Over the last year and a half, St. Paul civic and business leaders have frequently commented on a growing number of commercial vacancies along the Grand Avenue business district as a number of longtime restaurants and retail establishments have either closed or relocated. The loss of high-profile businesses, particularly near Victoria Crossing, has led many to question the longer-term outlook for the district. Meanwhile, a number of new restaurants and retail establishments have opened along Snelling Avenue following the completion of a number of high-profile redevelopment projects. This makes St. Paul’s Grand Avenue something of an interesting case study for existing commercial districts as neighborhoods evolve and the desire for increased density spurs new construction.
In an attempt to respond to the increase in commercial vacancies, representatives of the Summit Hill Association (SHA), the Macalester Groveland Community Council (MGCC) and the Grand Avenue Business Association (GABA) came together to launch “The Future is Grand” Task Force this past March. Their stated goal was the identification of “existing barriers and opportunities for Grand Avenue visitors, residents and businesses.”
Having started by soliciting feedback from over 60 property owners and businesses along Grand Avenue, in July the Task Force turned its attention to soliciting public input via in-person interviews, online surveys and telephone conversations. In mid-November, the Task Force released a “Consensus Document” which listed six “primary recommendations” for the City to consider. Those recommendations included:
- Improve pedestrian experience of the historic and vital corridor through art, signage, retail beautification, and transit.
- Focus on priority maintenance that improves accessibility, parking, and appeal of public spaces.
- Protect livelihoods of our small business base and commercial corridors by slowing the rate of growth of taxes, fees, and other costs of doing business.
- Foster collaboration of Grand Avenue stakeholders on funds for the Grand Avenue commercial corridor to engage the community and plan for future density, open space, residential, and commercial areas.
- Convene local thought leaders and innovators to examine creative and experimental approaches to generate new sources of city revenue–to enable investment in infrastructure, multi-modal accessibility, and enhanced quality of life.
- Develop innovative solutions to filling vacant storefronts through short-term tax relief, flexible incentives & grants, pilot programs, and active engagement with property owners.
The Task Force is expected to issue final recommendations to the St. Paul City Council in a formal letter later this year or early 2020.
As both Minneapolis and St. Paul look towards how to best increase density and support the development of more transit-oriented and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, commercial districts like St. Paul’s Grand Avenue will continue to find themselves needing to evolve and adapt. Stakeholder engagement processes, like the “The Future Is Grand” Task Force, may become more common. However, it remains to be seen to what extent the stakeholders at the table embrace the coming transitions to their business districts or whether they focus on tenant/consumer attraction and preservation.