In a West End town, a dead end world |

Cross-posted at In a West End town, a dead end world:

“When I first heard about the new development called the Shops at West End (WE), the Pet Shop Boys played in my head. My vision of The West End came from London, roughly the area between Piccadilly Circus and Charing Cross. They are not similarly located, London’s version is substantially closer to the City (2.2 miles) than the St. Louis Park version is to Nicollet Mall (4.2 miles). The spatial location similarities fell short, but as in its London namesake, WE is a restaurant and theatre district. Minnesota’s version opened as a new open-air shopping center at the northern end of St. Louis Park, roughly at the Southwest corner of the Junction I-394 and MN 100 in 2009. Now almost 4 years old, how well does WE work?

In a West End town, a dead end world


When I first heard about the new development called the Shops at West End (WE), the Pet Shop Boys played in my head. My vision of The West End came from London, roughly the area between Piccadilly Circus and Charing Cross. They are not similarly located, London’s version is substantially closer to the City (2.2 miles) than the St. Louis Park version is to Nicollet Mall (4.2 miles). The spatial location similarities fell short, but as in its London namesake, WE is a restaurant and theatre district. Minnesota’s version opened as a new open-air shopping center at the northern end of St. Louis Park, roughly at the Southwest corner of the Junction I-394 and MN 100 in 2009. Now almost 4 years old, how well does WE work?

Below are some photos taken mid-day on an unseasonably nice Minnesota spring day. The site is not fully leased, as noted in this Biz Journal’s series of articles. The parking ramp is far from full.

The development into a real community remains unfinished, but while on-site it resembles the veneer of a Main Street (see this map), it is poorly connected with any of the neighboring retail parcels (including a Big Box center featuring a Costco and Home Depot across the street), and even the onsite offices are separated by a fortress of parking ramps.

The poor connections are not entirely the developer’s fault, the neighboring developments were designed without West End in mind, and geared to automobile travelers (go figure, located at the interchange of two major freeways). The onsite offices could have easily been above the shops, so that office workers passed the stores going into and out of work. This ground floor retail would have increased pedestrian traffic compared with the current layout (at the expense of fully climate controlled travel for lessees of the office space).

So the internal without respect to the external is inherently hampered. The site itself acknowledges all of its customers are drive up, it features several significant parking structures. The structures do dump pedestrians onto the Main Street (West End Boulevard), but the interface is far from seamless, with some longish unpleasant-ish, malodorous walks within the structure, so while it tries to play nice between car and pedestrian, it falls short. West End Boulevard aims for the shopping street experience, but it still gives more real estate to the movement and storage of cars than pedestrians. West End Boulevard is no Shaftesbury Avenue (which itself was a 19th century slum clearance measure, so some good can come of urban renewal in the right hands and given enough time).

With some artistry, the West End could be tied into future redevelopments of neighboring sites, but I don’t see it happening, this suburb is too far gone, street grids are too hard to reorganize, and no good East-West corridor was established through the site. At a larger scale, St. Louis Park is dissected by both freeways and railroad tracks. Driving from Excelsior and Grand to The Shops at West End is 4.4 miles, and for all practical purposes requires freeway use. Walking is given as 3.4 miles, but is on the circuitous side, requiring 7 turns.

Back at the WE, trees are under-developed (The developer could have installed older trees). More significantly, West End Boulevard is too narrow, and as a result, has too much shade and too little sunlight, even in the middle of the day. A wider street would have helped in this regard.

The roads and sidewalks are bricked, and not just brick highlights, but a fully bricked road. In a different climate, this might survive. I have doubts this will age well under traffic and Minnesota winters. The main street is not straight. It could have been straight, but the developer chose curvy. This seems to be popular in shopping malls now (so you can’t see the end, there is excitement at every bend, there is more retail surface area), but it feels wrong at this scale, like it’s wobbly. Part of the problem is its narrowness. Of course all grids must bend at some point (the earth is not flat), but this short turning gives it a more suburban feeling in what is supposed be an urban-like (or urban-lite) experience. The real streets that West End Boulevard parallels (Duke Drive, Park Place Boulevard) are straighter, and oriented for the movement of cars.

The shops are not unique. I visited solely because of the multiplex movie theatre, which are getting more difficult to find in the cities. The theatre itself is upstairs in one building, which I guess makes sense, as no need to waste ground-floor retail on such a large structure, and I have seen this model in Town Centres in and around London. On the other hand, I passed the entrance before I figured out it was the theatre, the signage is not at all obvious at ground level, and the large highway-oriented signs suggest a different location for the entrance.

