Plans for a new Prior Lake restaurant have quickly become a political issue, creating a fault line between residents and causing city leaders to backtrack on decisions.
The restaurant, the Prior Lake Shore Club, is set to be located along the Upper Prior Lake shoreline. It’ll replace Captain Jack’s, a casual bar and restaurant that closed late last year.
Much of the controversy comes down to a parking lot that the restaurant owners want to build across the street from the existing restaurant space and lot. It would take out an existing home and a slew of red oaks, extending to within feet of the homes on either side.
“Can you imagine owning a home or purchasing a home and realizing one day that you will live next to a parking lot?” said Valarie Schueler, who lives next to the proposed lot and represented a group of about two dozen residents at an emotional Planning Commission meeting when the restaurant was first considered.
Many residents, after experiencing the pitfalls of living near a bar, are wary of anything that might bring chaos to the otherwise quiet neighborhood. They don’t want more car traffic on their streets or boat traffic in the restaurant’s marina. They don’t want strangers parking in their driveways. They don’t want their children to hear rowdy restaurant-goers returning to their cars at the end of the night.
Alex Marchessault lives with his young son in a house next door to the proposed parking lot. He said he’s worried about what the future will look like for the two of them if the parking lot diminishes the house’s value.
“If you put a parking lot right next door to my house, it’s going to basically condemn it,” he told the Planning Commission. “How am I going to sell that house?”
Meanwhile, the restaurant owners from Waterstreet Restaurant Group say they’re committed to keeping the Prior Lake Shore Club family-friendly. They want to be involved in the community, they say, and want residents to feel welcome when they walk in the door.
“We want people to feel like it’s their spot,” owner Roger Burks told the Planning Commission.
Waterstreet owns Lago Tacos in Minneapolis’ Lyn-Lake neighborhood and another in Excelsior, where they’ve made an effort to stay visible by participating in community events.
“In Excelsior, we’re very woven into the fabric of that community,” said Jeff Petschl, one of Waterstreet’s partners.
New name, old problems
The Captain Jack’s site has changed hands several times over the past 40 years.
On the city’s part, the main issue with Captain Jack’s has been the parking shortage, said Community and Economic Development Director Dan Rogness. It’s pushed patrons out onto the narrow streets surrounding the restaurant, often in violation of parking restrictions.
The current parking lot has 52 stalls, and the proposed lot would add about 30 more.
The Prior Lake Shore Club will be smaller than Captain Jack’s, both in terms of the building footprint and the number of seats, which suggests that there might be less demand for parking, not more. But Rogness said that even with the new lot, there still won’t be enough.
“Even though they’re decreasing seats, it still is under-parked,” he said.
The City Council in February approved a smaller lot — up to 20 stalls — to allow for a larger buffer between the lot and adjacent homes.
But after the restaurant owners threatened to walk away, the council backtracked and signed off on 30-32 stalls, as long as there’s still an adequate buffer.
Hope for improvement
The back-and-forth with the council means that the restaurant won’t be able to open this summer, as planned, Petschl said.
Residents who have come out in support of the Prior Lake Shore Club say they understand the concerns of those whose houses adjoin the proposed parking lot.
But they also say they’re hopeful the Prior Lake Shore Club will be an improvement over what’s been there in the past.
“Yes, these are all issues,” resident Jennifer Nemecek told the Planning Commission. “But yes, I also purchased a house that was within 350 feet of a bar.”
Petschl has lived down the street from Captain Jack’s for 11 years, and has seen two different owners during that time. Going after this particular spot for a new restaurant made good business sense, he said, but it was also personal.
“It is in a neighborhood,” he said. “And we don’t want a biker bar there.”