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Boutique Hotels Bring New Life to Old Buildings

Throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul, many former commercial, residential and even industrial structures are repurposed for restaurant use. This kind of conversion brings restaurants to redeveloping neighborhoods or to those where more dining options are in demand. But getting buildings up to code and in compliance with zoning regulations can be much more complicated than hiring an all-star chef or planning the perfect menu.

On St. Paul’s Summit Avenue, restaurant owner and developer John Rupp is transforming a mansion turned College of Visual Arts building into a boutique hotel. Instead of installing a kitchen he’ll have room service food items provided by his nearby University Club. 

“The mansion has needed a lot of work to be brought up to code for hotel use,” said Rupp. The college closed in 2013 and the mansion had much deferred maintenance. Rupp said it is easier for him to use University Club foodservice than create a new restaurant-level kitchen. 

Rupp gained approval for the project from the city council last year despite a neighborhood appeal, and is now working through design issues with the city’s Heritage Preservation Commission. The mansion is in the Historic Hill District. 

Rupp isn’t sure when he’ll be able to open for guests. The HPC must sign off before any building permits can be issued. He is hoping to get approvals this spring. “I think with any conversion for hospitality issues, you need to be mindful of the level of complexity involved,” he said.

The notion of small, boutique hotels with foodservice is being explored in Minneapolis for a citywide code change as a result of a request from Restaurant Alma. Chef Alex Roberts wants to repurpose the historic Minneapolis building that houses his well-known restaurant, converting an adjacent Dunn Bros. coffee shop into a casual café companion for his special occasion spot. Upstairs he’d like to have a six-room boutique hotel, The Inn at Alma.

But the Minneapolis zoning code doesn’t allow for the small hotel in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood where Restaurant Alma is located, as new hotels aren’t permitted outside of downtown or other commercial district. Nor could the property become a bed and breakfast, as Minneapolis has property zoning and room limits on those establishments.

Roberts also met resistance from the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association when he recently suggested the property be rezoned. While a zoning change would allow his project, the type of “community activity center” zoning would also allow other uses to which neighborhood residents object. 

At the association's suggestion, Roberts is working with City Council Member Jacob Frey to create a new zoning code classification to make the inn a permitted use in Restaurant Alma’s multi-family district. This is seen by city leaders and the Community Planning and Economic Development Department as opening the door for other boutique inn/restaurant combinations elsewhere. 

Rupp, meanwhile, couldn’t use St. Paul’s bed and breakfast permit for his project because he won’t live on premise, as required in that city.

Officials in both cities say they aim to work with owners to meet codes. In Minneapolis, which has authority to license restaurants and other foodservice establishments, there is crossover on licensing and permitting forms to share information about work being done on a structure. St. Paul lost its foodservice licensing authority in 2013 following state concerns about inspections. Deputy Department of Safety and Inspections Director Dan Nizolek said city staff works closely with Minnesota Department of Health or Department of Agriculture officials when building permits are needed for a new restaurant.

“We coordinate with the state and with the business owners, so that the overall process goes as smoothly as possible,” Nizolek said. “We know issues can arise, especially with older or repurposed buildings. We don’t want people to have to redo work because they don’t meet requirements.”

It is a challenge of bringing life to old restaurants or putting code-compliant kitchens in facilities that had none before. In 2010 Mary Bard Hogan opened St. Paul’s Claddagh Coffee in what had been the home of the city’s last adult bookstore, Denmark Books. She and her landlord worked to create two levels of inviting dining and meeting space in what had been a dark, unwelcoming space.

A block away on West 7th Street, the former Northwestern Tire repair bays and warehouse are being converted into Bad Weather Brewing’s craft beer production facility and taproom. Rather than do a full kitchen installation, owners are focusing efforts on the taproom and beer production areas. Food will be brought in from neighborhood restaurants.

Probably the biggest construction job underway in St. Paul is the ongoing $1.5 million transformation of The Lexington restaurant at Grand Avenue and Lexington Parkway. Opened in 1936 and shuttered since 2013, the landmark restaurant is actually three adjacent buildings combined into one structure many years ago. 

The building’s deteriorated condition posed a challenge that deterred some would-be buyers. Smack Shack owners Josh Thoma and Kevin Fitzgerald, with partner and chef Jack Riebel, have spent several months on demolition and work to resolve building and structural issues from the basement to a second-floor remodel. Plans include converting a second-floor space into a ballroom, plus extensive renovation of the kitchen, dining and bar areas. The owners are aiming for a late summer opening.


St. Paul Roundup 

After years of catering and farmers markets, Big River Pizza leased space at the Lofts at Farmers Market in Lowertown from the St. Paul Housing and Redevelopment Authority, which will provide about $180,000 in city assistance toward the $304,000 construction costs. An early summer opening is planned. 

Saint Dinette is opening in May in the Rayette Lofts commercial space in Lowertown. It's the second restaurant for Tim Niver and chef J.D. Fratzke, who also own Strip Club Meat & Fish.

Cossetta’s will open a rosticceria in its Seven Corners Italian market. The addition will have limited seating and offer to-go items, including by-the-pound prime rib and chicken, as well as sandwiches, side dishes and small plates. Owner David Cossetta wants to focus on house-made products and meats from area farmers. It’s the latest addition to the multi-story market/pastry shop/pizzeria and full service Louis Restaurante & Bar. 

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