A closer look at Trader Joes hunt for an Uptown location

As reported recently in the Southwest Journal, Trader Joe’s is attempting to gain approval for a store in the Wedge area at Lyndale Avenue and 27th Street. Under the plan, a new 14,000-square-foot building would be constructed on the site as well as a large surface parking lot. Trader Joe’s would be the building’s sole tenant. The site was selected for one major reason: one of the only potential sites for a new liquor store in the area.

At the initial Lowry Hill East neighborhood meeting, a number of community members brought up concerns that the project seemed suburban because of its large surface parking lot and small building that has its entrance facing the parking lot instead of the street intersection. A number of people encouraged the developer, TOLD, to look at underground parking and to add density to the project. Generally, the group otherwise seemed supportive of Trader Joe’s joining the neighborhood.

There are a number of interesting aspects to this project, such as the role of Minneapolis’ liquor store ordinance in the site selection, the role of one of the current property and business owners, and an auto-oriented design.

A TOLD representative told the neighborhood that the reason why this specific site was selected was that it was the only site that they found in the Uptown/Lyn-Lake area that could be eligible for a liquor store. As you may recall, Trader Joe’s sought other locations on Lyndale, such as the Le Parisien project just north of 24th Street but that site was too close to Hum’s Liquor to get licensed. They considered seeking an exemption from the State of Minnesota but that never came to fruition.

Minneapolis requires a 2,000-foot buffer zone between liquor stores and a 300-foot buffer from schools, along with being located on a property zoned C2 with over five acres of contiguous appropriate commercial zoning. The Trader Joe’s site is not currently zoned C2 but it does appear to meet all of the other requirements of the city’s liquor store location requirements, so if they can rezone the site, getting the liquor license will likely be obtainable.

Is it shocking that Trader Joe’s or TOLD would seek to build a single-story, single-user building on the site? Not at all. It’s worth assuming that it is Trader Joe’s driving this deal given that they have been trying to be in this market for several years. Given the complexities of designing a site plan that works for the needs of Trader Joe’s and the other users (whether housing, office or retail), there is incentive to keep the project simple so it can simply get done. Add to that the added cost of the project, the resulting risk of adding additional uses (re: will they bring in their projected revenue) the project may not make sense with additional uses or may impose too much risk for the potential lender, property owner, and developer.

At the neighborhood meeting, it was stated that the existing four-building properties are owned by two groups: the Art Materials building is owned by the owners of Art Materials and the other buildings and parking lot are owned by the owner of Sunnyside Up Café and the self-serve Laundromat. Art Materials has been looking for a new space in the Lyn-Lake area for a while and the other property owner is preparing his estate and wants his family to retain ownership in the property while positioning it best for the future. With all of the site’s owners seeking dramatic changes to how the properties have been operated, it makes the site much more likely to be redeveloped, whether a Trader Joe’s or otherwise.

The question that’s raised is whether or not some of these liquor store location requirements caused Trader Joe’s and TOLD to seek a building and site format that is less urban in nature. Had other sites in the Uptown/Lyn-Lake area been available for a store, would we have seen Trader Joe’s become a tenant of Calhoun Square or Blue, or in the new projects proposed at Cowboy Slim’s or 2900 Lyndale Avenue?

I believe that it is much more likely that Trader Joe’s would have been incorporated into another development site, one with multiple uses and floors, if there were more choice in the matter. In addition, there would be more liquor store options for consumers, which is a good thing in Uptown given the high density of residents and the relatively high level of inconvenience one must go through (such as some stores being dirty, crowded and/or not accepting credit cards)  to purchase alcohol. Add the state-mandated closure of liquor stores on Sundays, and it’s really hard for this non-drinker to buy craft beer for his house guests.

Will it be nice to have additional options in the greater Uptown/Lyn-Lake areas for food and alcohol? You bet. But are there real concerns about the design of the store and lack of density that make aspects of this proposal unattractive? You bet.

Thatcher Imboden is a lifelong Southwest resident, now residing in Kenny. He is a development project manager with Southwest-based The Ackerberg Group and is president of the Uptown Association. He blogs at ouruptown.com.