Midway between nothing and nowhere

I’m from Minneapolis.

Ok, the truth is, I grew up in the suburbs, but there’s no question that Minneapolis was the center of our city – where we went for entertainment, dining, medical specialists, drug paraphernalia, etc.  St Paul was kind of in the periphery for me.  When I was a kid we went to Highland Park to get our pictures taken, but we didn’t ever go much further.

All of which is an elaborate excuse for how I could grow up in the Twin Cities but somehow miss the monumental Montgomery Ward warehouse in the Midway, until I came across it on the ever-giving Nokohaha’s blog.

This building was really incredible: a 27-acre site, a million square feet of space inside, a neoclassical front wing, nine stories, and 256-foot tower that “defined St. Paul’s University Av. strip.”  That last quote is from a Sept 22, 1989, Star Tribune article about the plan to demolish this landmark and replace it with a strip mall.  Specifically, a strip mall that “mixes the historic flavor of the Midway with 1990s-style development.”  Were they successful?  There is a Wal-Mart, which is pretty much the epitome of 90s city-building.  Not sure they hit the target on the “historic flavor of the Midway” piece.

But this blog isn’t all about sarcastic complaining – it’s also about moralizing.  And this one has a heck of a moral.  While digging through the Star Tribune archives (anyone with a Hennepin County library card has access to articles starting in 1986 – they also have Tribune archives from 1867-1922) I found an article from August 15th, 1988, comparing the Midway Wards to Minneapolis’ retailing behemoth, the Lake Street Sears.

At the time, the historical significance of both buildings was seen as a weakness, or as the article says of the Sears building “it’s difficult to mask the monumental pillars and the dated look of the tower with the big green letters on top.”  But the stores were still doing well, since the “performance at the University Av. Ward’s was substantially higher than the average of $175 per square foot reported for department stores nationwide by the National Retail Merchants Association for 1986.”  In addition, the stores’ monumental appearance made them loom large in the minds of customers, and according to a Sears employee “some customers go out of their way to visit Lake St. because they believe the “main store” carries a broader, deeper selection of goods.”

The fate of the two buildings diverged drastically after 1988.  The Sears store closed not long after, but the building remained, albeit vacant, until 2005, when it opened as the Midtown Exchange, with retail, offices, rental and ownership housing, and chubby mermaids.  All this for the low, low price of $190m, some $40m of which came from the city, mostly in TIF dollars (also I think the city owned the property after a developer abandoned it in the mid-90s, which couldn’t have been cheap, but I can’t confirm this).

St Paul spent a lot less on redeveloping the Wards building.  In 1994 and 1996, the city spent $12m on a spree of urban renewal, leveraging a $50m strip mall and a Kmart of unknown value.  The city had to step in when the developer quoted above was surprised to find pollution on the site of a factory and backed out.  The project was finished by a Republican from Chicago who was famous for spreading Kmarts all over the Midwest.  If you have been to the Red Wing Mall, you know his handiwork, and coincidentally Minneapolis dodged the bullet of having him redevelop the Sears building when he bailed in the mid-90s (which is when I think the city bought it).

So let’s tally the score:

Unless the Republicans get their way, Central LRT will run in front of the old Montgomery Ward site soon, and redevelopment could follow (although chances are Wal-Mart will be sucking money out of that low-income neighborhood for decades).  Any new developments could be better than what is there now, but they won’t have the draw of what was there then.

Note:  While the demolition of the Midway Wards was undoubtedly a planning blunder, it is not on the official list of Top Ten Planning Blunders.  Check back often for Official Blunder #6, coming soon to these pages, dear reader.

9 comments on “Midway between nothing and nowhere

  1. ML says:

    I’m curious what you mean when you say that walmart will be “sucking money out of that low-income neighborhood”.

    • I side with those who believe Wal-Mart (and other big box) stores tend to have a negative effect on local economies by putting locally-owned stores out of business – small businesses are more likely to source locally and are more likely to keep the profits in the community, etc.

      Glancing at your blog, I’m guessing you’re familiar with these arguments but if not there is a wikipedia page called “Criticisms of Wal-Mart.”

      • ML says:

        I’m familiar with the arguments. I believe, however, that those negative effects are far outweighed by Walmart’s ability to provide super-low-cost goods to poor communities. In addition, while WalMart gets a lot of crap for treating their employees like crap (while Target mysteriously gets a pass), they do provide jobs. And right now, any job is better than no job.

        Another thing (and something that the new Chicago mayor has emphasized) is that low-income neighborhoods often have little or no access to fresh food at decent prices. That’s something big-box stores like Walmart can provide. I think it’s easy for people like me with a decent job and some disposable income to try to shop at locally owned shops. But trying to get by raising a family on $10/hr or whatever, I think the ability of Walmart to provide necessities and food at very low cost is hugely important to improving the welfare of poor people.

