar patrons, the occasional vandalism case and parking problems on my front doorstep wouldn’t be welcomed.

This cultural divide is the heart of the battle. It’s not whether liquor stores should be spaced an arbitrary distance apart, it’s about whom and what activities should be calling Uptown town.

This change in Uptown has extended beyond matters of age and into the realm of commerce. The businesses occupying Uptown have become noticeably more corporate. Chain stores have moved in and pushed smaller, locally owned businesses out. The Uptown Bar is a classic example.

Objections to the development root from an anxiety that Lyndale Avenue may soon resemble its neighbor, Hennepin Avenue, where chain stores are abundant and traffic is congested. This is a classic Main Street battle; pitting those who adore the local food coop against those who are typically ambivalent.

This change was bound to happen as Uptown has become a victim of its own success. The original gentrifers did such a good job of boosting neighborhood property values that they were ultimately pushed out by chains stores willing and able to pay the premium rents that are now only attainable precisely because of the work of the original gentrifiers. Trader Joe’s is the new iteration of this struggle between local ownership and economies of scale.

The location, 27th St and Lyndale, brought anxieties that a stretch of historic streetcar-oriented buildings would be demolished and replaced with a single-story building and parking lot. This element of the project was particularly disconcerting to local urbanists who view this as an important mixed-use corridor. In the process, Trader Joe’s challenged the teeth of our local plans; would the City of Minneapolis follow through with plans developed by local communities or allow developers to dictate the built environment.

The application of plans appears to be inconsistent. A nearly identical set of circumstances occurred near Calhoun Square and the Council approved a single-story CB2 store on Hennepin and 31st St, land that was slated for mixed-use development (which also included a historic teardown). The Trader Joe’s found itself in a similar situation, only this time the City gave the developer two thumbs down.

The debate over mixed-use, density and increased urbanization is the issue at the heart of Minneapolis’ future, between those who want it and those who, for whatever reason, do not.

What does the Trader Joe’s proposal tell us about ourselves? We’re at a tipping point as Minneapolis redevelops. We’re not likely to get many answers out of this, but we are able to get an idea of where we’re at and hopefully help address the perplexing question of where we ought to go. Whether it’s Trader Joe’s or something else, the cultural divisions at play will return because development in Uptown is unlikely to stop.

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