While the West End is not scheduled to get any significant transit stations any time soon (just like St. Louis Park’s other signature retail development: Excelsior and Grand), and unlike London’s counterpart, where you can’t turn around without falling into an Underground Station, there is a small park and ride lot one block north of the site at Park Place Boulevard and I-394. If this corridor were turned into a full-fledged Freeway Bus-Rapid Transit system (like the Red and Orange lines, as suggested by the Purple Line on this map by Kyril Negoda), there would be a natural station here. And BRT is technically quite feasible, what with the HOT lanes already in place. Tying that station into a real fine-grained local street network at the interchange may be the planners’ hope, but there is a lot of market coordination required to achieve that.

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Cities sans shopping


Before the advent of civilization, there was little trade and few “stores”. We did not “store” much, we went and hunted or gathered what we needed. Once we invented agriculture, we invented storage, and surplus, and extended trade. We held inventory. Once we sold inventories from fixed locations in exchange for what become money, retailing was invented.

A while ago I wrote this:

Some nuance on language.

Shop: wiktionary: From Middle English shoppe, from Old English sceoppa (“booth”)

  1. An establishment that sells goods or services to the public; originally a physical location, but now a virtual establishment as well.
  2. A place where things are crafted; a workshop or hobbyshop.
  3. An automobile mechanic’s workplace.
  4. Workplace; office. Used mainly in expressions such as shop talk, closed shop and shop floor.

Store: wiktionary:  Etymology from Latin instaurare – (“erect, establish”). store

  1. A place where items may be accumulated or routinely kept.
  2. A supply held in storage.
  3. (mainly North American) A place where items may be purchased.

A shop is a place where things are worked on (and sold), a store is a place where things are kept (and sold). We go shopping but we don’t go storing, we come home and store the things we got from the larger store.

The idea of a store, where things that we may need are stored and distributed, is ultimately one of sharing community resources. I may need tools at some point, but rather than own all the tools I might need, there is a hardware store which sells things on a just-in-time basis to consumers. Who owns the hardware store (an individual, a firm, a cooperative) is secondary to the necessity of such a function to achieve economies of scale and ensure variety. If there were no stores, we would need to store everything we might need, and would need to truck and barter for goods with their makers, a much less efficiency system.

The idea of a shop is just the place where the trade takes place. Implicitly, a store holds lots of things, a shop is just a place for the transaction or some local repair work. This is somewhat lost in modern usage, but we still have hardware stores and grocery stores (which are relatively large), but dress shops, tailor shops, auto shops (which at least the first two are relatively small, and the latter two refer to where things are done rather than already made things are sold).

Both of these functions are necessary in urban systems. We  need both places to store items we may need in the future (and then acquire them when needed), and we need shop-places to work on things, making them, repairing them, altering them.  With the move toward a disposable society, where it costs more to fix things (which is a laborious process) than make them (which is often automated), the share of space devoted to shops rather than stores has declined. Proposition Joe is in a declining business (“Shine that up and put $7.50 on it… Shame to let a good toaster go to waste over a frayed cord” – Proposition Joe, The Wire)

Where these things are located relative to where people and live and work depends on the frequency of use. We want things we want frequently (e.g. milk), to be closer than things we want infrequently (e.g. furniture). But closer and farther are relative not absolute terms. They depend on context: location with respect to others (density or community demand), the cost of travel (technology), frequency of use (individual demand), and so on. Relative locations have changed over time as density, technology, and demand have changed.

While transactions are here to stay, if only for the raw materials needed to operate our 3D printers, “going shopping” in the physical world may have peaked.

American Time Use Survey, Purchasing Goods and Services Trends
American Time Use Survey, Purchasing Goods and Services Trends

The American Time Use Survey shows a drop in time spent “purchasing goods and services) from 2003 (0.81 hours) to 2008 (0.77 hours) to 2009 (0.72 hours) to  2010 (0.75 hours) to 2011 (0.72 hours). 0.09 hours per day may not seem like much, and this is only a few years trend, and there is some volatility, but it is consistent with what we know about the rest of the world.

To the extent I can operate in a de-materialized world, where fetching is replaced by delivery (especially by automated delivery), the amount of shopping (and naturally, the space devoted to shopping) will shrink. This is counter-balanced by the trends toward greater income (which has to be spent on something) and more time (which also has to be spent on something), for which retail may be an attractive solution. But this turns retail into a service and entertainment activity more than a transactional one.

In Chapter 9 of Planning for Place and Plexus, we write about: The rise (and fall) and rise (and fall?) of door-to-door delivery

Door-to-door delivery differs from door-to-door sales. The delivery requires only a catalog (be it paper or electronic) and some way of getting the order and finances from the consumer to the manufacturer and the goods from the manufacturer back to the consumer.

