One of the first stories I ever wrote on my hyper-local Twin Cities planning blog was about the opening of the new CVS store in the Midway area of St. Paul. At the time I was vexed by the design and scale of the building, suggesting that the new pharmacy had “turned its back on the street” by not including a door to the busy avenue of the University. From the point of view of good urban design, the one-story building was a real disappointment.
That was a long time ago and it turns out that fifteen years is about the lifespan of a drugstore chain. CVS recently announced that they were closing nearly a thousand of their retail stores across the country, including the now mothballed Midway site. It’s part of a shift in corporate strategy reacting to “changing populations, consumer buying habits and future health needs,” according to a report. The consequence for cities is vacant properties, including one here at a key corner of St. Paul.
The closure recalls the heated debate around retail development at Snelling and the University that unfolded when CVS first launched its store. Today, with a lot of changing context, it’s worth revisiting this discussion and taking a look at what’s changed and what’s stayed the same since CVS first came to Midway.
Rhode Island-based CVS was one of the most aggressively growing retail drugstore chains twenty years ago, buying up properties in U.S. cities often directly across from competitors like Walgreens or independent pharmacies. (then common). The tactic was part of what some critics had warned was leading to retail overcrowding aimed at driving out competition.
“It’s something I predicted back when they were opening so many of these outlets,” said retail policy expert Stacy Mitchell. “I’m curious what becomes of them – they’re probably half empty and half turned into Dollar Generals.”
Mitchell, who is co-director of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), has long been a leading critic of the retail chain, in part because of its impact on the use of land in American cities. Part of the problem is that, in general, the United States is oversized in the retail sector. On a per capita basis, the United States had 23.5 square feet of retail space per capita in 2020. In contrast, other countries are much lower: the United Kingdom, Japan and France account for less than 20 % of US total.
That said, the CVS closures suggest retail saturation may be changing as the pandemic has accelerated the shift to online shopping and home delivery.
Back to the debate of the 2000s
In 2006, there was a determined community campaign to stop CVS from opening its store around the corner, led by University United, a local economic development advocacy group. Through a series of community meetings, the group argued that the CVS store was a poor use of valuable space that could be used in other ways. In particular, the percentage of commercial buildings in relation to the total plot size (i.e. surface area ratio) was extremely low. Instead, campaigners wanted to see a denser building on the site, with a few floors of housing above the retail site.
“We did a fair amount of ‘viewing’ for Snelling’s corner, with shots that would have been better than the proposed CVS,” Brian McMahon told me recently. McMahon led University United in the early 2000s and hopes the closure will give St. Paul “a second bite of the apple” for the corner pitch.
As a look at Snelling and University reveals, the campaign to stop CVS has failed. With support from the local Chamber of Commerce, CVS opened in 2007 and provided basic necessities to the neighborhood until it closed last month. The pharmacy even solved my biggest complaint, albeit rather clumsily, by grafting another street-facing door onto the building after the green line opened.
Light Rail vs Parking
Looking back sixteen years ago, the biggest change to Snelling and the University is obviously the Green Line light rail. When the building was first launched, according to minutes of a public meeting, CVS spokespersons were skeptical about building the transit route, justifying the parking-centric design of the building. retail store. Turns out they were wrong, and before the pandemic, the Green Line served more than 40,000 riders a day, making it by far the best-performing public transit line in the state. With the 2016 addition of high-traffic Line A bus rapid transit along Snelling Avenue, the intersection will be a major transit hub for decades to come.
All public transport means the conversation around parking has changed. When CVS first proposed its store, parking issues dominated community meetings, and city staff spent hours reviewing parking demand and thinking about ways to build shared parking lots or other off-street car storage areas.
These days, St. Paul has moved in the opposite direction, zoning land along the light rail line while removing all off-street parking requirements. The result is that, for both residential and commercial projects, it is possible to build without including parking at all. (In practice, developers almost always include parking due to demand and institutional practices.)
The other big change is the new Allianz Field football stadium, a large, shiny structure easily visible from the nearby freeway. Completed in 2019 and built with private funds while aided by millions in city tax-raising grants, the stadium was meant to catalyze a slew of mixed-use developments in the area. The stadium could be part of the reason why, in recent years, Midway has seen its first market-priced homes built in half a century. Looking at the neighborhood today, 2007-era ambitions to create denser mixed-use buildings appear to have been ahead of their time
The plans that were once floated for the stadium site, however, sound familiar to anyone who remembers the conversation sixteen years ago. In one design, the architects and planners of the “charette” envisioned an ambitious infill project that would have interspersed housing and a grid of streets around existing retail stores.
At the moment there are few signs of development around the football stadium. Other than an ever-busy McDonald’s drive-thru, Little Caesars pizza, and a payday loan storefront, there’s nothing on the stadium’s “superblock.” Development plans for the now largely vacant land around the Minnesota United stadium haven’t changed much, and the current situation appears to be at an impasse, with the city committing to more TIF money while team owners remain. reluctant to start any housing construction. or retail.
But if development around Allianz Field begins, it will begin to realize a long-standing community vision of redeveloping Midway’s strip of big box stores and malls into a more walkable community with plenty of housing.
The death of the Midway CVS could be a sign of retail oversaturation, as the market moves rapidly into the post-COVID era. If ILSR’s Stacy Mitchell prediction is true, CVS will likely remain vacant for some time. Hopefully, this time around, St. Paul can get a better draft on one of their key corners.