Columbia Heights residents can buy an oil filter on nearly every corner of Central Avenue. But there’s no coffee shop where they can linger over a newspaper and sip a latte.
That’s a problem, city leaders say.
Fearful that a glut of mechanics, auto-parts stores and gas stations along Columbia Heights’ main drag is pulling down the city’s image and muscling out other businesses, the City Council is banning new auto-related businesses for up to six months.
City leaders figure that will be enough time to tighten up zoning regulations and set more design controls with an eye toward attracting a more eclectic mix of restaurants, shops and small service businesses along Central Avenue.
“Residents think we have too many auto places,” said Mayor Gary Peterson. “Central Avenue has always been an auto-related corridor. It has an auto history. But we want to make sure we are planning for our downtown area, planning ways to make it more sustainable with salons, offices, restaurants.”
Others believe that tighter controls and business bans can raise fears of gentrification or, worse yet, result in empty buildings.
“I think they are crazy to move it off this street,” said Tricia Ayers, owner of Auto Max Muffler & Brake Shop in Columbia Heights for the past 23 years. “I believe in free enterprise. … Automotive is what it is. It’s hard to keep clean.”
The old “take-what-you-can-get” mentality, in which businesses were accepted indiscriminately, left some suburbs with a mashup on Main Street. So suburban leaders often try to harness market forces to reshape their cities and meet demand for the jobs, amenities and businesses that city dwellers take for granted.
“Do you accept your fate because of decisions made 40 years ago or do you look to where you want to be?” said Brooklyn Park Mayor Jeff Lunde, whose city has made similar decisions.
Columbia Heights already has limited the number of thrift stores and check-cashing places that can operate in the city. Other suburbs have followed suit.
After the number of massage businesses in Blaine passed 20, the city this year limited their number to one for every 2,500 residents. The Spring Lake Park City Council halted all commercial and industrial development for a year so it could rework its 1970s-era zoning code.
Last winter, St. Louis Park passed a moratorium on issuing new off-sale liquor licenses through the end of this year. Burnsville officials temporarily banned thrift stores so they could rethink regulations.
In Columbia Heights, more than two dozen auto-related businesses line Central Avenue, ranging from small mom-and-pop garages to national chains. People entering the city from the south are greeted with an O’Reilly Auto Parts on one side and the colorful two-story Bobby & Steve’s Auto World on the other.
Robert “Bobby” Williams, Bobby & Steve’s co-owner, sits on the Columbia Heights City Council and voted for the temporary ban on auto businesses.
“I like competition. It makes us better, but we do have a lot of automotive stuff,” Williams said.
More appealing, attractive
Talk about a temporary ban was jump-started by efforts to revive Columbia Heights’ downtown, a row of Central Avenue storefronts between 39th and 40th avenues anchored by the historic Heights Theater, a retro Dairy Queen and a $7 million city library now under construction.
An auto shop opened in an old building across the street from the library site, and Peterson said the city had no authority under its code to require improvements. “It’s not the greatest asset to Columbia Heights,” he said.
Peterson said he’s leaning toward permanently banning new auto businesses in the downtown district and enacting new design standards for the rest of the city. Trees, landscaping, retaining walls and architectural standards can make a world of difference, he said.
Joe Hogeboom, Columbia Heights’ community development director, said the city has cracked down on illegal signs along Central, will hang new banners on its downtown light poles and is looking into adding benches and other amenities.
“We are really trying to focus on making that street more walkable, more appealing, more attractive,” Hogeboom said. “The revitalization of Central Avenue is the big goal. There are many pieces to it.”
Neighboring Minneapolis restricts auto businesses along stretches of Central Avenue south of Columbia Heights, including the Lowry Avenue NE. intersection — a shopping and business district area that planners call “Northeast Downtown.”
Hogeboom believes that’s part of the problem. Turned away at Minneapolis City Hall, the auto businesses head north, he said.
Some Columbia Heights business owners question the wisdom of trying to alter a bustling, established urban corridor known as an auto alley. They point out that the avenue reflects the working-class community in many ways.
Ayers, a longtime auto business owner in the city, said that the auto businesses serve the surrounding suburbs and working-class Columbia Heights, where residents tend to drive older cars. She said she would support efforts to beautify the boulevard with more trees, landscaping and architectural details, but said that design standards should apply to all types of businesses.
“I don’t think they should pick on automotive,” said Ayers, pointing to a bar across the street. “There are a lot of things we can talk about.”
Juan Collier, who owns and operates the neat and tidy Heights Barber Lounge in downtown Columbia Heights, agreed that the city could use a more diverse mix of shops but added that he worries that vision may not match its diverse, urban vibe.
“It’s too old-fashioned,” he said.
Columbia Heights resident Dolores Strand said she has faith in the City Council.
“Hopefully it’s going to be a positive thing,” she said. “Their intention seems to be for the best. You never know because the economy and the financial climate is so uncertain.”