This week, the St. Paul City Council heard testimony and began debate over a proposal being led by Ward 4 Council Member Russ Stark. The proposal would amend the number of off street parking spaces required in order for a restaurant or bar to gain a liquor license. The current requirement calls for restaurants that serve alcohol to provide one off street parking space for every 100 to 125 square feet of total floor area. The new proposal would allow restaurants that serve alcohol and close by midnight to provide the same amount of parking that other businesses do, that is, one space for every 400 square feet. The relief for bars is not quite as generous with the proposed square footage basis being increased from 125 to 150 square feet. The upshot is that a 5000 square foot restaurant desiring to serve alcohol would only need 20 off street parking spaces as opposed to the 50 now required. The final vote on the proposed changes is scheduled for May 23.
Council Member Stark has been quoted by the Pioneer Press as saying, "Today, if you're a restaurant and decide to serve beer and wine, you've got to more than triple your parking. To me, that's just ridiculous. Right now, to me it feels like our code is erring on the side of keeping storefronts empty." I must wholeheartedly concur, and I applaud the Council Member for taking a stand on behalf of St. Paul restaurateurs.
Of course, there are some who believe that this is not a very good idea. Count among them Council Member Dave Thune and at least one restaurant owner who has a very large parking lot on Grand Avenue and who most likely would prefer not to have the competition. It has been reported that Council Member Thune's objection is based upon his belief that the code change would undermine a neighborhood's ability to challenge parking variances. He is probably right about that, and to that I declare, "It's about time!"
It is also important to note that the code change will only affect a restaurant's ability to secure a wine and strong beer license. It will not do anything to ameliorate the current roadblocks to a full liquor license. The St. Paul City Charter restricts the number of full liquor licenses allowed within each ward. Once that threshold has been met, restaurants seeking liquor licenses are restricted to wine and beer only. The exception to that rule is again predicated by location. If the restaurant lies within a city designated commercial development zone, then that restriction does not apply. There are currently six such zones.
We faced that problem at Heartland's old location in Macalester-Groveland. Although we had more than enough off street parking under even the current code to allow for a full liquor license, there was none available due to the allocation for Ward 3 being exhausted. Pat Harris, our Council Member at the time, worked for many years to get the City Council to agree to reopen the Charter to amend it to be more consistent with the current population and density of each ward but to no avail. In fact, we had a fully executed liquor license application on his legislative assistant's desk for at least four years before we relocated to Lowertown where no such restriction applies. Pat went so far as to guarantee that one day he would sit at the bar in Heartland and enjoy a martini with me. We finally got to do that, but it wasn't at the Heartland he had imagined.
Let us not forget that the hospitality industry as a whole is Minnesota's second largest employer and the largest private sector employer. Only the state exceeds our industry in the number of people it employs. In addition, restaurant and entertainment venues are vital components of what gives cities their excitement and vitality. Restricting the growth of our industry is not in the best interests of our city. I encourage the City Council to follow Council Member Stark's lead in revising the current code, and, while this is certainly a significant step in the right direction, let's not fool ourselves. There is still much more work to be done in order to send the message that St. Paul is truly open for business.