        If there’s a case to be made against national chains and for small, locally owned joints, I think the case is much much stronger in the restaurant business. I would much rather see a local place than another McDonalds or Applebees. But for basic goods, the gain in human welfare from cheap goods for poor people far outweighs the effect on local business.

        • You make good points, and this is an interesting discussion, but I want to warn you that we may not be able to find much common ground on this issue because of my anti-consumerism – basically I don’t see the widespread availability of low-priced non-essential goods as a positive, regardless of how many jobs how much “wealth” it creates.

          Regardless, I’m not sure it’s relevant that Wal-Mart opens a world of cheap products to the impoverished. After all, Wal-Mart doesn’t exist because poor people shop there, but rather it exists because people who can already afford lots of stuff feel like they can buy even more when they shop there. My guess is that if the middle class quit shopping at Wal-Mart, it would capitulate quickly, and it seems like its performance during the recent recession bears that out: right after the downturn, Wal-Mart was the only one still afloat because tightening the belt was in vogue among shoppers, but after the economy recovered Wal-Mart went down and sales are now declining as middle class attention wanders.

          You could give big box discounters credit for their few urban stores shrinking the food desert, but I think there are better ways of doing it (i.e. IATP’s mini-markets), and insomuch as we have a choice we should encourage those better ways and discourage the big boxes. I wonder how much shopping at Target and Wal-Mart the very poor do, anyway. Do you have numbers? I remember reading recently about MPR’s expose of Fox’s “expose” of MN’s food stamp administration, so the data must be out there…

          • ML says:

            First let me make clear that I’m not making any sort of economic argument about wealth creation. I’m making an argument that poor people are better off because they can buy better and cheaper food and goods from Walmart than the alternative. That increases human welfare.

            Before I go into any data (which is surprisingly hard to find), I would just say that anecdotally, I’ve been to Walmarts in poor neighborhoods (particularly in Milwaukee) and the clientele is certainly not middle class customers driving in from other neighborhoods. It’s the poor people who live in that neighborhood who shop there. In addition, part of my current job involves getting desperately poor people (living off SSI or General Assistance from the state) into decent apartments and helping them stay there. Where do they do their shopping? Walmart and Aldi.

            In searching for numbers, I did find this column in WaPo from several years ago. It makes very much the same argument I am making. In it, he points out that the average Walmart customer has an income of $35k, well under the national average and well under the average income of Target or CostCo customers. I think I’m on pretty solid ground when I say that poor people do shop at Walmart.

            I’m certainly open to other ways of ending food deserts, but right now, big boxes are itching to get into inner cities and it’s the cities that are standing in the way. I don’t see that happening with other options for helping solve this problem. Many studies have shown that it’s expensive to be poor, that shops in poor neighborhoods, for several reasons, tend to be more expensive than those in richer neighborhoods. Big boxes help solve that problem.

            • I can see your point – there is so little in this society that actually helps people in poverty that if Wal-Mart helps nutrition, even at the cost of destroying local businesses and fostering a car-dependent lifestyle, it should be tolerated. I can even agree, although I think it’s dangerous to allow companies to grow as large as Wal-Mart – if you are thinking of Wal-Mart as a human services agency (as the columnist argues), then it should be nationalized.

              My opinion is that if we want to maintain a consumer capitalist economy, it is more important to encourage local businesses than maximize nutrition for the impoverished (although ideally food support would be raised so everyone can afford to shop at local businesses, which presumably can’t afford to “discount” to match Wal-Mart, and obviously I would prefer a lack of starvation to a healthy consumer capitalism).

              Maybe this line of argument is too far outside of reality for your taste, in which case I’ll point out that if the average income of Wal-Mart customers is $35k, then it is only slightly less than the median income of the state of Mississippi and may be explained by the tendency of Wal-Marts to be located in rural and southern areas, vs Targets tending to be in suburban and northern locations, rather than a major class difference in customers. But feel free to prove me wrong in this one, also. Although proving that people in poverty shop at Wal-Mart is not the same as proving that Wal-Mart makes most of their money off of them.

  2. mulad says:

    I seem to remember that the Wards building was imploded, so there ought to be video of that laying around somewhere.

    I’m not sure if it’s a false memory or not, but I’m pretty sure I saw this building a few times when I was a kid and my family would make the drive up to Fargo through the Twin Cities. I think the tower was visible from the I-94 ditch, and my parents probably took us along University Ave a few times before it was demolished.

    Wal-Mart has only been in that location since 2003. The building had originally been a K-mart from 1997 until early that year.

  3. mplsmitch says:

    My father grew up in the Midway. As a teenager he worked sweeping floors at Wards. He told me there was an executive recreation room at the top of the tower and he would use his janitor keys to get into a stair way that led up there. He would sneak in with this friends and play ping pong. I went to watch the implosion of the building on a sub zero winter morning with my 16mm movie camera. The film turned out wonderfully but was lost after loaning it to a dance performance in New York.

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