Monday, June 29, 2009

The New Rainbow: Does the Future Look Golden for Uptown?

Uptown's Rainbow Foods has long been bashed for both its suburban-style parking lot, its faded interior, and its sometimes-limited offerings, among things. Most detractors are probably cheering as they contemplate the recent announcement that Rainbow is anticipating MAJOR changes. In short, the current building and parking lot will be demolished and a new, three-story building will be built in its place. Unlike the current setup, the new building will take up the entire property.

According to the website OurUptown, the new Rainbow will:
  • Have three floors; the first floor will include 10,000 square feet of retail space. 250 parking spots (total) will be spread out between the first and second floor. The third floor will feature an 80,000 square feet grocery store.
  • Shoppers will access the grocery store through stairs, elevators, and escalators.
  • The maximum height is currently expected to be 48 feet; no zoning variance is necessary.
  • The store will be closed (for obvious reasons) for most of 2010, and possibly into early 2011.
This is great news. While I may be in the minority when I say that I hate big stores, and think that the current store is more than sufficient (and is in fact too big for my tastes), I realize that most people embrace the big-is-better viewpoint when doing their grocery shopping. I also don't mind the store (often called the "ghetto Rainbow"), and actually think of the store as it is now as the new and improved, "upscale" Rainbow, at least compared to what it was in the '90s. And yes, I'll admit, I like my grocery stores a little dingy around the corners as long as that dinginess doesn't extend to unsanitary conditions. Too much class in a grocery store makes me nervous. I'm weird that way, I guess. Still, I admit that this new Rainbow will give the people of Uptown an updated grocery store offering, and is certainly better than the risk of Rainbow pulling out and leaving altogether (a la Best Buy when it closed its Uptown store because the size was smaller than their typical suburban store). Mostly, though, I'm just happy that the store is pumping money into the community and is demonstrating an interest in building a neighborhood-friendly store that will get rid of that eyesore of a parking lot.

There will be undoubtedly be far more to say on this topic as more facts are released. In the meantime, this is an exciting project, and has the possibility to really help fill in the gap between Lyn-Lake to the east and the core of commercial Uptown to the west. It sounds like Rainbow is interested in a design appropriate to the area. I also hope that they consider the potentials of the Greenway when building this new store; if done right this could better link the Greenway to Lake/Lagoon, and help better connect CARAG and the Wedge.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

My Kind of Corner Store

Above: Louie's Food and Greek Deli, 35th and Dupont

I love corner stores, and wish that Uptown had more of them. In an ideal world, or at least in my ideal world, no one would be so unfortunate as to live more than two blocks from a shop selling milk, bananas, twinkies, ice cream, and, if really lucky, made-to-order sandwiches. These sorts of stores are designed to serve the community, and sell the basic essentials for when you don't have the time or the inclination to run to the store. The owners usually cater to the specific needs and tastes of the neighborhood; in addition to the standard corner store staples, for example, our old store in Hollywood sold red fishnet stockings (presumably for the local hookers) and our DC store sold boxes of snails for those neighbors with more advanced food tastes than me.

One of my favorite Uptown-area corner stores is Louie's Food and Greek Deli, located at the corner of 35th and Dupont. There's been a store there for as long as I can remember. Back in the mid-1980s I remember going to the same location to buy popsicles and hubba bubba gum. Stepping down the steps and into the dim basement store it felt like we were entering a different world. It wasn't elegant or exotic, but it was sure convenient. Back then the store was more utilitarian; a place to buy the basics of life, but not a particularly attractive addition to the neighborhood. Oh, how things have changed. I can't remember when the changes started, but gradually the store started to get some facelifts. A new sign, a new awning, fancy landscaping. The inside seems cleaner and brighter, too. The corner store of the 2000s is an attractive place, ice box and all. Admittedly the Malboro sign above the air conditioning unit isn't particulary inspiring, but when I can buy milk and fresh deli items I don't complain too much.

