Fences, observed the poet Robert Frost, are important to neighborly relations. That’s certainly proving true in the Como Park neighborhood.
In November, MGM Wine & Spirits removed a barrier separating its operations on the southwest corner of Lexington and Larpenteur avenues from the neighborhood to the south, angering residents and prompting the city of St. Paul to initiate legal action.
The city will seek an injunction in Ramsey County District Court requiring MGM to reinstall the fence along the parking lot that serves its retail store at 1102 W. Larpenteur Ave. and corporate headquarters at 1124 W. Larpenteur Ave. A hearing date has not been set.
In the meantime, neighbors say the teardown created safety concerns and diminished the general quality of life for those living near MGM. Moreover, they are apprehensive about the liquor chain’s long-term site improvement plans.
“MGM is acting like the neighborhood bully,” said Maya Kuratomi, who lives at 1105 W. California Ave., directly across the alley from the retail store. “Their actions show a lack of respect for our neighborhood and community.”
MGM operates about three dozen liquor stores in Minnesota and is owned by FTL Corporation of Woodbury. FTL’s president and chief executive officer is Jack Lanners, who currently chairs the Metropolitan Airports Commission.
Paul Setter, MGM vice president for sales and marketing, has represented the company in several meetings with neighborhood representatives. Setter did not respond to requests to comment on recent concerns from neighbors.
In August 2005, Setter met with area residents and the District 10 Community Council board to discuss modifications that MGM said would remedy several deficiencies at the site, including a lack of emergency access and rush hour congestion.
MGM already had purchased two homes on the north side of California, directly south of its headquarters building. According to district council meeting minutes, Setter expressed MGM’s desire to remove the eight-foot-high fence on its side of the alley and raised the possibility of demolishing the homes to create space for added parking.
Residents rejected the fence-removal proposal, contending that it violated both the spirit and substance of a 1980 letter of understanding between MGM and homeowners when the current store was constructed.
In July 2007, the parties met again and Setter reiterated the benefits that he said would result from eliminating the fence. Neighbors countered that the fence kept the alley safe for children and residents, and questioned its use as a thoroughfare.
There was no definitive outcome to that meeting except that the District 10 board recommended to the city that the fence remain in place, and residents agreed that they were willing to consider alternative solutions.
Then, during the November 12, 2007, observance of the Veteran’s Day holiday, MGM took down the fence.
“It was unethical to remove the fence on a day when city offices were closed,” said Dwight Nelson, of 1142 W. California Ave., and captain of the block club. “They claimed they were motivated by safety concerns, but they have dumped their safety problems on the neighborhood. We now have customers from the store speeding westward down the alley, sometimes head-on at a resident trying to get to his or her garage. Some motorists eastbound on Larpenteur now cut through the lot to avoid the stoplight at Lexington.”
Kuratomi said she and fellow residents are now subjected to previously blocked lights and noise that interfere with sleep and daily routines.
An inspector from the city’s Department of Public Safety and Inspections found that MGM’s action amounted to a violation of the zoning code requiring a visual and physical screen when a parking lot is located across the alley from a residential use.
According to the city, MGM responded that the 1980 agreement was invalid because the residents who signed it no longer live in the neighborhood. Further, the company stated that fences on the property of current residents serve as an adequate barrier.
Although MGM’s future plans remain a matter of conjecture, Bob Kessler, director of St. Paul’s inspections department, said any expansion across the alley would require a rezoning or variance. That process would involve the Planning Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals, and the matter could ultimately be decided by the City Council.
Fifth Ward City Council Member Lee Helgen declined to comment on the overall situation while the fence issue is in litigation.
In the meantime, Dwight Nelson praised city officials for their responsiveness to residents’ concerns.
“If there’s been a positive aspect to this, the dispute has really brought the neighborhood together,” he said.