The enabler for this type of exchange was the U.S. Post Office’s Rural Free Delivery (RFD). The need for RFD lay in several factors. The remoteness of rural America meant 30 million residents had to travel to town to pick up their mail. The poor quality of roads made this difficult. Postmaster General (and department store founder) John Wanamaker pushed for RFD, which began in the 1890s, and after experimentation it was finally inaugurated in 1896 in West Virginia and ramped up to 29 states. By 1901, Congress made RFD permanent. RFD had several effects. One is that it gave added weight behind federal involvement in the good roads movement. Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution gives Congress the power “To establish Post Offices and post Roads”; though federal aid for state roads did not really begin until 1913, and did not get going until 1916.

A second effect is that retailers like Montgomery Ward, L.L. Bean, Charles Tiffany, W.A. Burpee, and of course Sears, Roebuck & Company took advantage of RFD. Especially with the addition of parcel service to traditional postal service, the mail order catalog business took off. Sears, which had been publishing specialty catalogs since 1888, issued its first general merchandise catalog, the “Big Book”, in 1896, whose Christmas edition came to be known as the “Wish Book”. The catalog truly was general merchandise, selling cars by catalog from 1909 to 1913 and bungalow houses from 1908 until the Great Depression. In fact, Sears didn’t open its first retail store until 1925, and the general Big Book catalog was discontinued in 1993 (Sears 2004), notably before the widespread adoption of the World Wide Web.

By the time Sears was scaling back its catalog business, mail order, along with toll free numbers, had become a booming industry. The emerging internet saw the rise of numerous e-commerce vendors. (founded 1994) and eBay (founded 1995) relied both on the post office, as well as express carriers such as Federal Express (founded 1971) and United Parcel Service (founded 1907). Jupiter (2004) estimates US online sales at $65 Billion, growing to $117 Billion by 2008, which will amount to about 5% of all retail sales, although the online sector is growing faster than traditional retailing.

Online research influences a great deal of offline purchases, but what is missing from online sales are things that are widely consumed without much research, like supermarket food items, as well as items like gasoline that are impractical to deliver. Many have tried to extend the reach of online purchasing to replace the supermarket, recalling the milkman of yore, but companies such as Webvan did not succeed. Webvan, which attracted more venture capital than any internet retailer except, delivered food to customers in seven cities, and established a new warehouse distribution system (Paying $1 Billion to Bechtel for this) in each of those cities. It acquired rival startup Home Grocer, but wound up spending money faster than it could earn it for long enough that it had to declare bankruptcy July 10, 2001, after the peak in the stock market bubble (but before 9/11). Even more ambitious,, which served seven cities, promised free one-hour delivery for a variety of goods from videos to coffee and ice cream ordered online. Unlike Webvan, never went public, lasting from 1998 to April 2001. Webvan like services (Peapod and Simon Delivers, among others) do remain, with lower capital costs. Whether these are profitable remains to be seen.

But we now see a second run at making delivery of even perishable items standard. Amazon, Google, and others are trying to figure out a workable model that is cheaper than the USPS, Federal Express and UPS for same-day delivery.

The more that is delivered, the less that is fetched. Shopping transitions from the real to virtual, and some, if not all, of the space that was devoted to shopping (14.2 billion square feet) will need to disappear. [For perspective, the Mall of America is 4.2 million square feet, of which 2.5 million is retail. So US retail is basically 3000 Malls of America.]

Fortunately, a lot of the retail that will disappear is, for lack of a better word, crap. We all know the dumpy strip malls that besot our landscape. First they will lower rents. Second they will be abandoned. Then they will be replaced. As with many of these processes, there will be a rich get richer phenomenon, the few remaining retail centers may continue to grow, as the experience of shopping (requiring many many choices) replaces the necessity of shopping. The commodity distributors will be replaced by commodity deliverers if the cost of distributions can be flipped so that delivery is cheap enough. But people still need to leave home, if only to get out of the house. Looking at things is a good excuse. This suggests artisans and crafts, and things that are more attractive in person than online will be the things that motivate us to leave the home-work axis for alternative destinations. The purchase of stocks like paper towels will rarely be enough to get us out of our chairs.

But with what will we replace the losers?

These are the tear-downs. To the extent they still have good transport access, they might remain commercial, or be appropriate for high density residential. On University Avenue along the Central Corridor, abandoned retail is being transitioned to new residential construction.

I don’t expect many parks or single-family homes, since these are still relatively prime locations from an accessibility perspective, and along transportation corridors. While the highest and best use may not be retail stores, there are still other activities that benefit from locations that are easily reached.