Linden Hills Co-op moving, expanding

The co-op is staying in the neighborhood, but leaving the area’s most familiar business node

Linden Hills’ beloved member-owned grocery store is planning to move west next fall to keep up with the needs of its rapidly growing membership base.

Managers and member-elected board members announced in late October that an agreement was signed to move the store from its 43rd Street and Upton Avenue location to the former Almsted’s Sunnyside Market space at 44th Street and Sunnyside Road, near France Avenue.

The new building would make tha co-op 50-percent larger at a cost of roughly $3.5 million — half of which is expected to come by the end of January from a member loan program. A bank loan and financing from North Country Cooperative Development Fund is expected to pay for the rest.

Moving and expanding the store has been a topic of discussion at the Linden Hills Co-op for several years. Co-op membership has jumped from about 1,700 to roughly 5,200 since 1996, when the store moved to its current location from a smaller spot nearby — the store’s second move since opening in the area in 1976.

Net sales have set records every year. In the most recent fiscal year, ending June 30, the co-op reported $9.2 million in sales.

Its popularity is still increasing, but the store is stocked to capacity and becoming increasingly crowded. The co-op’s growth is no longer sustainable, staff and board members said at the co-op’s annual meeting last month.

“Five years ago, we exercised an option to extend the lease at our space,” said board president Kimberly Proffitt. “At that time it was the right choice. We knew that the space would fit our needs for that time, but we also knew that after that five years was up it might not fit our needs any longer. And as we’ve gotten closer and closer to the end of that five-year extension, we’ve realized we can’t meet the needs of our members.”

Co-op spokeswoman Jeanne Lakso said membership response to the move has been overwhelmingly positive. But not everyone is thrilled about the news, especially members who live next door to the current space.

“I’m just disappointed because I live a block away,” said co-op member Stuart Fritz at the annual meeting. “I get food in the morning for my kids, for their lunch. And Sunnyside makes a difference, that’s a car ride now to get there.”  

Fritz said he considered the co-op a local market that neighborhood residents could walk to, so he questioned the decision to move it near a major roadway.

Many in Linden Hills consider 43rd and Upton to be the heart of the neighborhood and the co-op a key piece to the practicality of living in the area, which is home to a variety of restaurants and shops. But the neighborhood has always had two business nodes, the second being the 44th and France area, which is less than a mile west of 43rd and Upton.

For residents closer to the west end of the neighborhood, the move puts the co-op within walking distance. It also makes it more accessible to co-op members who don’t live in the neighborhood.  

“I understand there are people that are right here [at 43rd and Upton] that can no longer walk that are upset,” said board member Tom Troha. “But we’ve got to look at the larger [5,200] member base.”

Co-op manager Luke Schell said the new location would improve the co-op’s visibility and that the building is in good condition, the property is properly zoned, the lease comes with a right to purchase and perhaps most importantly — the site is in the neighborhood and available.

Co-op member Bryce Hamilton drove home that point.

“If we don’t move now and maintain the same thing, which I’m happy with, what’s it going to be like in five years with the kind of growth we are experiencing? It will just not harbor that much more traffic and in five years or four or three or whatever, we’re out of Linden Hills, there’s no place else to go,” he said. “We have to take advantage of what’s been offered now.”  

The 44th and Sunnyside location was the subject of great neighborhood controversy in the year following Sunnyside Market’s closure in September 2007, when a CVS/pharmacy was slated to replace the existing building. Though the city approved plans for that project in September 2008, the deal was never finalized.

Property owner Bob Olson eventually had a change of heart.

“There were some post negotiations on it and I just got tired of corporation and talking to one party, then another one comes in,” Olson said. “And then the process, too, is that somewhere along the line I started changing and the interest from the co-op became a little more apparent…. I did a lot of research and I just felt they’d be a good tenant, they should be more than successful, so why would I go with a national tenant when I have a local tenant that meets my needs and it meets their needs?”    

Olson said the site has been home to a grocery store since 1942. The building is gutted, but it’s fitted with relatively new heating, air conditioning and electrical equipment, he said.

Turning the building into a co-op was an idea that surfaced during the Linden Hills Neighborhood Council’s (LHiNC) months-long dialogue with community members about the CVS development. Former LHiNC board president Linea Palmisano didn’t seem surprised that the concept actually took hold.

“I think the end result speaks to the ultimate needs of the community and what’s best for everybody,” she said. “If the CVS project had truly been viable for all parties involved, it would have happened.”

As the co-op gears up for its move, members still have plenty of questions. One that came up immediately at the annual meeting was whether the current building’s solar panels — paid for through a community fundraiser — would be moved to the new site. Staff said they’d like to move them and have discussed it with property owner Dave Luger.

“We’re going to do everything we can to take a look at that,” Schell said.

As far as what’s going to fill the void when the co-op leaves, Luger said that’s up in the air. But he’s optimistic about the future of 43rd and Upton.

Some potential design sketches of the new store were shown at the annual meeting, but the development process is just getting started. Co-op leadership is working with LHiNC to organize a community meeting about the move, planned for Dec. 1.

Though the location is set to change, co-op members hope one thing never does.

“The co-op has soul,” said member Deb Pierce. “When you walk into the co-op you feel good and you feel good when you leave. People are nice, they’re good, they talk to you and it’s different. It’s very different than any other store. We just want to make sure that that stays there.”

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or jweyer@mnpubs.com.