Proposed Trader Joe’s sparks debate

It’s all riding on a bill that would overturn a state liquor law dating back to the 1930s.

If the legislative bill passes, the City Council could decide whether to grant Trader Joe’s a liquor license, potentially enabling the German-owned U.S. grocery chain to move into a new development at 22nd Street and Lyndale Avenue. If the bill fails, the heated debate that started earlier this month about whether Trader Joe’s is right for the area is dead.

The law in question prevents off-sale liquor licenses from being granted at establishments within less than 2,000 feet of each other in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Local developer Mark Dziuk said he has a signed contract with Trader Joe’s, which incorporates a liquor department, that would put the grocer in a mixed-use project just north of his recently completed residential building, Le Parisien. Without change, the location would violate the law because of its proximity to Hum’s Liquor Store at 2126 Lyndale.  

Controversy over Trader Joe’s started in early April, when the City Council voted 7-6 to support the law-turning bill, which is specific to the 22nd and Lyndale site.

Though many residents are in favor of a Trader Joe’s at the site, a variety of community concerns have been voiced, including the store’s proximity to Hum’s and neighboring Wedge Community Co-op, the potential for more traffic congestion and the elimination of local independent businesses already on the property.   

When the issue was discussed at a recent community meeting in Whittier, Dziuk said his project, which would also include a bank and 58 condos, would not happen without Trader Joe’s. Despite the slumping housing market, the development is financed, he said. The condos would be rented until the market improves, as is being done with Le Parisien. That project led Dzuik to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, from which he said he recently recovered.  

The design, dimensions and other details of the new project aren’t available yet, since the project’s fate is tied to the success of the bill, Dzuik said.

“I’m way, way, way ahead of the game here, but I have to be here because I’m asking for an exception to a very old rule, a very old ordinance in order to build this project,” he said.  

Residents at the meeting questioned Dziuk about why Trader Joe’s was the only option, a mandate he repeated several times throughout the night.

“We’re trying to invest and create our own stimulus package,” Dziuk said after the meeting. “You can’t do it with another so-so mediocre business. [Trader Joe’s] is a destination for a lot of people and they’ll move into our area because of it.”

He argued that the grocer would create a more vibrant area, drawing more people to local businesses. He said it wouldn’t compete with Hum’s or the Wedge Co-op because the offerings are not the same. Trader Joe’s, known for its wine selection, would not offer the variety of alcohol found at Hum’s, he said. He also cited the Wedge co-op’s deli, butcher shop, salad bar, fish department and several other offerings as things not available at Trader Joe’s.

But co-op staff didn’t buy that argument, mentioning several products such as organic milk and cheese that Trader Joe’s sells. They were also concerned about the new store’s effect on the co-op’s financial investment in the community. The co-op reinvests its income in the store, its employees, its members and local farmers.   

“No matter how you look at it, [Trader Joe’s] does compete directly with us and the less money we make the less money that goes back into the community,” said Cerise Ligneel, a manager at the co-op.  

Lindy Bannister, the co-op’s general manager, said in an interview after the meeting that she was concerned about a state law being changed for a specific foreign-owned business.

“If the law’s being changed, change it for everyone,” she said.

She said she’s not worried about the co-op going out of business, but that Trader Joe’s would take some business and possibly employees from the co-op and Hum’s. The co-op has never sought an exception to the state liquor law and probably wouldn’t, Bannister said. Co-op staff regularly direct customers to Hum’s for liquor needs, something Bannister sees as a way of ensuring the success of the business node as a whole.

“We’re all in this together,” she said.  

Still, some area residents are hoping the bill does pass and a Trader Joe’s is built.

Tom George, who lives in Whittier, is one of them. He said he would still frequent the Wedge Co-op, but stop at Trader Joe’s for wine.

Verne Greenlee, who also lives in Whittier, said he would shop at Trader Joe’s for groceries and he thinks many others would as well.

“I really like the concept of having Trader Joe’s as a destination store,” he said. “That will get more people into our neighborhood.”

Greenlee said traffic issues keep him away from the Wedge Co-op. Many residents were concerned Trader Joe’s would only create more traffic, which is an issue at the chain’s nearest store in St. Louis Park. Dziuk said that could be resolved with a traffic study prior to the build.

Other area residents, such as Soren Sorenson of Whittier, were concerned about bringing a national chain into the neighborhood and the impact it would have on smaller local businesses. The Trader Joe’s development would not affect the antique store immediately to the north of Le Parisien, but it would replace Uptown Auto Care and a building housing Ancient Realms and Sacred Rearrangements.

 “This is going to destroy local businesses that are just barely holding on and making something unique out of an area that has a lot of local color,” Sorensen said.  

City Council Member Robert Lilligren (6th Ward) said the Legislature should make a decision on the bill sometime this session. If approved, Dziuk’s request for a liquor license will be decided by the City Council.

Lilligren said there’s no guarantee of the council’s approval, especially given how narrowly it supported the bill. Lilligren was on the winning side of that vote, along with council members Ralph Remington (10th Ward), Don Samuels (5th Ward), Paul Ostrow (1st Ward), Gary Schiff (9th Ward) and Barbara Johnson (4th Ward). Opposed were council members Cam Gordon (2nd Ward), Diane Hofstede (3rd Ward), Lisa Goodman (7th Ward), Scott Benson (11th Ward) and Sandy Colvin Roy (12th Ward).

Lilligren said he hadn’t made a decision on whether a Trader Joe’s was right for the area, but the bill’s approval would let that discussion take place.