Oasis on horizon for food desert

After years with few options, plans are in motion for two grocery stores to open one light rail stop away from campus.

The Prospect Park Business Center stands at the future site of

Photo by Alex Tuthill-Preus, Rendering from the City of Minneapolis

The Prospect Park Business Center stands at the future site of “RISE at Prospect Park”, represented here with an outlined rendering. The mixed-use building will bring more housing and street-level businesses to the area. Businesses coming to RISE are set to include a grocery store, making it one of only two in the area, following Target Express in Dinkytown.

Nick Wicker

Areas near the University of Minnesota are littered with restaurants, but grocery stores are few and far away for students.
Community members and student leaders have long called for an oasis for the “food desert” surrounding the University. But now, two grocery stores are coming to either side of campus, which could help solve the problem. 
Chicago-based developer Harlem Irving will demolish a building on University Avenue Southeast and 29th Avenue Southeast to make room for 15-story, 336-unit apartment building, the RISE at Prospect Park. Fresh Thyme grocery store, across the street from the Prospect Park light rail station, will occupy the street-level space where Overflow Espresso Cafe used to exist.
After more than a year and a half of planning, Harlem Irving president and project developer Richard Filler said demolition will begin this winter, and the building’s $110 million-construction will finish in 2017.
“[Fresh Thyme is] going to be the center of the neighborhood,” he said. “It’s such a great community grocery store. … It’s just exciting.”
Near the other end of campus, a Trader Joe’s will be built two blocks off the Downtown East  light rail station. 
Developers and community members discussed the RISE project at a public hearing Monday hosted by the City’s Planning Commission. 
Neither property has officially begun construction yet, Minneapolis Principal Planner Hilary Dvorak said.  The City Council will vote to OK Fresh Thyme and the RISE’s construction by January at the earliest.
Earlier this year, the Council approved permits for Trader Joe’s. They’re now waiting for the developer to complete and submit its building permits, she said. 
Both new stores will operate essentially one light rail stop away at either end of campus, and are part of larger complexes with residential apartment buildings on the upper levels.
Eliminating the food desert
The Minnesota Student Association is considering efforts to launch a shuttle service that would bring students to the Cub Foods at the Quarry Shopping Center in Northeast Minneapolis. 
Meanwhile, Ward 3 Council Member Jacob Frey said the addition of Trader Joe’s and Fresh Thyme grocery stores will give students more grocery-shopping options. 
Frey, who said he considers the University area a food desert, connected with Trader Joe’s to ensure they completed all of their city paperwork quickly. He was especially interested after a failed attempt by the company to move to Uptown in 2012, he said.
Strategic communications sophomore Graham Smith shopped at the TargetExpress in Dinkytown on Sunday, where he said he often picks up groceries.
Without a car to drive to a larger grocery store, he has to walk to the Target, which he said has much smaller quantities than stores like Cub Foods and Wal-Mart, and costs more. 
“If it was significantly cheaper, I definitely would [visit one of the new stores],” Smith said, “Or if they just had, like, a better selection.”
Laura Bohen, a University Extension health and nutrition educator, said the definition of a food desert changes depending on the region in question, but it’s generally used to
describe an area where people can’t secure affordable fresh groceries. 
Limited access to cars also hinders the ability of residents to get groceries, which impacts students heavily, she said. 
“I think the closer we can get to direct to the U of M service, the better,” Frey said. “Certainly Trader Joe’s and Fresh Thyme flanking the college is a huge step in the right direction.”
Though Bohen said grocery stores near public transportation can help drive off food deserts, Frey said more could be done to combat the issue.
“I would call it a much smaller desert with an oasis on either side,” he said. 
Prospect Park resident CJ Gennaro started a web company, called TempoMart, in August that buys groceries in bulk and delivers small portions to students’ doors. 
He said his company helps resolve some of the issues created by the scarcity of stores nearby. 
Gennaro said students so far have been interested in the idea because it saves them a trip to the grocery store, especially when they might not otherwise be able to reach one. 
Still, Bohen said the appearance of the new stores in coming years will benefit students.
“Hopefully you would see an increase in the number of people using those stores to buy healthy items … especially fruits and vegetables,” she said. “And then down the road you would hope to see better health outcomes for people in those communities.”