Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

An Urban Review of the New Downtown Whole Foods

Dateline: 1:51 pm October 3, 2013 Filed under:

Walkable urban grocery stores are a critical component of great cities. While Minneapolis has a number of grocery stores in varying degrees of urbanity and walkability, Lunds in northeast Minneapolis set a new standard when it opened a little over five years ago by being located on the ground floor of a mixed-use building and in a very walkable setting. The new Whole Foods store in downtown Minneapolis opened last week. Developed by Ryan Companies and the Excelsior Group, the Whole Foods is at the base of 222 Hennepin Apartments, and overall the project is a big boost to downtown and the North Loop.


I’m agnostic on the architecture of the building (shown above) or its tower which is maligned by some. After all, even the 222 Hennepin Apartments website crops it out. I quite like the architecture. I’m more interested in the urban design of the building, and how it relates to me and the countless others who approach it, visit, and pass by every day. And so I’m going to be a little critical and could very well come off nitpicky, but this needs to be said so we can build better urbanism moving forward. (I will go out on a limb and guess that 300-vehicle parking structure in the middle of the block, which was previously existing and reused in a creative and cost-saving manner, could very well have dictated the dimensions of the building and led to tradeoffs between buildable space and public realm.)

I visited Whole Foods last week, on day two of opening. The store is great! I’ve been to the Whole Foods signature store under the company’s headquarters in Austin, Texas, and this new store compares well. In two short years suddenly downtown is not lacking for great grocery options. Store parking is underground and the store is easily accessible via escalator and elevator (hint, there is even bicycle parking in the garage).


More important is the location of the pedestrian doors, at the prime corner of Washington and Hennepin Avenues (above). A prominent, heavily used pedestrian door facing a major intersection sets a wonderful tone for urbanism, guaranteeing foot traffic and eyes on the street. Whole Foods does not disappoint in this regard. Bike parking and outdoor seating is nearby, all very important. However, as the woman in the image above suggests, it is human nature to hang out near the doorway, and a couple tables near the door itself would make the store even more intimate and welcoming. As the Urban Fare grocery store in Vancouver shows (below), add some displays as well, particularly flowers, to make a more pleasant transition from public to private realm.

Picture 055

The long side of the Whole Foods store faces Washington Avenue, and large exterior windows face the street. Lining the sidewalk are street trees, a large bicycle rack and tables (below).


The problem is the sidewalk is too narrow (actually, the street is too wide). As one might expect, the bike rack was largely full, and mine added one more. But a full bike rack and people sitting at the tables, including someone in a wheelchair, leaves very little room for actual pedestrians. Again, I suspect part of the reason for this is the existing parking structure on the site left precious little room for the store, much less sidewalk, or should I say things that need to be on sidewalks.  This Giant supermarket (below) in the walkable Columbia Heights neighborhood in Washington D.C. shows a proper width for a grocery store front sidewalk.

Giant DC

These two images from Vancouver show a well-scaled busy sidewalk can be designed…

Picture 006

…including space for wheelchairs.

Picture 019

Developers have to make compromises, and I suspect this is one of those situations. I’ll bet the Whole Foods store itself isn’t as deep as the company prefers due to this site constraint (the existing parking structure (I could be wrong on this)). One solution is, like the developer, for the city and county to compromise and reduce westbound Washington Avenue from three lanes to two. This would reduce the risk for cyclists parking their bikes and pedestrians alike, for whom the street is uncomfortably close and one false move means stepping out in to fast moving traffic (below). A simple road diet could add sidewalk width, and perhaps on-street parking for cars and cyclists!


Mixed-use buildings with ground-floor grocers and residential units above need not one but up to three vehicle access points, one for residential parking, one for store customers and a third huge access for all-important delivery trucks. There’s no good urban solution for this, but having them face side streets is preferable, as Ryan did. Even this Ralphs store in downtown Los Angeles has a large set of vehicle and truck entrances on the side of the building.

Ralph's LA

This Safeway in Washington hides truck docks and parking access on the back side of the building as well, but they do exist.

