A St. Paul Starbucks and the drive-thru from hell

The Starbucks drive-thru at Marshall and Snelling has created a nightmare at one of the most congested intersections in St. Paul.

The Starbucks drive-thru at Marshall and Snelling has created a nightmare at one of the most congested intersections in St. Paul. Hannah Jones

There are more than 27,000 Starbucks stores in the world. But only one of them serves up the worst drive-thru in St. Paul, freshly brewed.

The Snelling-Marshall Avenue Starbucks is right on the corner of “gotta have my coffee” and “I don’t want to die today.” The two streets are meaty arteries cutting through the center of St. Paul. Combined, they see 67,000 cars every day, plowing through the Union Park neighborhood.

The area is quickly gentrifying, with the big, shiny Starbucks and the Whole Foods sticking out like a pair adult horse incisors in a mouthful of baby teeth.

The drive-thru itself is just feet away from the fateful place where Marshall and Snelling meet. You can see it immediately by the flame-orange plastic barriers marking the entrance and the perimeter… and the line dividing incoming and oncoming traffic down Marshall. Drivers enter, turn in a tight circle through the small parking lot (good luck actually parking there), and leave the same way they came.

Or at least that’s the idea. What actually happens is a car comes in from the east on Marshall, tries to cross the traffic lane (which is usually covered in traffic), goes straight through the bicycle lane while narrowly avoiding pedestrians, then must dodge cars trying to leave the same place they’re trying to get in.

And that’s just one way to have a bad time.

The backups string out down the street. Cars start driving in bike lanes. They make illegal left turns. Sometimes illegal U-turns. Some drive into oncoming traffic, effectively blocking oncoming traffic and causing more back-ups. Some even end up doing a strange forward-and-reverse dance -- which is less cute than it sounds -- all before 9 a.m.

From 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. on weekdays, there’s also a presence you don’t normally get at your everyday Starbucks: the St. Paul Police Department. On Wednesday morning, officer Mike Herschman was there to direct traffic, with a giant thermos of coffee waiting for him on the curb. He deferred any comment on the issue to the department spokespeople. Besides, he was busy. Starbucks is paying him to keep people from dying.

This drive-thru is where joy goes to die, and the city has taken notice. The Union Park District Council -- the local neighborhood association -- first considered the issue of the drive-thru in 2015, when Starbucks applied for a conditional use permit allowing them to have one. These permits usually have to go through neighborhood associations before they’re given the rubber stamp by the City Council. Union Park had some qualms right off the bat.

“It was a pretty contentious board meeting,” director Julie Reiter says. Even while the plan was still on paper, locals and association members had concerns about traffic snags. It ended up being a split vote. Reiter testifed against the plan when it went before the City Council.

“Unless it takes less than 60 seconds to place an order, pay and pick up, massive backups would be likely during the morning rush hour,” her report read.

But Starbucks had a third-party traffic study saying their setup would totally probably be OK, and the council ended up approving it. (A store manager declined to comment on the fiasco, referring City Pages to its media hotline, which did not immediately respond.)

The company’s study underestimated the public’s demand for their goods and services, so city and store have been working on a way to make the layout less punishing to the human spirit.

St. Paul has been running tests to see if anything can make this drive-thru drive-thruable. They closed off the exit to Marshall Avenue for a while, then installed flexible plastic barriers to try to demarcate a safe and legal path for drivers, lest they be tempted to take alternatives. And of course, there’s Herschman, waving folks on through like a doorman at a nightclub.

But the drive-thru is still a hot garbage fire. Kara Lynum, who lives nearby, has been documenting it religiously. The #carbucks, as she calls it, is more of a passion project.

If #carbucks is a garbage fire, then the internet is a huddle of onlookers warming themselves in its glow and enjoying the spectacle. Lynum’s videos of each small catastrophe have blown up on Twitter. They get thousands of views, and you can almost hear the commenters grinning through fistfuls of popcorn.

She gets it. It’s fun to watch a garbage fire. Especially one that could have been prevented.

“They’re enjoying the ‘I told you so’ moment,” Lynum says.

So will she, if the city does what she thinks is right and revokes Starbucks’ drive-thru permit. She has no problem with the Starbucks itself. She even gets coffee there from time to time. She just thinks the drive-thru is a fundamentally bad idea, and no amount of tampering or police scrutiny is going to make it better.

Reiter says there is a silver lining to this. There’s a new Dunkin’ Donuts being proposed for Snelling and Hague, and when those folks met with the neighborhood association, they knew better than to ask for a drive-thru.