Lenny Russo

Russo is currently the chef and proprietor of Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market in St. Paul. Russo has more than 30 years experience in the food and beverage industry including executive chef, general manager, food and beverage director and corporate chef for several Twin Cities companies, among them being U.S. Restaurants, Aveda Corporation, W.A. Frost & Company, Faegreā€™s, the Loring Cafe and the New French Cafe. Read more about Lenny Russo.

Striking out on cupcakes, pizza, parking and business development

Posted by: Lenny Russo Updated: February 21, 2012 - 12:04 PM

 

In a recent issue of the Villager, which is the community newspaper that does a terrific job of reporting on neighborhood news for a large portion of southwestern St. Paul including the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood where I reside, it was reported that developer John Allen and Meridian Development/Industrial Equities are suing the City of St. Paul over a proposed 68,000 square foot office and warehouse which would be located at 650 Pelham Boulevard.  The site plan for the complex was initially submitted in the fall of 2010, but was put on hold due to the site's inclusion in a temporary zoning overlay district related to the new light rail line which will have a station less than a quarter mile away.  The site was identified as laying within a prime area for rezoning from industrial use to traditional neighborhoods that would allow for denser mixed use commercial and residential development.

Allen, along with the Midway Chamber of Commerce, the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce and the St. Paul Port Authority, argued that a mixed use development would be impractical for that particular site since it sits directly adjacent to I-94 and the Rock-Tenn paper recycling plant.

The St. Paul Planning Commission agreed with Allen and made recommendation to the St. Paul City Council that the industrial zoning be retained.  The City Council, in turn, voted to approve that designation.

Even though 350 Pelham Boulevard is located in St. Anthony Park, the Union Park District Council in conjunction with the Desnoyer Park Improvement Association appealed that decision based upon the claim that the site serves as a defacto gateway to their communities and should be redeveloped as mixed use.

While the site plan had already been approved by city staff, the developers met with the community representatives opposed to it and made several changes.  Among those were landscaping enhancements, a brick dock, ornamental railings and a new sidewalk along Pelham all at an estimated cost of $200,000.  These were rejected by the neighbors who insisted that the parking lot be relocated to the rear of the facility and that the developers add a second story to the building.

In response to the community pressure, the City Council rescinded the site plan approval, and all development remains on hold at this time as the various parties engage in legal proceedings.  Further complicating matters is the fact that the property was bought three years ago by the St. Paul Port Authority when then owner Overnight Express shut down operations.  The Port Authority has a purchase agreement in place to sell the property to Allen.

Without taking sides, I think it is fair to say that the whole situation is a bit of a mess.

Most recently, Kevin VanDeraa, owner of Cupcake on University Avenue in Minneapolis, attempted to open a second location on St. Paul's Grand Avenue.  The plan for the new location included a wine bar.  According to the code, VanDeraa would be required to have ten off street parking spaces in order to receive his licenses to operate.  The previous tenant, a toy store, was only required to have three such spaces.  Consequently, VanDeraa applied for a seven space variance which was reduced to six spaces with the condition that he install a bike rack.  The six space variance was granted on December 27, 2011.  At that time, VanDeraa agreed to lease parking from a nearby dry cleaner to satisfy the St. Paul Board of Zoning Appeals.

When a variance is granted in St. Paul, there is a ten day waiting period to allow for appeals from those who might be opposed to the variance.  VanDeraa waited ten days, and then he began work on his new location.  Unfortunately, he was unaware that the variance wasn't actually finalized until January 9.  That effectively pushed the appeal deadline to January 19.  In the meantime, two appeals came in just under the deadline.  One was made by the Summit Hill Association, and the other by a neighboring law firm.  Consequently, city officials pulled a previously granted building permit.  Why there was a delay in finalizing the variance and why he was granted a building permit before the deadline expired is not clear to me, but the result was a new hearing on the variance.

At the new hearing, a thorough review of Cupcake's parking proposal showed that VanDeraa could guarantee at least eight parking spaces, but he would only be able to temporarily guarantee two additional spaces.  Under the leased parking agreement, the dry cleaner would have had the option of reclaiming those spaces if it needed them in the future.  On a vote of 5-2, the City Council upheld the appeals and denied Cupcake its previously granted variance.

