|When a national corporation proposes a building that doesn't fit your neighborhood, prove to them that they can build a building that fits. |
|Jeff Schommer, CharretteCenter|
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University UNITED, a coalition of neighborhood and community groups along University Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota is constantly wrestling with the same dilemma. Large scale, national chains want to locate along University Avenue because of the large amount of available land and because of its location in the geographic center of the Twin Cities metro area, with easy access to Interstate 94 and State Highway 280, as well as many bus routes, the states busiest intersection at University and Snelling Avenue and active housing development.
The big problem is that these large, anchor retailers usually offer the same building plans to the community; a large, one story box and a huge parking lot. Rarely does the front of the building face the street, and when it does, it is separated from the street by the parking lot.
The community is often eager for these retailers to do business in the area, with the convenience and tax revenue that they would bring, but has already seen the damage that this type of development does to the framework of their community. And the University Avenue area of St. Paul is not alone; communities all around the world are dealing with the same problem.
CVS, a national retail pharmacy chain, is planning to enter the Twin Cities market and recently proposed a new store at the high traffic corner of University Avenue and Snelling Avenue, the commercial epicenter of University Avenue in St. Paul. This store would be one of the company’s first of around 30 stores planned for the Twin Cities area. For University UNITED, it was the same problem as ever.
The residents of the neighborhood are in need of a pharmacy, and the addition of another high volume store on that particular corner could help strengthen other local retail as well as leverage more development, however CVS’s plans called for a single story, single tenant building set on the corner of the lot abutting the two high volume streets with a small surface parking lot. The front entrance of the building would face the parking lot with one blank wall facing University Avenue and another inhospitable wall facing Snelling Avenue.
When University UNITED asked CVS to review their plans and make them more sensitive to the context of the community, CVS said that this was how they built stores and they didn’t have any other store plans that would meet the street any better.
University UNITED had been through similar battles with other retailers, some who were more willing to work with them, some who were more hostile, so they knew that they had to be creative. The first thing that they did was to contact other Twin Cities communities where CVS is eying property for stores. A coalition of thirty neighborhoods came together to counter balance CVS’s approach for development. To University UNITED Executive Director, Brian McMahon, this coalition was the most important step.
“These thirty neighborhoods coming together was very powerful,” McMahon said, “It brought a lot of leverage to the conversation, talking to thirty neighborhoods instead of just one.” With the coalition assembled, the push for CVS to change their plans was more energized, more organized and more sophisticated. Having a sizable, united front that crossed municipal boundaries and had the backing of city council members Paul Ostrow of Minneapolis and Paul Zerby of St. Paul also brought the attention of local media to the issue. “We got proactive, not just reactive.”
With the coalition formed, the next thing that University UNITED did was host a short public design charrette to come up with new development options that they could offer to CVS. Over fifty interested people attended the charrette. Three design groups came up with four design options to take to CVS for discussion purposes.
Next, University UNITED did a little research. A call for examples was put out over a national email Listserv asking for photographs of CVS and other similar stores from around the country. Overnight, dozens of photos arrived which showed that not only do other pharmacies do business out of neighborhood friendly buildings, but CVS does business out of some of the nicest buildings of the bunch.
The St. Paul Riverfront Corporation’s Design Center met with people form the CVS organization at the end of January. At this meeting CVS stated that they would alter their design only slightly, adding windows to the walls facing University and Snelling Avenues. At a February 19th meeting, the City of St. Paul Zoning Commission approved these plans on a 3-2 vote, to the dismay of University UNITED and the communities around University and Snelling Avenues. With that approval vote, the issue now moves on to the Planning Commission for a similar vote. If the current design is approved there, an appeal will be brought to the City Council.
University UNITED’s Brian McMahon is still confident, even through the recent set back at the Zoning Board. He says that, for the most part, Zoning Boards and Planning Commissions tend to follow the letter of the law pretty strictly, and that they shy away from making real progressive design decisions. The City Council, which has the power to overrule the Planning Commission’s actions, is really where the design decisions are made and where new precedents are set. It was easy for the board to pass the plan, since CVS’s current plans follow the zoning regulations for that area of the city. Having the vote be so close (3-2) was almost a victory in itself.
University UNITED will not back down in their fight for human orientated design in their neighborhood. They continue to hold public forums to keep stakeholders informed and to keep themselves informed, and, armed with the photographs from around the country and the backing of the 30 other communities, put up strong arguments to CVS in their discussions. Whatever happens with this proposal, University UNITED is determined to assure that whatever is built at the corner of University and Snelling is just what the doctor ordered.