FREE SPEECH ZONE | Macy's leaving downtown St. Paul

So the era is finally drawing to a close, almost exactly fifty years after it began.  Downtown St. Paul's "Day-shall-cy's" (as I've come to call it through its multiple name changes) is closing. 

Surely, this wasn't a complete surprise to the astute observer.  Beyond the generally empty aisles, there were the only slightly subtler signals of a cloudy future - the escalators broken a little too long; the entrance gate that would go unfixed until a new year and budget came around; or the elevators which occasionally took your selection of floors as but a helpful suggestion. 

No, for those who knew the store well enough, it surely wasn't a complete surprise.  But it still brings sadness. 

I fondly recall many a holiday season as a kid spent eating with my family in the pink-mirrored expanse of the River Room restaurant, after a lively jaunt through the dinosaur bones and flashing lights of the Science Museum.  I recall getting takeout from the old Marketplace deli counter, and bringing it to the floor of our new condo to eat after we closed on our first home.  I recall pushing my son in a stroller through the store's many very open corridors.  And I know I'm not alone with memories tied up in this place. 

Given my role, I feel an unspoken, very limited-time expectation that I enter this forum for a moment and offer a bit of reflection, if it's of any benefit to others. 

The closure of Macy's brings an end to an era - the department store era - which has been a predominant feature of downtowns since anyone living can remember.  This story of closure has been repeated over and over across the country; we are actually late to the game.  It's also true that department stores - especially at the holidays - conjure up something special in the soul of a downtown.  This store - it's mildly unlovable exterior notwithstanding - was no exception in its significance over the years to downtown. 

All of this is, to be certain, reason for concern - concern of appropriate scale, and of a useful orientation.  Still, there is concern, but it is also mitigated by a great many factors, and from my vantage point having lived and worked downtown, is not determinative or predictive of a great deal of anything about the future health and vitality of downtown St. Paul. 

First, in an immediate sense, we have come to know this building's design did the store no favors.  It is a largely uninviting, monolithic, windowless structure.  And unlike its Minneapolis counterpart, which integrates directly into the skyway system and Nicollet Mall, this store physically turned its back on the core of downtown workers to the east.  In the 1970s, downtown's principal retail arterial was Seventh Place (nee Seventh Street).  That street was closed in the late 1970s by the Town Square development, and later Wells Fargo Place, and in turn the street closure cut off street access to the store from one key eastern access.  The obvious alternative access (6th Street) has long been much less than inviting in adjacent blocks.  Moreover, an internal parking ramp rises up on the eastern side of the store, making skyway connections to the core of the skyway system somewhere between inefficient and impossible. 

We know that the $6.3 million forgivable loan made ten years ago was - at a minimum - a stopgap effort meant to buy downtown a little more time to find a more solid footing, before the otherwise assured end came for our department store.  The 1990s saw another department store (Carson's/Donaldson's) leave both downtowns, and along with it the mall-like retail model - a model that in our downtown helped support "Day-shall-cy's" as a worthwhile regional destination.  In the 1990s, news accounts suggest that downtown boosters seem to have seriously contemplated several approaches to stem the tide, but large-scale interventions evidently seemed fraught with both great expense and great risk.  Many had hoped against hope that something could have taken shape to complement and support Macy's through the last decade, but the long-lagging economy seems likely to have provided few opportunities for even a modest proposal to seem realistic. 

We know St. Paul is one of the last downtowns of our scale and composition to even have a department store.  Much as I wish it weren't true, the nature of retailing has changed in the last half-century, and the changes have shifted emphasis away from downtowns, and department stores.  Ironically it was Victor Gruen and Dayton's - the very partnership who designed and built this store - who at about the same time also brought us Southdale, which provided a model that radically changed the role of downtowns vis-a-vis the retail industry. The department store industry in general has seen many consolidations and closings as it competes in a very changed marketplace. 

We also know key sectors in downtown St. Paul are somewhere between stable and growing rapidly.  Roughly 50,000 people work downtown.  The office market has held its own through some tough times over the last decade, though has rarely been especially tight.  Downtown has seen dramatic growth in its residential sector over the last ten years, from (very roughly) 6,000 to 10,000 residents in and around downtown; that 10,000 number is an important benchmark in defining the needed marketplace to attract new amenities.  And in recent years, the entertainment sector particularly has flourished, most especially in Lowertown.  Downtowns including ours are growing their retail sector through small, local and incremental additions - pieces that don't rely on one single actor or out-of-state giant - but rather draw their strength and endurance from strong ties to the local community.  The Bulldog and Black Dog, Artist's Mercantile and Heime's are mainstays.  As we move forward, the addition of a Lund's grocery store, opening of light rail transit, and recent expansion of tenants such as Cray into downtown provide a solid foundation to build an even stronger downtown. 

In coming weeks, months, and years, I'm sure there will be much discussion of what might fill this physical space, as well as the social and emotional space that had been occupied by "Day-Shall-Cy's".  I'm sure there will be many simple predictions from a great many about the meaning of this closure - ranging from it being "the last nail in downtown's coffin" to "not terribly significant". Knowing downtown inside and out, such simple summary statements don't seem very instructive to me; the reality of our downtown is frankly far more complex, and more interesting than any of those simple predictions could ever hope to capture. 

As for what's next to fill that space, my guess is as good as yours, but what I do know is that there will be plenty of days for that to take shape. 

But what I think is perhaps most significant about this moment is that this in many ways marks the end of the 20th century conception of downtown, and the beginning of a new and different 21st century downtown.  Downtown may not be the retail center of the metro area in the same way, but will anchor the region's culture and entertainment, and continue as a key employment center and growing residential sector. All around us the last ten years, that 21st century downtown has been taking shape.  What is clear from the Music in Mears Park on a humid Thursday in July, from the Amsterdam Bar and Hall on any Saturday night, from McNally Smith each weekday, and Xcel Center on weeknights, from the Farmer's Market on a Saturday morning in September, from the Winter Carnival or Crashed Ice course in January, to the Art Crawl on a April night: this downtown is alive in new ways.  Different ways.  Different than our grandparents ever could conceive.  And downtown will continue to change, grow and evolve. 

I'd guess there very well may still be an important role for some major retailers, possibly even department stores, in downtown's future.  But the last decade has helped us all better understand that the stature of our downtown no longer so fundamentally rests on mid-century icons like department stores, but on a much more interesting and dynamic set of people and amenities.  Those amenities aren't so simply about being consumers of goods and services, but being people of a wide diversity of backgrounds who in a thousand small and interrelated ways build the center of our city together into a cultural, social and economic hub of our region that will continue to grow and change and thrive well into the future. 

I don't know what any leaders will say about this closure because I haven't talked with them about it, so to be clear, I don't speak for them.  But what I do know having lived in downtown for a dozen years and currently working there is that I mark this occasion with a certain sadness, along with plenty of optimism and interest to see where this downtown - my downtown, and our downtown - will go next. 

Be well, and thanks for reading.

See thread here.


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