Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Trader Joe’s and the Urban Parking Experience

Dateline: 9:42 pm July 18, 2006 Filed under:

Trader Joe’s opened its highly-anticipated first store in the Twin Cities this spring. It happens to be located at Excelsior and Grand, a much-heralded suburban town center in St. Louis Park; the one example in the Twin Cities that planners and developers look to as they contemplate a mixed-use town center elsewhere.

I recently paid a visit to Trader Joe’s to see whether it lives up to its hype. The store itself is fine, but what struck me was the parking lot. It is small, with narrow stalls, hemmed in on two sides by an imposing mixed-use building, difficult for a large vehicle to navigate, and also quite crowded; a far cry from a Costco parking lot. I was frankly quite pleased at how urban it felt, since this was, after all, the suburbs. To me, that says the developers did something right; a little density is quite all right. Honestly, though, the first thing that entered my mind was how much this crowded parking lot was going to infuriate people!

Sure enough, one of our local newspapers, the Star Tribune, ran a recent front-page story about the parking problems at Trader Joe’s. The story opens by quoting a woman who is upset about the crowded little parking lot, and has started to park on the street nearby.

It is worth noting that the woman quoted in the article gave no indication that she would actually stop shopping at Trader Joe’s, but merely that she is prepared to avoid the hassle by parking on the street. Genius! So, whereas the Star Tribune frames the crowded parking lot as being too small, and therefore a failure, I’d say a bustling parking lot in front of a thriving grocer is a rousing success. Trader Joe’s shoppers will have to put up with the fact that the increased density of suburban town centers means there may be crowded parking lots, which, if you ask me, is a small price to pay for a greatly improved suburban place.

I don’t want to split hairs, but here goes. Trader Joe’s is a 14,000 square foot store with a parking lot that contains 55 stalls. That is just under four stalls per thousand square feet, or slightly less than the five per thousand that I understand to be common for suburban grocery store standards. Factor in on-street parking throughout the Excelsior and Grand development, plus over 200 stalls in a nearby ramp, and there is plenty of parking in the general vicinity of Trader Joe’s.

The Trader Joe’s parking issue is a very good example of the trade-offs found at suburban town centers, some of which are quite dense. Town centers are built for a variety of reasons, one of which is the creation of a district that has fewer unsightly surface parking lots. From that point of view, Excelsior and Grand is a big success, as the only surface parking lot is, in fact, the one in front of Trader Joe’s.

Ordinarily I’d be done by now, but a few other aspects of the Star Tribune article warrant a response. The article went on to explain that new town centers are trying to “demonstrate” more compact development, so that people can have a “Manhattan-like” experience as they walk to the store.

Let us clear a few things up. Excelsior and Grand, like other town centers across the country, is not a “demonstration.” Walkable, mixed-use developments are very conscious choices by cities and developers to react to changing market expectations and to attract people that prefer this sort of environment in which to spend time. Not all suburban town centers are perfect, but when done right, they complement their surroundings, and often act as a catalyst to reinvigorate an ebbing tax base for a city. Most of all, they are often very popular places from the public point of view.

It is important to understand that suburban town centers are not one-size-fits-all. Every city seeking to build a town center must find the right size, scale, density and mix of uses that fits the site and works in the marketplace.

Lastly, I recently completed a case study on Excelsior and Grand for the Urban Land Institute. In all my interviews with the developer, architect and city staff, nobody ever claimed they wanted a “Manhattan-like” environment at Excelsior and Grand. For goodness, sake, this is an upper Midwest suburb. Certainly it is denser that what used to be on the site, and it is worth noting that the 1,000 or so residents at Excelsior and Grand can indeed walk to get groceries. While that should be perceived as a major success for the development, it is a little disingenuous to have the press conveying to the general public that we’re trying to create a little Manhattan in St. Louis Park.

Ah, but I digress. Suburbs face a daunting challenge to be attractive and provide reasons for residents and employers to invest and reinvest there. Town centers are but one of the many options for this to be achieved. Excelsior and Grand has been a successful example in most regards, due in large part to a dedicated vision on behalf of the city of St. Louis Park. A slightly crowded parking lot is hardly a failure, and should not deter other cities from creating places that are special and resonate with people.  

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