Shed No Tears for the St Paul Macy's

A while ago, I read an incredible account of the bombing of the St Paul Daytons' department store:

Mary Peek and her husband Roland went to Dayton’s to have dinner on Sunday August 22, 1970 not knowing that the events of the evening would change their lives forever. At 5:10 pm Mary was combing her hair in front of the mirror in the women’s restroom on the Cedar level (near Cedar and Sixth street) when a two pound stick of dynamite detonated in the wastebasket near her. The blast destroyed two toilets, two wash sinks, and blew a hole in the wall. According to an article in her hometown paper, the Albert Lea Tribune, her “lungs were seared, eardrums broken, and her body pierced with shrapnel and debris.” After five hours in surgery she would spend the next three months in the hospital recovering and would suffer from the blast for the rest of her life.

The tale is incredible for a number of reasons, most obviously because its a horrible act of violence. But secondly, the era of 70s terrorist political bombings is so beyond my experience that its difficult for me to imagine. (Today, that kind of violence has been replaced by apolitical mass shootings, it seems.) Finally, and less extreme, I find it hard to imagine a St Paul department store being full of people. If a bomb went off at Macy's these days, I'm not sure that anyone would notice. (There's a legitimate philosophical question about whether or not it would even make a sound.) 

The very concept of people existing in downtown St Paul seems rather quaint today, something out of the Historical Society archive or a clip of the Mary Tyler Moore show. Maybe someday, I've been thinking to myself for my entire life, St Paul will be more than a curious museum of a city. Maybe someday, I've been thinking to myself for my entire life, the streets and sidewalks will have people on them.

That day is fast approaching. And Macy's closing is likely to help, not hurt, the effort.

[Paris' Au Bon Marché in 1867.]
Why is Macy's Closing?

The Macy's / Dayton's story has less to do with downtown St Paul and more to do with the highly-competitive, ever-changing world of retail.  Robert Fogelson's excellent history of downtowns describes nicely how dense and bustling downtowns were in the pre-war era. These downtowns used to be the very absolute centers of our civic and commercial lives. It was another era, and Joe Soucheray's (surprisingly tolerable) column yesterday does a nice job of reminiscing about the old days.

Now? The opposite is true. Today, a big downtown department store is a relic, like an elevator operator or a typewriter. The world's first modern department store was the Bon Marché in Paris. It opened in 1867 and when it did, it revolutionized the retail experience for 19th century urbanites. Reading descriptions of that moment (Benjamin's Arcades Project is a good source for this) you get a sense of how amazing it seemed to the emerging middle-class of the times.

Well, things change. Along came shopping malls and freeways in the 1950s, big box stores and even larger freeways in the 1980s, and finally the internet comes along today. Just as those early stores wiped out lots of smaller "general store" merchants, inevitably the department stores were out-moded and replaced by the ever changing city. Today, retail is constantly cannibalizing itself, and every corner of our city is littered with formerly useful retail buildings. Any year now, Amazon.com will put a bunch of big box corporations out of business, and suburbs around the country will have to figure out what to do with their giant empty malls and useless 300,000 square foot one-story boxes.

[An abandoned strip mall in Brooklyn Center, fm this awesome site.]
The key question isn't "why is the downtown Macy's closing?" But its, "why didn't it close years ago?" (The answer is government subsidies. The other answer, if you read Nick Coleman's account of trying to actually shop there, is that it was actually was closed for all these years, even though it was technically open.)

For years, the downtown Macy's has been standing in the middle of downtown St Paul like a mannequin with no clothes, doing little but adding a pallor of depression to the city. It has only served as a faded symbol of another era. It's been like a giant palliative, a way for the downtown business community to feel better about itself. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the store has likely never been much of an asset for downtown, and St Paul would have been better off it it had closed decades ago.

[The Macy's parking ramp creates a terrible sidewalk.]
To understand why the Macy's store was such a problem, look at the actual building. The store itself is an ugly almost windowless bunker that  literally resembles a white elephant. It sits in the very heart of the city like a trampoline in a cupcake shop, serving as little other than an awning for people waiting for the bus. It's got a skyway to nowhere that dangles uselessly over the vacant parking lot next door. And last but not least, the St Paul Macy's has one of the worst sidewalks in the city along 6th Street, one of those odious parking lot / ramps that transforms the sidewalk into a concrete terror. The overall effect is a textbook example of the kind of dead space that William H. Whyte condemned when he visited St Paul decades ago.

But now, thanks to the "normal course adjustments" of the Macy's corporation, St Paul will have to figure out what to do with this horrible building. It's too bad. It's unlikely to be used as a department store ever again; its unlikely to be re-purposed; and, barring an economic miracle, its unlikely to be knocked down and redeveloped anytime soon. It's likely, instead, to sit empty for a decade while St Paul attempts to revitalize itself all around it. The sooner that building sees the wrecking ball, the better.

The future of Downtown St Paul

Actually, it's a relief to see the department store era ending in Downtown St Paul. As long as the city keeps clinging to the past, it will have trouble making the kinds of decisions what will help it build a successful urban future. As long as the city keeps subsidizing out-moded retail and transportation infrastructures (like the downtown Macy's), it will have difficulty prioritizing the kinds of urban experiences that will actually benefit St Paul.

