Can retail survive in Saint Paul?

If you ever have an urge to get away from the crowd in downtown St. Paul, there are fewer places with more solitude than Macy’s. Since it’s days as a stripped-down Dayton’s, to Marshall Field’s, to Macy’s, it’s always been a little bit sad to stroll through downtown’s last department store.

The Pioneer Press reports today that store executives say the store is making money, which is hard to believe given how few people seem to shop there. Still, it’s hard to find people who think the store will remain open after its obligation to do so expires at the end of next year.

“I think the handwriting is pretty much on the wall for the St. Paul store,” David Brennan, co-director of the Institute for Retailing Excellence at the University of St. Thomas, told the newspaper.

Macy’s has to stay open until next December in order to satisfy the terms of a city subsidy in 2001 to revamp what was then Dayton’s. Many people think it’s the only reason the store is still open at all. Light-rail construction has made it impossible to drive near the area, even if people wanted to, which they clearly don’t.

Other plans for retail downtown have stalled badly. The plan for the Penfield, a large condo project around the old police station, were downsized and nothing has happened on the site. In 2008, Lund’s announced it would open a grocery store at the project with construction scheduled to start in 2009. It never happened. The site looks pretty much like what it looked like three years ago. I took this picture three years ago Thursday.

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The Lowertown section of the city was just getting vibrant — and to a degree, still is — when light-rail construction started last year.

But even so, downtown Saint Paul remains the Bermuda Triangle of retail.

  • Jeanne

    I don’t know why but downtown St. Paul has never felt like the place to shop–it may be where people work, but not where they shop. When I was a little girl and lived on the east side of St. Paul, my mother and I would take the bus downtown to shop. With the advent of suburban shopping malls, I think those dynamics changed greatly. About 20 years ago I worked across from Galtier Plaza. We played a guessing game every month as to what store would fold. Galtier became a ghost town in short order. I’d be curious to know how vibrant the downtown Minneapolis economy is. My guess is that they fare only slightly better than downtown St. Paul.

  • Jennifer

    How much retail do we need? Retail was overbuilt in the last two decades, mostly in suburbia, but also in downtown Minneapolis. The Conservatory was torn down and replaced with an office building and Gaviidae is nearly all offices now instead of retail. How many square feet of defunct Circuit City stores are there? How many years was the new Herberger’s space in Southdale empty? 10?

    Remember when Bandana Square, St. Anthony Main and Riverplace were shopping destinations? And how about Town Square in downtown St. Paul, and the World Trade Center?

  • Bonnie

    I love shopping at downtown St. Paul Macy’s, especially this time of year. Since I work across the river its easy to come up Wabasha and pull into the ramp, avoiding any construction issues ( for now anyway )Not a fan of crowds, and love the good old River Room. But light rail construction is going to definitely keep downtown St. Paul in a holding pattern at best, will be interesting to see what develops when that project is completed. I am hopeful that Lunds/Byerly’s will move ahead with the idea of a store downtown when construction ends. There are a lot of people that live downtown, I think its a great idea.

  • OctaneBoy

    The Ford plant shuttering was over the heads of progressive politicians from day one, but the tumbleweeds in downtown Saint Paul is exactly the sort of thing that Coleman, Thune & Lantry should be owning 24/7. Would love to any of them on record on the gulf of activity between the two downtowns.

  • Matt

    Maybe we’ve spent too many years and billions subsidizing new freeway interchanges so people can develop cheap land in suburbia.

  • Matt

    Not to mention all of the ways we’ve subsidized this false notion of “free” parking by creating parking minimums in new commercial zones.

  • davidz

    How is the progressive record of Saint Paul any different than the overall progressive record of Minneapolis politicians? I think there is more vibrancy in downtown Minneapolis than in Saint Paul, but both are weak.

    I don’t go shopping in either.

    There are other places I will visit in d/t Minneapolis, more so than in St. Paul, even though I live in St. Paul proper.

  • Bob Collins

    // Maybe we’ve spent too many years and billions subsidizing new freeway interchanges so people can develop cheap land in suburbia.

    At least in the case of Woodbury, the retail center of the East metro, the city paid for two interchanges b/c the state didn’t.

    But anywhere, where do people who live in DT St. Paul — and it seems like there are quite a few of them — go to shop?

  • JackU

    It depends on what you consider living in DT St Paul. I live about 2 miles from Rice Park near the Brewery. Where I shop depends on where I’m going. Since I work in NE Minneapolis most of my shopping is done at the stores in the Midway. I also work near the Quarry shopping center in so I’ll go to stores there. I try not to do a lot of “destination shopping” and work in stops on the way to or from somewhere else. I have been known to go to the Mall of America if I’m shopping the major retailers that are mostly found in malls.

  • frightwig

    When I lived in the North End, not downtown but a close drive away, I’d occasionally go downtown to eat but never to shop–unless you want to count Sears as “downtown,” or close enough. Oh, and I visited the DT farmers market once. I walked through the DT Dayton’s a couple times, but I don’t think I bought anything there. I’d usually go shopping in Roseville or Maplewood. I knew where everything was out there, and it was easy to get in and out. I guess there just wasn’t ever a day when I felt like, “You know what I’d really like to do today is walk around downtown St. Paul to shop!”

  • John P.

    I live out in Maple Grove. There is simply no reason to go downtown (or MOA) to shop. There’s are numerous stores of evey type close by. Why burn the extra fuel and dump that much more CO2 into the air?

    Other contributors:

    – More people working in the suburbs

    – The recession

    – More people living in the “exubrbs” are less likely to make the trip.

    – Online shopping

    I just think this all adds up to not so many people shopping downtown.

    I recently suggested shopping downtown to my wife. I have fond memories from when I worked there in the 70’s. Her one word reply … “Why?”