Urban Expedition: St. Louis Park’s “West End” (Part 1)
I’ve visited the Shops at West End a handful of times since its opening in the Fall of 09′ and have always felt that something was incomplete. This is probably the direct result of bad timing: the economy tanked, retail was stagnant and investors were more risk-conscience and generally skeptical of new, large-scale development projects.
To those who are unfamiliar, West End is a 47-acre mixed-use “lifestyle center” project on the southwest corner of Interstate 394 and Highway 100. Its original plan called for approximately 1 million square feet of office space, 360,000 square feet of retail and a possible condo development. As of 2011, the offices and condos have not been developed, which is to be expected.
Analysis of the West End
By the flight of a bird, my apartment is roughly 2.8 miles southeast of West End. But, due to its location wedged along two major highways and a railroad track, I can’t bike or walk there. In fact, I can’t even drive there without being forced to get onto an Interstate (or, follow an interstate service road). There are two ways to get to the West End from my apartment – one takes 6 miles and the other takes a little over 7. When I discovered this, I become very annoyed (but intrigued). I had to learn more about this place.
I decided to spend an afternoon walking around the West End with my camera and, like all people visiting the West End, I drove.
Are we there yet?
I had to hop on Interstate 94, turn onto Interstate 394, drive west and quickly get off on the first exit after Highway 100. While waiting on the north side of of I-394, I wasn’t sure which turn-lane to get into – so I guessed. Long story short, I guessed wrong, couldn’t get over and was filtered back onto the interstate.
I didn’t want to get stuck downtown Minneapolis, so I took Hwy 100 south and planned to loop around. The nearest exit to turn around was Minnetonka Blvd. By simply getting into the wrong turn lane, I lost 10 minutes and 4.2 miles. Second time around, I made sure I was in the proper turn lane.
Parking (!) and lots of it …
The development, like most all lifestyle centers, is built to resemble a quaint traditional downtown, but ultimately ends up just being another place you drive. Like most suburb lifestyle centers, there is an abundance of parking.
Two skyways adjoin the parking garages; one for cars and one for pedestrians. I initially thought “why did the developers spend the extra money to connect the parking garages?” Then I realized it was to keep people away from the depressing streetscape created.
This is “Duke Blvd” (aptly named after the developer). It’s a large 4-lane road behind the West End’s main parking area and another parking garage for existing office towers. Simply put, this “Boulevard” is despotic, poorly-designed, uncomfortable and not fit for human affection. Nonetheless, I tried to walk it because there are sidewalks after all.
[The walking environment along "Duke Blvd" - notice the fire hydrant in the middle of the sidewalk]
The sidewalks behind the parking garages were clearly an afterthought. If one even bothers walking, they’ll have to compete for space with numerous (and redundant) signage, a blank concrete wall and utilities place in the middle of the sidewalk.
[Although there were few parked vehicles and I knew my floor, I got lost trying to find my car]
Parking garages are never pretty places, but some are better than others. Parking garages need to be legible, comfortable and easy to navigate. The problem with the West End is that the parking structures are massive, bland, colorless, difficult to traverse, poorly illuminated and lack proper signage.
Welcome to West End Blvd!
The “main street” feel of the West End is designed to mimic that of a quaint small town. Unfortunately, the only thing it has in common with Main Street USA is the abundance of empty shop fronts. The West End has been slowly filling up with new tenants, many of which are restaurants. This is a good thing, but there’s still a lot of space to fill. Walking along West End Blvd feels like a Disney-themed ghost town.
[It was a windy afternoon and I could see the shop fronts blowing in the wind]
The draped images of shop fronts is an improvement, but there is something genuinely sad about it. I’m not sure why though; maybe it’s an symbol of a bygone era of development or that I’m disappointed to see such a misallocation of capital that will likely to never be recovered.
Sending mixed signals
The weird part about this place is that it was designed to be pedestrian friendly (once you arrived by car) and the West End Blvd is pleasant and well-designed. But, most all other aspects of the urban layout are confusing.
The Park Place Blvd frontage sends mixed signals. There is a clear pathway that will lead one directly to West End Blvd and the office tower. However, signs on the building instruct that there should be no pedestrian activity – Yet, there is a sidewalk?
This development is suppose to be pedestrian-friendly, yet they instruct people against doing what is rationale. I chose to ignore the signage, walked back and found that there is nothing more than just an alley/service area. I don’t see the advantage of not letting people cut through (liability?).
West End also goes to extreme measures to dictate traffic patterns by using large imposing gates along Park Place Blvd. These gates do nothing more than simply look ugly and unwelcoming.
More coming soon …
West End isn’t all bad. I’ve got some positive things to stay about it too!