Corner stores are an integral part of a successful urban neighborhood. They're vivid proof that the concept of mixed-use development isn't a modern idea. People have long mixed commercial and residental uses, and when done right it benefits everyone. I hope to see Uptown's small corner stores continue to thrive for years to come, and hope that they will continue to serve as reminders that vibrant urban neighborhoods need businesses like this to live up to their full potential.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

It's a Strike! Uptown's Best Bike Rack

Above: Bowling pin bike rack at Bryant-Lake Bowl

I’ve recently started paying attention to bike racks, and have become mildly obsessed. Not obsessed with using the racks, ironically, as I don’t own a bike, but fascinated with them for both their utilitarian and artistic values. Minneapolis (including Uptown) is a pretty bike-friendly place, and it’s great to see so many businesses – and even some apartment buildings – offering bike rack parking.

Uptown has many great examples of the sheer variety of bike racks available, but so far my all-time favorite is the one at Bryant-Lake Bowl (photo above). It’s the perfect blend of form and function, and further serves to establish a unique sense of place. The design is eclectic, fun, distinctive, and relates to the nature of the business. It livens up the streetscape on a stretch of Lake Street that has historically been rather drab and utilitarian.

While in some commercial districts or streets a more elegant, or at lesat subdued and uniform, look might be more appropriate, but Uptown – especially the area closer to Hennepin and Lake – is often criticized as having long since lost its artistic vibe. Lyn-Lake still has more independent spirit, but with its growing population and name-recognition it’s going to risk running into the same issues as the core Uptown commercial area. Interesting, unique, functional bike racks are a great way to restore some of that bohemian flavor. When done right, as at Bryant Lake Bowl, they add to the pedestrian experience, make it easy for people to choose biking over driving, and overall make a street more enjoyable and a neighborhood more interesting.

If you, too, want a unique piece of commercial-quality bike racks, Midtown Greenway-adjacent Dero Bike Rack is a local supplier. The company has seen sales skyrocket in the last four years; their customer-base is national, but people here in Uptown, business owners or otherwise, can just hop on a bike and head up the Greenway to discuss their business or building's needs. Check out some of Dero's custom designs for inspiration, or dream up your own vision. They sell the basic versions, too.
Did I miss any other creative Uptown-area bike racks?

Thursday, June 4, 2009

I Love The Tin Fish - Well, Sort Of

Above: The Tin Fish on a late spring weekday morning.

I love The Tin Fish; I think it's Uptown at its best when you can get lunch (and even a drink!) and sit enjoying it while overlooking Lake Calhoun. The lake itself is always beautiful, but The Tin Fish's corner offers the bonus of plenty of activity, allowing for good people (and dog) watching. There's a range of offerings at different price points, the food gets overall good reviews, and it's both child- and dog-friendly. The space is attractive; their decor pays homage to the historic building's lakeside location, but without going too over-the-top kitschy or cutesy. In short, I think it's the kind of business that belongs on our lakes, and does a good job of enhancing people's (locals and visitors alike) Lake Calhoun experience.

So what's not to love about The Tin Fish? The food is good, the location superb, the experience relaxing and pleasant. Well, let's just say that I was happier when I envisioned The Tin Fish another shining example of local entrepreneurship, unsullied by franchise options and unique in both name and location. The Tin Fish is not, as many would guess, an independent operation; it's part of a franchise-based chain with multiple locations. As the website puts it, "The Tin Fish name continues to spread across the country." With each new location a little of the charm of the existing one dies; for now it works for me because I never have to actually see another The Tin Fish, and can pretend that they don't exist, but the more a company, especially a restaurant, moves into chain territory, the less appeal they hold for me personally. It's not that a chain can't offer a perfectly pleasant experience (as The Tin Fish does), but there's simply something disconcerting about knowing that at other people elsewhere are sitting at a restaurant with the same name and the same (or similar) menu.

