At a crossroads over chains

Business leaders battling perception that Uptown’s shopping scene is losing its independent flavor

Jeff Herman has seen Uptown transform repeatedly during the course of his career.

In the 1970s, as the economy was in throes, it was a vapid place devoid of investment; in the 1980s, it attracted punks and a midnight crowd for the “Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

As the economy improved, the grit began to fade. The Park & Recreation Board began investing in the nearby lakes, drawing visitors and residents back to the area. National retailers like the Gap and Borders followed their lead.

The evolution from a rough, urban-edge neighborhood to a polished dining and shopping hub has only accelerated in recent years as national stores such as Apple, Timberland, North Face and CB2 have moved into the area.

And as far as Herman can see, the progression has been entirely healthy.

“People have needs and those needs are being fulfilled by their neighborhood,” said Herman, who grew up in the area and leads the brokerage firm Urban Anthology, which has helped bring many of the national retailers to Uptown.

The changes are raising new questions about the neighborhood’s complexion and future, however.

A survey recently completed by the Uptown Association found that nearly half of neighborhood residents, and more than a third of visitors, said they didn’t want to see any more chain retail stores move into the area.

The same survey found that 36 percent of residents thought Uptown could be improved by attracting more unique retail operations.

The survey results reflect opinions collected from more than 800 people interviewed on the streets of Uptown or who completed questionnaires on the business association’s website between June and September 2011.

Uptown Association officials say their findings reflect a tension that is to be expected anytime an area changes, particularly when the changes are as dramatic as they have been over the last several years.

“People’s affinity and passion for Uptown was made at the moment they came here, and now they see that it’s different, and that’s where the controversy comes in,” said Marcus Genzlinger, the Uptown Association’s marketing chair.

Still, the business association is preparing to make a coordinated effort this year to sell Uptown as a destination with a distinctive character unmatched by other area shopping destinations such as 50th & France and the Shops at West End in St. Louis Park.

Details of the campaign are still being completed, but the effort is likely to promote the area’s embedded assets, such as proximity to the lakes and the Midtown Greenway, as well as longtime neighborhood fixtures such as the Uptown Theatre.

An effort will also be made to make the case that the national retailers that have moved into Uptown, despite their national scope, are distinctive in the Twin Cities market.

“There’s been a bit of a negative buzz about how many national retailers we have now, but the ones that we do have are still unique,” said Natasha Greiling, a board member of the Uptown Association who has lived in the area almost her entire life.

The most recent arrival to Uptown, CB2, an off-shoot of Crate & Barrel, is a case in point. It is the only store the company operates in Minnesota, and is one of just a dozen in the United States.

Lucia Watson, the owner of Lucia’s, said she sees its addition as a blessing for her 27-year-old business. “I have to say I think people are excited there’s something on the corner rather than just an empty lot,” she said. “And personally I’d rather see any occupancy than no occupancy at all.” 

She and other business owners say the additions have helped their businesses thrive despite a difficult economy.

Stacy Larson, who opened the women’s boutique Covered in 2008, said sales were up 30 percent at her Lagoon Avenue store last year.

“Having that diversity of business has only helped my business,” Larson said.

And other business owners are moving into the area specifically to take advantage of the developments that are occurring.

John Stedman opened the furniture store Roam in October 2011, and said the decision was driven by the desire to be around other home décor stores like CB2 and Design Within Reach. Another, Jonathan Adler, is also anticipating a move into Uptown this year. 

And the national stores, whatever people’s feelings about them, are a draw, he said.

“You can say what you want about national retailers, but there’s a reason they’re a national retailer and it’s because people like to shop there,” Stedman said.

Still, business owners say they want to continue to provide a balance of small, independent stores and national outfits so that people have a multitude of reasons to visit.

“You’ve got to have that magic mix of small, independent businesses and big retailers to draw people in,” said Randy Stanley, divisional vice president for Parasole Restaurant Holdings, which owns Chino Latino, Uptown Cafeteria and, until recently Il Gatto, each in Uptown.

And even though the appetite for space is large, developers say they too want to provide a balance.

JoAnna Hicks, the development director for the Ackerberg Group, said the development company is intent on finding unique businesses for its Uptown properties, including the soon-to-be-open mixed-use building at Lagoon and Girard avenues.

Tenants for much of the available space have yet to be finalized, but Hicks said an effort is being made to find a mix of local and national outfits.

“Uptown has to serve all the people who live here,” she said. “And if there is a tension, it’s a healthy tension because it indicates there is vibrancy in the area.”

For Genzlinger, the Uptown Association’s marketing chair, the challenge now is determining how best to manage that interplay from a public relations perspective.

But like Hicks, Genzlinger said working with a known quantity that people are passionate about is a welcome challenge. 

“From a marketer’s perspective, this is a dream — to have something that people are already aware of and just tap into that,” he said.

Uptown Association Survey

The Uptown Association surveyed 814 people — 341 of them through face-to-face interviews, and another 473 online — between June and September 2011 to gauge their opinions about the neighborhood. Among their finding:

Forty-nine percent of residents and 35 percent of visitors said they did not want to see more chain retail stores in Uptown.  

Thirty-six percent of residents and 22 percent of visitors said they would like to see more unique retail options in Uptown.

Fifty-nine percent of residents and 37 percent of visitors said proximity to the lakes was their favorite thing about the area; Uptown’s “distinctive vibe/personality” was the second most popular feature.

Thirty-one percent of residents and 41 percent of visitors said they would like to see more parking in Uptown.

Eighty-one percent of residents and 78 percent of visitors described Uptown as safe;
74 percent of residents and 77 percent of visitors described it as clean.

(Source: Understanding the Uptown Consumer: Demographics, Attitudes and Behaviors, Uptown Association.)