The Pioneer Press quoted City Council President Kathy Lantry as saying that, "We've got to stop voting for the applicant...The code is very clear. You cannot, for economic reasons alone, grant a variance."  I admire and respect Kathy Lantry, but those seem to me like pretty good reasons to grant a variance, especially at a time when LGA money has been withdrawn and property taxes have skyrocketed as a result.  For perspective, the property tax assessment on the commercial property owned by Heartland in Lowertown increased by nearly $17,000 this year.  Also for perspective, Mark Prokop, who owns the building that Cupcake planned to lease, was quoted in the Pioneer Press as saying that due to increased property taxes he could not charge a tenant less than $5,500 per month.  One would have to sell a lot of cupcakes to make that rent payment.  VanDeraa needed the additional wine and beer sales to help Cupcake make rent.

I am not sure what the reasoning is behind requiring a business that is selling wine and beer to have seven additional parking spaces when the previous business only required three.  I can only wonder if there is any empirical evidence that a place selling cupcakes and wine would generate any more traffic than one selling cupcakes and coffee.  Nonetheless, 15 to 20 jobs were lost; a $300,000 investment in a commercial property was discontinued; and a landlord is left with an unleased space with a mortgage that needs to be serviced.  This is because the business owner fell short by two parking spaces.  I wonder how anyone can justify that such a variance would have contributed immensely to congestion on Grand Avenue or to the long term detriment of the community.  Bad precedent was cited as a reason to deny the variance, but variances are reviewed and approved on an individual basis.  There is no reason why a similar request could not be denied in the future if circumstances justified that.

I called Kevin VanDeraa and left a message offering him my assistance in finding another St. Paul location for Cupcake.  Is it any wonder he hasn't returned my call?

In an almost comical reversal, residents belonging to a group calling themselves "Save our Selby" have gathered over 60 signatures in an appeal to block Pizza Luce from adding a parking lot to service its customers.  Set back variances are needed to allow a very narrow lot to accommodate the cars.  In this case, the Union Park District Council and the BZA approved the variance requests in December.  Those appealing are again complaining about the potential for increased traffic.

Closer to home for me is the recent petition that was circulated by neighbors on Lincoln Avenue west of Prior Avenue to expand a permit parking area known as Area 21.  They claim that they can't park on their street because there's too much traffic.  In doing so, they have invoked the four most reviled words in our neighborhood:  University of St. Thomas.

They insist that students take all of the available parking on their block in order to avoid paying for parking on campus.  Consequently, they want to restrict parking from Mondays through Fridays until 5:00 PM during the school year to residents of their block only.  They have brought that petition to the Macalester-Groveland Community Council for review whereupon it was supported and passed through to the City Council for final approval.

Those of us living and working on surrounding streets, especially those of us living on Lincoln east of Prior, have vigorously opposed this based upon several things.  First and foremost, we find it incredibly selfish of them to insist that whatever perceived problems they are experiencing should be solved by pushing them off on their neighbors by redirecting cars to surrounding streets.  Second, when a petition such as that is presented, there is no city review done of the parking situation.  In fact, any group of residents for any reason can petition for permit parking just as long as they follow the proper protocol for gathering signatures.  In conducting our own review of parking on that stretch of Lincoln, we can find no justification for their request.  There is more than ample parking available on that block during the hours in question.  Just last Friday I surveyed that block at 12:30 PM and counted 44 available parking spaces.  In addition, I'm sure that some of the cars that were parked there belonged to residents of that block.  How much parking do they need?

So what we have in my neighborhood are a group of citizens who insist on expropriating a public thoroughfare for their own private parking lot.  In doing so, they did not inform the residents or business owners on neighboring streets who were not included in the petition of their intentions.  That was the case even though we stood to be potentially adversely affected by their actions. Instead, one of my neighbors discovered the existence of the petition by pure happenstance.  Consequently, we have had very little time to respond to an action that could possibly transform our neighborhood and have been left disenfranchised by the process.   In my opinion and in those of my neighbors, attempts by us to have our views stated openly in District Council meetings have been blunted by those in charge while the petitioners have been granted undue advantage to press their case.

