Redeveloping St. Paul’s Suburban Avenue
The development is simple: built a new strip mall area with a handful of shops including a Starbucks, Dairy Queen, Cowboy Slim’s and a Max-It Pawn. Fair enough – it fits in with the parcel of land that shares a property line with a McDonald’s, Blockbuster, Taco Bell and Papa John’s.
There is a problem: the proposal to rehab the out-of-business used car dealership has been rejected by the St. Paul Planning Commission.
St. Paul probably doesn’t need another strip mall, but Suburban Avenue is an odd place. It runs along a busy Interstate, is littered with cheap fast-food joints, is nearly 100 percent auto-oriented, loud from the humming of the Interstate and is an all-around ugly place. Yet, because of the unfortunate surroundings, it only makes sense to build another strip mall – anything else would be a financial failure.
[Notice how the collection of strip malls next to the Interstate with no sidewalks or nearby residential zoning is still being billed as a "Town Center"]
This development was rejected by the City’s Planning Commission not because of its merits, but because a pawn shop (Max-It Pawn) is considered an “alternative financial institution” and the City of St. Paul says these types of places can’t be within 1,300 feet of each other (or, approximately a quarter of a mile). There is a Piggy Bank Cash Checking Company 1,100 feet away; hence making things difficult for Max-It Pawn.
I’m in stride with those who are skeptical about these types of “alternative financial institutions”, but I have come to understand reality -which is the duality of how these institutions take advantage of society’s most vulnerable while simultaneously providing them a service that traditional banking institutions have ignored.
Society, and therefore zoning, discourages these kinds of businesses. Hence, we have our arbitrary, non-scientific, politically-aimed and overly technical 1,300 feet rule.
Trouble right here in Uptown?
Now, let’s switch gears for a moment and concentrate on Uptown. This area of Minneapolis couldn’t be more different than Suburban Avenue – it’s mixed-used, pedestrian-oriented, close to the city core, affluent and has a healthy dose of small, local non-chain style businesses.
To an extent, these places are polar opposites. But, they do share something in common: arbitrary zoning restrictions aiming to conquering societal ills.
Enter an ordinance that would change the distance calculation as it relates to the required distance a liquor store must be away from a school or church. Currently, liquor stores cannot be closer than 300 feet of the front door to a school or church. The proposed change would make it 300 feet from a property line of a church or school. [Source]
The story about this ordinance is interesting: the change didn’t just come out of the blue – a small business owner applied for a conditional use permit from the City of Minneapolis to open a liquor store in a small commercial space. He met with the local Council member and told her his plan. After the meeting and within the same month, that same Council member proposed a change to the city ordinance (see above, here and here).
Note: It appears as if the Council member will win this battle on Hennepin Avenue. The Star Tribune briefly covered the story. There will be no upscale liquor and cheese store – not because of sound reasoning or rational thought, but because of an arbitrary political motive.
What’s the problem?
These restrictions are put in place for political objectives that have little to do with providing positive public outcomes. Distance requirements are generally styled to oppose one particular development at one particular point in time, but end up becoming laws that are overly technical and not based on any sort of scientific, economic, sociological or urban planning styled- evidenced-based research. Once a regulation is on the books, it typically stays put. This makes every new business or development abide by regulations decided by one Council member who happened to disapprove of an upscale liquor and cheese store opening into a empty strip-mall space in their neighborhood.
This is not good urban planning and doesn’t address the real problems of society.
For example; the problem in Uptown is that people drink a lot of alcohol. The problem on Suburban Avenue is that it’s composed exclusively of people with lower incomes. Instead of tackling the issue of binge drinking or urban poverty, the political solution has been to limit access to services the community desires. In doing so, they are not solving the real problem – but in turn making it worse by creating monopolies that will inevitably charge higher prices for the products and services society disdains.
We are treating the symptoms and not the disease.