Retail study finds potential on Nicollet

Stevens Square aims to grow retail and office space

STEVENS SQUARE — Community leaders and property owners in Stevens Square have what they say is a powerful new tool to promote redevelopment of their section of Nicollet Avenue.

A marketing study completed in June highlights the potential for new residential and commercial development on Nicollet Avenue between Interstate 94 and Franklin Avenue in the next five years and beyond. The study arrived just as most of the major property owners along that three-block stretch agreed to work together to attract developers.

Steve Gallagher, executive director of Stevens Square Community Organization (SSCO), said the two developments taken together were a major step in a years-long effort to attract new businesses to the neighborhood.

“There’s been talk for so many years about redevelopment along Nicollet Avenue, and it seems like we’re actually making some progress toward that,” Gallagher said.

A draft of the study prepared by Maxfield Research finds the existing mix of nearby businesses and cultural amenities, easy access to transit routes and proximity to Downtown “make it an excellent area to consider higher-density residential and commercial development.”

The study also notes the challenges to development familiar to many Stevens Square residents.

A so-called “Dead Zone” of parking lots and empty lots just north and south of Interstate 94 discourages pedestrian traffic from Downtown. And the area lacks a strong connection to the more prosperous Eat Street section of Nicollet Avenue further south in the Whittier

The study found some existing properties appeared tired and run-down. It also noted that many large, national retailers were wary of building in urban neighborhoods because of construction costs, crime and other factors.

Maxfield Research President Mary Bujold, who presented the study’s findings at the SSCO annual meeting June 14, said the study will help Stevens Square counter some of the myths about developing in an urban neighborhood.

“A lot of developers and retailers, they scope out the Twin Cities, but you know they do this high-level overview lots of times,” Bujold explained. “Part of what happens, too, is that areas like Stevens Square get missed.”

What they might miss or misunderstand about Stevens Square, she said, is the purchasing power of the neighborhood population, many of them young, single Downtown workers. That population also is growing, and will continue to grow with the addition of new housing, she noted.

Bujold added efforts by SSCO to reduce crime and beautify the neighborhood were having an impact, and could counter stereotypes about urban blight.

“This is actually a neighborhood that is up-and-coming,” she said.

A key piece

The key parcel in any redevelopment plan, neighborhood leaders agree, is an empty lot at the northeast corner of Nicollet Avenue and East 18th Street. The former location of Johnson Meats could be a “catalyst” for further redevelopment, the market study noted.

But the owners of the Johnson Meats site are the only holdouts that have not signed a memorandum of agreement among six major Nicollet Avenue property owners. The owners of five other properties all agreed this spring to jointly pursue development opportunities.

David Crockett, who represents the owners of the Johnson Meats site, said they were committed to redevelopment of the entire area, if still hesitant to sign the agreement.

“The Johnson Meat Market site not only will be the first [redeveloped], but I think it will prove to be the largest of all the pieces, too,” Crockett said.

He expected it would take at least one large national retailer to anchor a mixed-use development in the area, a project that might also include smaller local businesses, housing and office space. The market study, he added, makes a strong case that Stevens Square and the surrounding area can support that type of development.

Still, the market study suggested redevelopment on the empty lot was “at least two to three years away,” and Crockett put it out even further, about three to five years.

He offered some hope to Stevens Square residents that such a project could include something that’s been on the neighborhood wish list for a long time.

“I live in the neighborhood, and I want a grocer. I hear constantly from other residents around me they want a good, credible grocer,” he said. “… I think the only way we’re going to achieve that is through a well-planned, mixed-use agreement.”

Next steps

Bob Marshall, who has been through more than one market study in the time he has owned property on Nicollet Avenue, agreed that development of the Johnson Meats site could, finally, spark a transformation of the Stevens Square retail

Marshall said a large step forward was the memorandum of agreement among key property owners, including the city. City involvement, through the creation of a Tax Increment Financing district or some other type of financial incentive, is essential to large-scale redevelopment, he argued.

“No developer will come in here without the support of the city and their efforts and their money,” he said. “That has to happen.”

The next step for the united property owners will be to issue a request for proposals from developers and retailers, neighborhood leaders said.

Council Member Robert Lilligren (6th Ward) said the city would help craft a request for proposals, signaling its willingness to open up the incentives tool box once the time comes.

Gallagher, who developed the memorandum of agreement and encouraged property owners to sign on, said a collective vision for the neighborhood was beginning to develop.

“It just seems like it’s kind of coming together,” he said.

Crockett agreed, saying, “I think that the exciting news is that for the first time, possibly ever, the landowners, neighborhood and city are all on the same page concerning this site.”