Safeway DC

I do, however, have a bit of a problem with the residential units facing 2nd Street and Hennepin. Ground floor units here should have walk-out entrances rather than these facing 2nd…


…and these facing Hennepin (below), which feel unnecessarily disconnected from what should be a pedestrian environment along the street. After all, the Walkscore here is 94, including the Mississippi River and thousands of jobs so close by, so why not be able to walk out your front door to get there?


Walk-out units can face busy streets like these in Vancouver…

Vancouver Front Facade

and these right here at West River Commons on Lake Street in Minneapolis.

Picture 032

I find the design of the sidewalk along Hennepin to be good but curious. The benches on the right seem to encourage more skateboarding than sitting. I tried them, and felt like my legs were sticking out in the pedestrian traffic flow, especially when I stretched out. Why not put some of these benches perpendicular to the sidewalk and street and facing each other between tree wells. The landscaping on the left seems to be more of a buffer between sidewalk and building rather than place to sit.  Especially with grass sticking out and flowers with bees, they almost seem to discourage sitting, even though there is more to look at in the street with people and traffic going by.


Why not make this street-facing seating a little more conducive to actually sitting? The alcoves created between them (below)could have seating as well for those not wanting to trip passers-by or those seeking a little more privacy.


You can see by the woman in this photo (above) that it is human nature to seek a position out of the pedestrian flow. We want the people watching but from a slight distance. All those benches are provided, yet she’s sitting on the steps. Too bad there aren’t more of them, including walk-out units. You needn’t build an expensive esplanade like the one in Vancouver (below) to get the scaling and relationship between seating and walking right.

Picture 051

Some of these criticisms may be nitpicky to be sure. (Why am I raining on this Whole Foods parade? Someone has to, and I’m not, I’m just being nitpicky.) On the whole (no pun intended), this is a very well-designed project and more importantly provides a walkable grocery store for the downtown. But I care a lot that we get our urban design right here in Minneapolis, and while this project moves us in the right direction, it holds a few missed urbanism opportunities (some of which can be fixed, and others we have to live with). But just think, if we get our streetcar line, as promised, it will go right by Whole Foods. Then we’ll be like the Safeway in Portland’s Pearl District! I’d like that very much.

Safeway Pearl



  1. Is there signage near the accessible (on-sidewalk) bike racks indicating overflow bike parking in the garage? It never occurs to me to look there, unless someone invites me to.

    Comment by Janne — October 3, 2013 @ 2:48 pm

  2. just a thought: you might make your pics bigger. they’re hard to see at that size.

    Comment by Bill Lindeke — October 3, 2013 @ 3:00 pm

  3. Images should enlarge now when you click on them. Thanks.

    Comment by Joe Urban — October 3, 2013 @ 7:06 pm

  4. I don’t think these points are nitpicky at all. Spelling these things out clearly and drawing pictures is necessary. Otherwise Minneapolis will never get proper sidewalks.

    Sadly, Washington Avenue can never ever be narrowed because this might slow vehicular traffic flow and that would be very bad according to the people who decide these things. Good idea though!

    Comment by helsinki — October 4, 2013 @ 3:06 pm

  5. To Janne’s question, no, I did not notice signage.

    To Helsinki’s comment, I share your sadness in the realization that Washington may never be fundamentally changed to be more pedestrian-friendly. But miracles do happen.

    Comment by Joe Urban — October 4, 2013 @ 7:20 pm

  6. […] the value in creating welcoming, safe places – whether these are simply wider and well-designed sidewalks, parklets taking over on-street parking spaces, or new plazas that might result from reducing auto […]

    Pingback by What’s the Value of a Lane? | — April 30, 2014 @ 4:42 pm

  7. […] the merits of this development on various grounds at length, but as a nearby resident I feel the positives outweigh the negatives. It’s certainly better to look at than it used to […]

    Pingback by Strong Towns Citizens Challenge: Walk to the Grocery Store – Lost Caws — October 2, 2014 @ 3:11 am

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