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Empty storefronts fuel concern about future of St. Paul's Grand Avenue

First came the business closings. Traditions. Bonfire. D’Amico & Sons. Creative Kidstuff. Then came the near-death of Grand Old Day, the 45-year street festival that was canceled and resuscitated in the span of a week in April.

Now people are talking again about the future of Grand Avenue, St. Paul’s premier commercial corridor. Some worry that Grand’s longtime blend of boutique dining and retail with century-old bungalows and classic apartment buildings may be fading in this time of Amazon and St. Paul’s rising minimum wage.

“We’re trying to get a handle on what the vacancies mean,” said Hayden Howland, president of the Summit Hill Association, the district council that oversees Grand’s eastern half. “People are concerned. If they see empty storefronts, it can be alarming.”

In response, the Summit Hill Association and the Macalester-Groveland Community Council will survey properties along the entire avenue. With members from the Grand Avenue Business Association and local residents, the Future is Grand Task Force will collect feedback from business owners, landlords and area residents on how to ensure Grand Avenue’s continued vitality, Howland said.

In addition, Summit Hill’s Neighborhood Plan Committee is looking at the cause of vacancies and addressing an increased number of variance requests, rezoning applications and nonconforming development proposals.

Grand Avenue boosters are trying to determine if they’re witnessing another transition in a history of change or if it’s something more calamitous.

“Grand is a really important part of our neighborhood and we have always been interested in maintaining its vibrancy,” Howland said.

A Grand history

For those who have known Grand only since the 1980s, it may be surprising to know it once knew hard times.

The avenue enjoyed an early heyday in the 1920s and 1930s, when a streetcar delivered customers to myriad groceries, dry cleaners, drugstores and restaurants at nearly every corner. Grand’s fortunes started diminishing during the housing shortages of World War II, said David Lanegran, a Macalester College professor who co-wrote a history of the avenue.

The years following the war accelerated the street’s decline as wealthy families fled for new suburbs, leaving Summit Avenue mansions to be chopped up into low-rent apartments. Crime and decay followed in the 1950s and 1960s.

Grand’s fortunes began to rebound in the early 1970s, when low prices for buildings that once housed auto dealers and repair shops attracted a handful of business owners who launched stores and restaurants, Lanegran said. He doubts a return to its darker days.

“People love Grand Avenue, so they’re constantly worried about its health,” he said. “Every 10 years or so, there is some big problem and people get nervous. ... The truth is, people have come and gone all the time.”

Closings, openings

When the Wild Onion closed, its space was filled by Red Rabbit. After a flower shop departed, the Mischief Toy Store filled its space. When the owner of Bibelot announced her retirement, GoodThings quickly took over Bibelot’s Grand and Linden Hills shops. A property that once was home to a grocery store, then Restoration Hardware, then the North Face, is once again being proposed as a grocery, this time a Lunds & Byerlys with 69 apartments above.

Still, Mischief co-owner Dan Marshall said Grand needs fundamental changes to ensure its continued viability. Despite the charm of its bungalow shops, it needs zoning changes — such as allowing buildings taller than three stories, he said.

“Grand needs reinvestment right now. It needs new projects and it needs more density,” Marshall said. “Every parking lot on Grand Avenue is wasted space.”

Mike Schumann, who closed his Traditions furniture store on Grand in January after 31 years in St. Paul, said City Hall indifference and high taxes have a number of business owners frustrated and “tired of beating their heads against the wall. It used to be fun to do business in St. Paul. But you don’t get that sense anymore.”

The city and the mayor’s office in particular, he said, need to nurture Grand Avenue businesses. Still, Schumann said, despite its vacancies and challenges, Grand “will eventually come back. But, in the meantime, the city is really not helping matters.”

Hibbing native Tom Forti is betting on it. Despite nearby vacancies, he has remade his Sunrise Cafe on Grand into the Iron Ranger, a casual restaurant offering beer, wine and many of his family’s Iron Range favorite foods. He plans soon to build a patio and, possibly, expand into space next door.

He’s betting on Grand’s continued success, given the prosperity of the surrounding neighborhoods. “I’m in the right business. I sell a product that everyone consumes every day.”

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