Perhaps my view of things is distorted since I was born in an inner city.  I have always assumed that living in a city brought with it distinct advantages versus living in the suburbs.  In a city, one can walk to any number of things that would not be possible in a suburban environment.  For example, within walking distance of our house is a grocery store, a hardware store, a barber shop, a movie theater, a bike shop, restaurants, a bank and a liquor store among many other amenities and businesses.  I could even buy a cello if I chose to do so.

With such densities of commerce and population come the unavoidable hassle of people trying to park their cars on the street.  When we chose in 1999 to buy our home in our neighborhood, we realized we were within walking distance of a university, a thriving business district and several large apartment buildings.  We knew that parking on the street would be challenging.  Consequently, we built a garage for the car or cars we thought we would need.  As it turned out, we only needed one car for many years as I chose to walk to and from work or to wherever I needed to go within our neighborhood.  Recently, we have had the need for two cars.  We park them in our garage. We haven't asked the city to provide us with a public street for private parking.  We haven't tried to stop businesses from growing or the university from expanding or renters from parking on our street.  Is it no wonder that parking on Grand Avenue is so difficult when large sections of surrounding streets are reserved for residential parking?  Rather than alleviate the problem, parking restrictions only serve to exacerbate it by concentrating larger numbers of vehicles in a smaller area.  What does the city plan to do when light rail finally starts running and bus lines are redirected to connect with it?  Where are commuters supposed to park if every street becomes restricted residential parking?

Certain parking restrictions are necessary for any city.  Commercial loading zones are needed to keep traffic flowing freely during business hours.  Reserved parking for those with limited mobility is needed in order to ensure equal access for all of our citizens.  Alleyways, driveways and service entrances need to be left unencumbered.  Buses need to have designated areas in which to allow riders to get on board and disembark safely.  Most people would agree that such things are reasonable.  Allowing a group of community activists to restrict business growth or monopolize parking rights just because they have a need to park their chosen mode of transportation on a city street is ill advised in the very least.  Choosing to buy a home in the city in close proximity to businesses, rental apartments, colleges, places of worship and public parks is a choice that bears some degree of responsibility.  Choosing to drive an automobile also bears some responsibility.  One of those responsibilities is trying figure out where to park it.  Shirking that responsibility by forcing others to deal with the ramifications of one's personal choices is unfair to those who did not make those choices.

It is an unfortunate fact that St. Paul, as our capital city and county seat, has a disproportionate amount of public and government buildings that do not pay any property taxes.  In addition, there is also a disproportionate number of schools, colleges and places of worship that are also tax exempt.  Furthermore, Ramsey County is the smallest and most densely populated county in Minnesota.  The requirements for police and fire protection, street maintenance and other basic public services are immense when compared to the tax base.  St. Paul pays out much more tax revenue to the state than it receives in return through LGA.  As a result of recent reductions in state aid, St. Paul property owners have seen substantial increases in property taxes.  Citizen activists who stifle development in the city are playing both sides of the fence.  On the one hand, they bought their homes here in order to avail themselves of the many amenities that make city living so great while on the other hand they are attempting to restrict those very amenities. 

I love our city, and I have enjoyed great support from both our City Council and our Mayor as I have lived and done business here.  I have established very cordial, respectful and cooperative relationships with not only our elected officials but also with those who are entrusted with enforcing city codes and with keeping our city safe and livable.  My wife and I along with our business partners have committed millions of dollars and thousands upon thousands of hours of hard work and sweat in this community, but these recent events cause us great concern.  If the St. Paul City Council continues to allow petitioners to create impediments to the free flow of its own citizenry and to stifle reasonable and much needed development, how long will it be before people will no longer wish live in or to visit St. Paul let alone invest in its future?  I implore them to take a step back and consider what is best for all of St. Paul's citizens rather than listening to whomever beats the drum loudest.  We all deserve the right to help manage our communities and neighborhoods, but we shouldn't try and do so at the expense of others while denying responsibility for our own personal choices.  St. Paul needs reasonable and responsible investment in order to continue to thrive.  We need for our City Council to encourage and support those efforts instead of listening to those who would deny them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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