Marea Perry donned a white dress and costume angel wings to march to a parking lot at the corner of W. Maryland Avenue and Arundel Street in St. Paul.
She clasped hands with friends and family. She prayed. The sunny afternoon gathering on May 16 marked two years since she buried her son, 21-year-old Marquez Perry-Banks. He was killed while sitting in his car outside the small property with a grocery store, tobacco shop and restaurant in the North End neighborhood.
Some living by the building at 444 W. Maryland Av. have for years complained about crime in the parking lot, according to the North End Neighborhood Organization.
A city licensing error has now sparked calls to shut down the property's tobacco shop in response to the string of drug deals, assaults and other disturbances that have taken place outside the business.
"I understand that they don't have control over everything that happens outside, but there have been too many calls," Perry said. "That store needs to move."
St. Paul mistakenly issued a tobacco product shop license to owner Ali Alfureedy in 2019 on a site where such permits are prohibited by zoning code. Alfureedy had been selling tobacco with a retail license since 2016, but a city ordinance passed in 2018 prevented convenience stores from selling menthol or flavored tobacco products.
In March, Alfureedy asked the city to rezone the site so he could stay in business. That prompted backlash from some neighbors who say he's not doing enough to prevent crime in the parking lot.
Ben Loetscher, an attorney representing Alfureedy, said in an e-mail that "it would be irresponsible to attribute the cause of the crime to the business."
"I think it is a mistake … to put so much energy and focus into denying a valid zoning application, especially when that takes focus away from collecting empirical evidence as to the root causes of violence, and addressing them," he wrote.
City staff also discouraged members of St. Paul's Planning Commission from using zoning to target problems tied to an individual or property.
"This is a land use question, not a behavioral issue," Assistant City Attorney Peter Warner said at a meeting of the Zoning Committee, a panel of the Planning Commission.
St. Paul's Planning Commission voted 9-4 to recommend the rezoning to the City Council, which will have a public hearing on the matter Wednesday.
Planning Commissioner Richard Holst, who opposed the recommendation, said Alfureedy's property has historically been home to a convenience store, not a tobacco shop. He also noted that forcing Alfureedy to appeal to the City Council could allow officials to solve the public safety and licensing questions.
A letter from the North End Neighborhood Organization said that police have visited the Maryland Avenue property more than 1,700 times since the start of 2018, though a majority of those stops have been proactive check-ins. One of neighbors' main concerns was chaotic parking and dangerous driving, the letter said.
Loetscher said Alfureedy, who is an immigrant from Iraq, has increased surveillance cameras, hired off-duty police officers and "is open to other suggestions to addressing neighborhood concerns."
Alfureedy's current tobacco license is up for renewal at the end of June, at which point officials have suggested they could consider imposing new operating conditions on the business.
Shouting into a megaphone outside Alfureedy's business on that May afternoon, Perry urged neighbors to join her at nearby Marydale Park for a cookout, music, art and dancing. In honor of her son, she started an organization called Secrets2Truth to offer a variety of health and wellness opportunities geared toward Black women and families.
"As hurtful as it is to be in this space, I want to make sure that I am bringing joy to my community," Perry said to the few dozen people gathered.
On the corner lot where her son was killed, Perry said she'd like to see businesses and customers focus on doing the same.
Katie Galioto • 612-673-4478