Stroll around 50th and France today, and you'd never guess that the bustling corner once housed a blacksmith and a creamery serving the farming community of Edina.

A century later, the target customers are upscale suburbanites rather than dairy farmers. But the bones of this old streetcar corner remain intact, and careful tending by the city of Edina has helped make the district into one of the Twin Cities' healthiest and liveliest neighborhood commercial nodes.

"It's like the old movies, where people are out window shopping," said Vanessa Guerra, manager of the Lush cosmetics shop. "I'm always reminded of 'It's a Wonderful Life.' "

That old-time feeling is no accident. Edina always has been in the vanguard of urban planning. In 1929, it became the first village in Minnesota to appoint a planning commission; in 1957, it was the first city to hire a full-time planning director. And 50th and France gets a healthy share of the city's attention.

"We have a great deal of love for 50th and France, because it's our downtown," said Scott Neal, Edina's city manager. "It's incredibly valuable to the city. It's walkable, it's friendly, it's beautiful. It's really important to Edina that this place continue to provide that soul."

One key decision came in 1968. First, the city decided to build a ramp to help ease parking woes for local businesses. More crucially, they tucked the parking ramp out of sight on a side street, where it wouldn't be visible from the main drags of 50th Street and France Avenue S.

"That's really a sort of sophisticated architectural trick that the planners did," said Bill Lindeke, an urban geographer, blogger and member of the St. Paul Planning Commission. "That little sleight of hand, where you keep the stores on the street and tuck the parking behind, is beautiful. We should do more of that in the streetcar nodes and the suburban downtowns."

Since then, the city has built two more parking structures, each hidden away from the main commercial district.

Focus on pedestrians

Edina wants to keep 50th and France "highly pedestrian-oriented," according to the city's comprehensive plan. To that end, building heights in the four-square-block district are limited to four stories. And there are several mid-block pedestrian street crossings that make it easier for walkers to navigate the area.

The sidewalks are paved with red brick, and the handful of newly built structures feature brick facades that match the area's historic architecture. The city also employs a maintenance worker whose sole job is tending to sidewalks, planters, benches and other streetscape features at 50th and France. His cost is billed to the businesses in Edina.

Shop windows are a key feature on both the Edina and Minneapolis sides of the district (France Avenue being the border between the two cities). You can stroll along outside and still be part of what's going on inside. Watch bakers creating gourmet cakes and treats, peek in on a cooking class, see a bride-to-be getting the first look at her dream dress.

"The window shopping brings in a lot of our customers," said Courtney Swayze, front end manager at the Sweet Retreat cupcake boutique. "They come in, try us and turn into repeat customers."

In its current incarnation, 50th and France is focused on fashion, beauty, fitness and entertainment, including some of the area's most popular restaurants and women's clothiers.

Shoppers come from across the Midwest to 50th and France, retailers say. They report regular visitors from Rochester, Fargo and Winnipeg. But the shops actually draw most of their clientele from surrounding neighborhoods in Edina, Minneapolis and St. Louis Park.

"They're our neighbors. They walk here," said Rachel Thelemann, executive director of the 50th & France Business & Professional Association.

The intersection is surrounded by some of the most upscale urban neighborhoods in the Twin Cities. When your customers are strolling over from places where people pay $500,000 for a house just to knock it down, it's probably a sign that there's some money to be made. And that's not even mentioning the million-dollar-plus condos built in recent years atop some of the buildings lining France Avenue.

The business association promotes the district through a variety of activities and festivals, including the popular Edina Art Fair. At Halloween, more than 1,500 children trick-or-treated at local businesses.

Marquee attraction

The Art Deco-style Edina Cinema, opened in 1934, was designed by the architectural firm of Liebenberg and Kaplan, whose other theater designs included the Uptown, the Suburban World and the Varsity. The theater's landmark vertical neon sign, twice damaged and twice rebuilt, has become a visual symbol for the entire area. The theater — along with the neighboring Lunds & Byerlys grocery store — is another reason why the sidewalks stay active well into the evening.

But even when things are bustling, there's a more relaxed pace at 50th and France, said Andy Wallis, manager at General Sports, a fixture in the area since 1962.

"It's a neighborhood store," he said. "People know us, and we know them. I've had guys that got their hockey skates here, and then they brought in their sons, and now they're bringing in their grandsons."

The qualities that have brought success to 50th and France — sidewalks, shop windows, local businesses, human scale — demonstrate that sprawl, big boxes and acres of free parking aren't the only way to create a thriving commercial district.

John Reinan • 612-673-7402