Kevin Haar is at a loss. The University of Minnesota freshman moved to University Village from Driggs, Idaho, a couple of weeks ago, and he’s having a hard time finding a good place to buy food.
“I’ve been to a couple of the gas station food mart things, but there’s not a lot of selection,” Haar said. “I haven’t been able to find a stick of butter.”
There are no full-service grocery stores within the University District. According to experts, changing shopping habits and an increase in students have kept them away.
Though there are challenges associated with building a grocery store near campus, new survey data says the area has a “substantial unmet demand” for a grocery store in the area. Some are predicting construction on a new store in Stadium Village before the end of the year.
Driving farther to shop
There hasn’t been a full-service grocery store in Dinkytown for more than 15 years.
The only full-service grocery store in Dinkytown was Meyer’s Grocery, which filled the entire building where Dinkytown Wine and Spirits now stands. Meyer’s closed in 1990, according to Dinkytown Business Association President Skott Johnson.
He said business slowed as more students began bringing cars to campus.
Students started driving farther to meet basic needs, Johnson said, and more student-centered businesses like restaurants and bars replaced Dinkytown’s laundromats and other basic services.
“I think it’s all tied to the automobile. … more students have one and can drive up to Rainbow,” he said. “We’ve become more of a destination spot for restaurants.”
Meyer’s biggest clients were in the greek community, Johnson said, but that business fell away as the fraternities and sororities started having food delivered in bulk.
For students’ day-to-day needs, the nearby House of Hanson gets the job done, Johnson said.
“That’s really a student-modeled store because students don’t shop at regular hours, 8 to 5,” he said. “They do a lot of business at night.”
Robyn Leary, a graduate student studying biology and genetics, disagrees.
Leary lives in Nicollet Island Park, a short walk from Lunds grocery store, but she said its prices force Leary to bike or bus to the Aldi store on East Franklin Avenue.
“I don’t have a car, so it’s a huge hassle,” she said. “With access to fresh fruits and vegetables, the more convenient it is to get them, the better.”
GEM Realty Capital Inc. announced plans to build a new apartment complex in Dinkytown, possibly with a grocery store on the ground floor. The development is across the street from the 80-year-old House of Hanson. Johnson said he’s keeping an eye on any potential grocery store.
“We have to be careful with businesses that are moving into the area,” he said. “If we get one big business, how many small businesses does it hurt?”
Como, Cedar-Riverside and St. Paul aren’t options
The only areas in the University District that could accommodate a grocery store are Dinkytown and Stadium Village, according to Haila Maze, a Minneapolis city planner.
Maze said Cedar-Riverside is too tightly built and is well-served by smaller ethnic and specialty shops. The Como neighborhood is less friendly to new large developments and less attractive to developers because it’s not densely populated.
The residential areas around the St. Paul campus are also unlikely to see a grocery store, but Maze said some developers have considered sites farther down University Avenue that could potentially attract students from both campuses after the light-rail line opens in 2014.
Although space is limited in Stadium Village and Dinkytown, Maze said both neighborhoods have seen sharp increases in density with each new apartment complex and that developers have noticed demand.
“The increase in population in the area is getting us closer to the threshold where grocery stores start looking at it,” Maze said.
The ‘Arby’s Site’
One of the most promising locations for a grocery store is the “Arby’s site,” a nearly two-acre piece of land along Washington Avenue that CPM Property Management purchased in February, Maze said.
She said construction on the site could begin before the year’s end and, based on demand, chances are good a grocery store will move in once the project is complete.
A study conducted by the city of Minneapolis, Hennepin County and the University in advance of light-rail construction concluded that Stadium Village had a “substantial unmet demand” for a grocery store. More than 80 percent of Stadium Village-residents surveyed said they wanted to see a grocery store in the area.
Maze said the results could be applied to Dinkytown as well because of how similar and close together the neighborhoods are.
Building a store in Stadium Village or Dinkytown presents some design challenges for store owners. According to the joint light-rail study, it’s difficult to attract grocers with less than 20,000 square feet of retail space.
“The grocery store we would get here would not be the biggest possible superstore,” Maze said. “Land is so valuable in that area that you can’t afford to have something that sprawls all over the site.”
Any grocery store would have to be in the smaller, “urban scale” of Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, Maze said.
Parking is another consideration.
According to Maze, the city of Minneapolis has no requirements for parking in Dinkytown or Stadium Village, so a grocery store could open with no parking lot at all. But most grocers want a parking lot since customers generally need to haul groceries to their car.
“Grocery stores tend to be fairly parking-hungry,” Maze said. “Even if we don’t require them to have it, they’re still going to want to make sure it’s there.”
Due to space restrictions, a store would likely have to build structured parking, which gets expensive, Maze said.
Nancy Rose Pribyl, president of the Stadium Village Commercial Association, said she doesn’t think parking would be difficult to coordinate.
“One of the things that came out of the study … was that our need for parking down here is different than what the perceived need for parking is,” Pribyl said.
Of survey respondents, 67 percent said a lack of parking was the largest barrier to development in the neighborhood. While some on-street parking is being lost to the light rail, Pribyl said there is still plenty of parking available, as long as no sporting events are going on.
“A lot of the parking lots, the University’s included, sit vacant for large chunks of the day,” she said.
Pribyl said she’s optimistic about a new store, especially with more and more student housing.
“There are a ton of people, and they all need food,” she said. “I think it’s one of the cornerstones of a community: not requiring leaving the community to get groceries.”