Shopping for a sense of community in suburbia

There it is, just off the freeway, exactly what I wanted.

I've been in my car for fifteen minutes, driving northwest, searching for two things I expect to find in one of those suburban, edge-of-the-freeway retail developments: a big sporting-goods store where I can park, get in and get out; and a movie theater with stadium seating.

I get off Interstate 94 and follow the curving boulevards of Maple Grove toward an enclave of stores in a development dubbed Arbor Lakes. All around there are giant, big-box retailers: Jo-Ann etc., Byerly's, Babies "R" Us, Best Buy, Linens 'n Things, Chuck E. Cheese's, and a MegaStar Cinema (all stadium seating, all the time). The hulking stores form a sort of border around a valley of asphalt. Plentiful parking, lots of convenience. Perfect. But in the middle of it all, there's something I don't expect.

Main Street Maple Grove: Where mom and pop go to shop
Craig Lassig
Main Street Maple Grove: Where mom and pop go to shop

Smack in the center of the parking lots and megastores is a two-and-a-half block stretch of small shops. They line up on both sides of a north-south throughway called Main Street, which is designed to look like the heart of a small town, circa 1950. The buildings are only a couple of stories tall, with brick façades and lots of windows. Some have balconies that look out over the street. Curlicue street lamps line the sidewalks that line these few blocks, and matching park benches are scattered along the way.

After finding a parking spot near Sportmart, I find myself drawn toward Main Street. It seems logical to walk there. But although there are sidewalks along the street itself, there are no such pathways through the parking lot. So I dodge cars as they zoom across the paved lot.

I have lunch at the bakery on the corner. It's a chain I've eaten at before. I get an ice-cream cone at the corner parlor, another chain. Main Street Maple Grove is designed to be iconic of those hometown Main Streets we like to remember (or imagine), with a hardware store, a butcher, and a florist--all locally owned and unique. Yet nearly all the shops are the sorts of corporate-owned carbon copies that can be found in any strip mall in any other suburb, from the Panera Bread to the Cold Stone Creamery, the Chico's clothing store to the Schuler Shoes.

It's a sunny afternoon, but there are more cars than people on Main Street. It's little wonder. The cross streets along Main Street are in fact driveways into the surrounding parking lots. And while there are traffic signals that tell pedestrians when it's safe to stroll across the street, drivers seem eager to ignore them. One family exits the corner shoe store and crosses the street to a parking area. They hop in a minivan, then drive about a hundred feet into the grocery-store parking lot next door.

It looks like Main Street. It almost feels like Main Street. But it doesn't quite work like Main Street. It's artificial somehow, a fabricated hometown in the middle of parking lots. Call it Faketown.


Maple Grove, a city of some 55,000 people, lies 15 miles northwest of downtown Minneapolis. Its population is 96 percent white, more than half the residents are between ages 25 and 55, and the estimated average household income is higher than $120,000. For the most part, it's a typical suburb. In some areas there are busy streets flanked by strip malls, while in residential neighborhoods there are curling, meandering lanes and homes on large lots. Lakes and ponds dot the city, though some are hidden behind various developments.

Since the 1950s Maple Grove has grown up quickly--without having much of a town center. Until a few years ago, the eastern area of the city was a gravel pit. In fact, gravel mining continues in these parts, but as the industrial uses start to fade, the land becomes ripe for commercial growth.

For the past decade retail stores have wanted to put down stakes in Maple Grove so they could tap into the city's growing population and attractive (read: lucrative) demographics. Developers were champing at the bit to build in the gravel mining area. In 1999, the Arbor Lakes shopping development became the area's first major commercial project. Later this month, a one-block expansion to Main Street is slated to open, bringing with it an Ann Taylor LOFT, Quizno's, and Dunn Bros Coffee, among others.

But all of this isn't just about shopping, insists Tim Murnane, vice president and general manager of Opus Northwest LLC, the Minnetonka-based developer of Arbor Lakes. It's about building a community that the landowners, the city officials, and the shoppers themselves were clamoring for. "We wanted to try and create a more traditional Main Street," he explains. "We asked ourselves, 'What is a downtown? What is a Main Street? How do you get it? How do you make it work?'"

How you get it, it turns out, is to decide where the town center will be, then build it from scratch. You create the pretty downtown atmosphere, but to make it work economically, you ensure that Main Street is surrounded by larger shops that draw people not just from Maple Grove, but from the Twin Cities, even as far as St. Cloud or Monticello. "You can't just put 100,000 square feet of shops in a gravel pit," Murnane explains. "You've got to surround it with other reasons to be there."

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