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Grand Avenue Zoning Issues

Maintaining neighborhood character while allowing reuse of historic houses as foodservice-related businesses is a goal for some on St. Paul’s iconic Grand Avenue. St. Paul city officials will soon be asked to look at zoning code changes. 

Summit Hill Association (SHA), the neighborhood district council that represents the eastern half of Grand, has discussed changes for several months, including more flexibility in “business-converted” or BC zoning to allow restaurants and delis in houses without business owners having to go through the long and often controversial process of zoning changes or variances.

The requests came in the wake of two asks this year to make zoning changes or approve variances needed to allow an ice cream and tea shop in one converted house, and an expanded deli with seating in a dwelling-turned-grocery store. The ice cream/tea shop is up and running, while the deli request has been set aside.

Those proposed changes will go to the St. Paul City Council, to the Planning Commission and planning staff for study and a recommendation and then back to the City Council for approval. How the changes could be studied and enacted is a city staff decision. Small changes could be in the form of what is called a zoning text amendment. A second request could be for a larger study of BC zoning, which would take longer.

Looking at changes to BC zoning is just one of various measures and studies underway along Grand, which have involved the district council and Grand Avenue Business Association. Updating the neighborhood plan and doing a zoning study are other steps. But the BC zoning changes could be done sooner rather than later, said Denise Aldrich, who SHA’s Zoning and Land Use Committee.

Luis Pereira, director of planning for the St. Paul Department of Planning and Economic Development, noted that one challenge for business owners is that a study would have to get in line behind a number of other pending zoning studies. Some requests have been pending for years. City Council members this summer rapped planning staff for not completing studies in a timely manner. Staff countered that they have had a high workload, with the new soccer stadium and major developments muscling out other requests.

Over the years, Grand has had only a handful of houses converted for restaurant use. All had commercial zoning, not B-2-C or BC. The longest-lived, Barbary Fig at 720 Grand Ave., closed in 2016 after 27 years. The converted house there was torn down. Its site, which was zoned for general commercial use, is occupied for a building that will house a new Coconut Thai restaurant.

For almost 40 years, many houses on Grand Avenue have been zoned for mixed commercial-residential use. The zoning was called B-2-C and now BC. The zoning was meant to allow certain types of retail and office use in houses, possibly with living quarters in the upper stories. That allows houses to remain in place and keep the mixed-use look and feel of Grand while meeting demand to have more businesses on the popular street. 

Fast-forward to 2019 as Grand has lost many of its longtime retail shops due to changing consumer tastes and the ease of online shopping. More than half a dozen of the houses zoned for business-converted use are—or have been—sitting empty and waiting for new occupants during the past year.

Chuck Repke who served on the Planning Commission in the 1980s noted that while a coffee or tea house could be allowed, any establishment that serves food is not under the zoning, due to concerns about parking.

But over the past two decades, St. Paul city officials have reduced the amount of parking needed for food service-related businesses. Repke has suggested the Planning Commission and city staff conduct a study of BC zoning all along Grand, to see what changes can be made, rather than dealing with individual property owner requests on a piecemeal basis. 

For instance, when 770 Grand, a converted house used as a hair salon since 1993 closed in 2017, the zoning changed and it is now Treats, selling ice cream mixed with cereal, and Boba tea. A tea house would have been allowed under BC zoning, but ice cream sales required a zoning change to traditional neighborhoods use.

Seasoned Specialty Food Market, 1137 Grand Ave., wanted to use a second-floor space as a restaurant. That added-use meant the property had to be rezoned from business-converted to commercial use. A zoning request was submitted earlier this year but withdrawn after city staff recommended denial. While the Treats request was not seen as illegal spot zoning, that was the interpretation for the market.

Business co-owner Kayla Yang-Best hasn’t indicated if she’d bring the request back. She sees the request as in keeping with a changing Grand Avenue. The market get more requests for eat-in space. 

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