Despite my dislike of chains, I'll continue to eat at The Tin Fish, and hope that it continues to thrive. It's a great place, and does enhance both the Lake Calhoun and the Uptown experience. Still, I can't help wishing that the owners of The Tin Fish's Lake Calhoun operation could go their own independent way, or if not, then at least I hope to never run across another The Tin Fish on my travels. There's a time and a place for chains, but in my mind that doesn't include the banks of Lake Calhoun.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Let's Solve the Parking Permit Problem

Above: wasted daytime parking spaces in Uptown

The Uptown portion of Minneapolis’s Critical Parking Area (Area 21) includes Emerson and Fremont between Lake Street and 31st Street, as well as a small stretch of 31st Street itself. As described by the city, these permit parking districts “are residential on-street parking areas that are intended to provide relief to neighborhood residents from parked vehicles by persons who have no association with the residents or the businesses in the neighborhood.” Resident permits cost $25 each year; additional visitor or service vehicle permits can be purchased for guests. Each resident license driver is allowed to purchase two parking permits. Uptown’s district has been in place for more than five years now, and its many flaws are readily apparent.

Donald Shoup’s excellent book, the High Price of Free Parking, proposes a solution for high-demand parking areas like Uptown. The problem, he points out, is that the parking spaces on residential blocks near commercial districts are often filled if there are no restrictions, yet parking permit programs such as the one in Uptown leave the blocks underused. In Uptown’s case, Emerson and Fremont are nearly void of cars during the day, while nearby (and more densely populated) blocks on the other side of 31st Street have few spaces available. Shoup suggests creating what he calls “Parking Benefit Districts,” a common-sense compromise solution that Uptown and Minneapolis would be smart to consider.

A parking benefit district, as outlined by Shoup:

  • Residents can obtain permits for free or for a small fee;

  • A controlled number of additional permits are available for purchase by non-residents for market-rate prices;

  • Permit fees are earmarked to return to the parking permit district, and could be used for things ranging from cleaning graffiti, fixing sidewalks, adding lights, landscaping, or otherwise improving the streetscape, area safety, or overall quality of life;

  • The non-resident permits could be restricted to certain times, if desired.

A stroll down Emerson or Fremont during weekday daytime hours makes it absolutely clear that the current permit structure isn’t working. Daytime permit parking for non-residents would allow local employees to find convenient street parking. Yes, I would prefer that they walk, bus, or bike to work, but the reality is that many people will choose to drive. If the city is going to provide free parking “storage for cars,” as one official quoted in Shoup’s book aptly puts it, then we as a community might as well get something out of that decision.

Parking Benefit Districts would offer something for everyone; residents on permit streets would still have parking available, but no longer would large swathes of curb go unused. Uptown regulars (employees or otherwise) arriving by car would have access to convenient parking. The revenue generated could be used to combat some of the district’s problems; graffiti, in particular, is everywhere, and maybe this money could assist with the ongoing efforts to keep local trashcans, street signs, light poles, and other streetscape elements clean. The Parking Permit Benefit District could be extended to cover a broader area than the current district; those apartment-heavy blocks in other areas of Uptown could also get some relief, but without resorting to the extreme restrictions currently offered. This would be an opportunity to make some other changes, too; currently Minneapolis Critical Parking District Area licensed drivers are allowed to hold two permits. This seems excessive; does the city really need to provide guaranteed parking for each person to have street parking for two cars? I’d suggest allowing residential rate parking for one car per licensed driver, with the option of purchasing a non-resident, market-rate permit for each additional car.

Regardless of whether Minneapolis embraces Parking Benefit Districts, the time has come to study the successes and failures of Uptown’s permit parking experiment. It’s a touchy subject, and the vocal voices of a few outspoken homeowners dominate the discussion and advocate policies that benefit a few with little regard for the community as a whole. (In a spectacular display of putting cars over people, for example, homeowner Phillip Qualy once described permit parking as the “single most useful instrument of city government to define and assure our residential livability.") While those homeowners may love the current system, it simply doesn’t make sense to continue the program as it works now. Parking Benefit Districts, with their added revenue and better use of space, works for the benefit of everyone, local residents included. Let’s hope that the next City Council Member – in all likelihood Meg Tuthill – will stand up to the special interest groups and bring permit parking back to the table for some much-needed reevaluation.