A downtown St. Paul charter school is asking the city to immediately suspend liquor sales at Gray Duck Tavern, which shares the historic Lowry Building with the school, until city officials explain how they issued a liquor license in April 2017 without the school’s consent.
The Dec. 12 letter from the board of the St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists contends that the decision to issue a liquor license appears to violate a city ordinance that prohibits issuing a license to a business within 300 feet of a school, unless the school agrees to allow it. That did not happen, wrote William Z. Pentelovitch, treasurer of the school’s board.
The letter was sent to Mayor Melvin Carter, City Council President Amy Brendmoen and City Attorney Lyndsey Olson. Staff members for Carter and Brendmoen referred all questions to Olson. In a statement, Olson said the city “is committed to finding a resolution that addresses the [school’s] concerns while promoting a vibrant and economically strong downtown.”
Olson said her office has reached out to the school’s attorneys to discuss the matter.
The school’s demands were news to Jim Crockarell, who owns Gray Duck and seven other downtown St. Paul restaurants, along with 16 buildings downtown.
“We have had our license for almost two years and I assure you I would not have put $20 million into this derelict building unless I knew I would be able to run my business,” Crockarell said Tuesday. “I have received no letter. It’s a total surprise to me.”
Amy Rotenberg, a school spokeswoman, said conservatory officials have not decided what steps they plan to take regarding Gray Duck Tavern or its liquor license. First, she said, they want to find out how the license was issued without the requirements of the city ordinance being met. She said she knows of no incidents or issues involving the restaurant.
“The ordinance is there for a reason,” she said. “It’s about keeping a liquor license 300 feet from a school.”
There were already multiple businesses within 300 feet with the school, which has about 475 students in grades 9 through 12, when it moved into three floors at 16 W. 5th St. in 2013.
Pazzaluna, an Italian restaurant, has been on the block since 1998. Sakura, a nearby sushi restaurant with a liquor license, opened in the Lowry in 1997. The difference appears to be that those restaurants were there first. Gray Duck Tavern opened in May 2017 in space at the corner of 4th Street and Wabasha that had been vacant for decades.
The former Lowry Hotel was built in 1928 and has been home to bars and restaurants through the years. But the main floor space had been vacant since a fire destroyed Horatio Hornblower’s in 1982. The renovated building now not only houses restaurants, new apartments and upscale condominiums, but it also is home to the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office.
Joe Spencer, president of the St. Paul Downtown Alliance, said this apparent dispute between the school and the restaurant highlights the need for the city to update several “antiquated” ordinances if it wants to continue to attract development downtown.
“I expect the city to update the language [of this ordinance and others] as quickly as possible to reflect the realities of downtown development,” he said.
In such a compact downtown, he said, a 300-foot prohibition would make all kinds of desirable properties off-limits to bars and restaurants. In a city that is thirsty for nightlife and diverse dining options, such ordinances need to go, he said.
The city needs to “make sure that the ordinances that apply to downtown are ones that make sense,” Spencer said. “I think everyone wold agree that it’s important that downtown has bars and cafes and restaurants.”
The conservatory is a public charter school dedicated to the performing arts that opened in 2005. In 2013, the school bought a sizable portion of the Lowry Building’s first three floors to better accommodate its growing enrollment. Over the years, several other charter schools have occupied space within 300 feet of bars. The conservatory is the only charter school that is still downtown.
Crockarell said he has had a good relationship with the school since Gray Duck opened, which has him scratching his head over why the school is raising the issue now.
“I can’t imagine this would be a problem to the conservatory of music,” he said. “This is in an urban environment with 12,000 downtown residents, a lot more people than just this charter school.”