With that in mind, here are three things that downtown St Paul can do to move past the department store era:
  • #1 Slowly Dismantle the Skyway System
The downtown Dayton's / Macy's was a shining example of the large-scale, insulated suburban campus style of downtown development that has mostly failed St Paul. St Paul's skyway system is another. The system is composed of large megablock buildings connected by isolating second-story tunnels, huge office buildings with interior focused mall spaces that present the street and its pedestrians with some of the bleakest possible spaces. The whole 'center' of downtown St Paul, beginning at the Macy's but extending all the way to Robert Street, is composed of similar buildings like this that have depressing, empty retail spaces with high office vacancy rates. Galtier Plaza and  "Town Square" are similar failed attempts to bring re-create the suburban shopping mall experience downtown (where it makes little sense).

Compare that with the parts of the city that are thriving: Lowertown, and the buildings surrounding the two beautiful downtown parks. Here you have street-level retail, smaller older buildings, and skyways are nowhere to be found. It's no coincidence that the parts of the city that people love and are successful have little overlap with the depressing skyway system.
  • #2 Traffic Calming & Bike Lanes
Barring huge construction projects, traffic in St Paul is not that bad. There are still lots of places where the roads are overbuilt. (Kellogg Boulevard is a good example.) Last year NiceRide expanded its bike sharing system to downtown St Paul, and the results were very disappointing. A NiceRide station in downtown Minneapolis sees more use in an hour than a downtown St Paul station gets in a month. One of the problems is that downtown St Paul doesn't have any bike lanes. It doesn't have a citywide bike plan. It doesn't have political or business leaders pushing bicycling as a way to get around their city.

Another huge problem is that downtown St Paul doesn't actually connect its bicycle infrastructure with any of the surrounding neighborhoods. The city's #1 bike lanes, up on Summit Avenue, disappear just when you need them as you enter downtown St Paul. The same is true for the 4-3 conversion on West 7th Street, or the bike lanes on Wabasha Avenue from the West Side. And worst of all, trying to walk or bike to the East Side feels like taking a ring into Mordor. Downtown St Paul is an island that deliberately cuts itself off from the rest of the city. Given the lack of traffic downtown, all of these would be pretty simple fixes with a bit of political will.
  • #3 Invest in Sidewalks and Street life
[This is a great place for a sidewalk café.]
What St Paul needs more than anything else is street life. When the Zombie Pub Crawl was in downtown St Paul a few years ago, I remember thinking that it seemed appropriate because St Paul in the evening typically feels like a post-apocalyptic wasteland. What St Paul needs is people! (Not zombie people.)

In order to get there, we need to start investing in mixed-use residential density and an investment in its sidewalks. It needs more chops and cafés and food trucks and events (like Wabasha Street Days).

It turns out, that is easier said than done. Recently, a pair of downtown business owners offered to foot the (substantial) bill for a big sidewalk extension along Mears Park (one of downtown's burgeoning hot spots). They offered to remove a block of parking spaces and replace them with a far wider sidewalk that would accommodate outdoor street café dining along the park. (This is notable because business owners almost never agree to remove parking spaces in front of their stores, and because no city dollars would be used in the project.)

Well, the plan is running into opposition from people in the neighborhood: some downtown developers, the Farmer's Market, and others worried about a few parking spaces. This is exactly the wrong attitude. Replacing on-street parking spaces with sidewalks and cafés is exactly what St Paul should be doing all through the downtown.

The era of the indoor department store skyway café is over.  The era of the sidewalk café is here. The closing of the St Paul Macy's is a good thing, and we should look forward to knocking down this urban equivalent of an 8-track player and replacing it with something that has a future.


Anonymous said...

Completely agree!

Anonymous said...

I agreed with much of your post up until I got to "dismantle the skyway system." Whoa buddy. You must not work in downtown St. Paul. That skyway system is thriving during the work week. To dismantle it would hurt business in downtown St. Paul even worse. During the work week, nearly everything happens at skyway level - especially in the winter.

I'm also a little perplexed by your descriptions of Galtier Plaza and Town Square. Neither of these buildings try to mimic suburban shopping malls. Town Square is office space with a smattering of eateries on the skyway level - and is incredibly popular. Galtier is basically all office space (mostly Cray computers), with one nice restaurant and a Subway.

Barbara Lindeke said...

I've got to agree that the Macy's time has come. Only thing I will miss is the idea of the popovers in the River Room. I haven't really gone there to eat since I was a kid. The building is uninviting at street level and the space could be something nice for downtown.

Bill Lindeke said...

Commenter #2:

The references to Galtier and Town Square isn't about their current state, but about their initial development plans. I was just a kid when Town Square opened, and I vaguely remember it. It was supposed to be this large indoor urban mall. Today it's an overbuilt office with mostly empty interior spaces, and hardly any sort of sidewalk relationship or amenities.

Ditto for Galtier Plaza, mostly. I remember going to a movie there growing up (Reality Bites, if I recall) and playing mini-golf there. It was supposed to be this large urban mall. Today, even a decently run business can hardly barely hang on, while older sidewalk oriented restaurants on the next block seem to be thriving.

I've written a great deal on skyways in the past, and my basic thoughts are that they downside far outweighs their upside.

Anonymous said...

I agree that we need the skyway
system for downtown residents and businesses. More restaurants are opening and that's what we need.
Who wants to go out in the winter or even in the summer for lunch.
Besides there are lots of new residents moving into downtown that use the skyway.

Anonymous said...

Who wants to go out in the winter or even in the summer for lunch.


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