Proposal to reduce off-street parking requirements for St. Paul businesses serving alcohol raises concerns on Summit Hill Association board

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To some, the proposed off-street parking amendments presented to the City Council on May 16th – as requested by the Council in June 2010 and that would revise and reduce off-street parking requirements for restaurants serving alcohol and for bars citywide – is a simple proposition. Decrease the off-street parking requirements for both and the city and Grand Avenue will be more “business friendly”. To others, the amendments once again threaten to increase the historic large deficit of off-street parking – particularly along East Grand Avenue with its many restaurants and bars. It could put more parking pressure on current businesses and their customers and drive more customers to park on residential street either side of Grand Avenue. Those are the perspectives boiled down to basics.

On May 10th, members of the Summit Hill Association (SHA) Board of Directors reviewed this and earlier testimony before the SHA Zoning & Land Use Committee concerning these proposed zoning changes. Planning and Economics (PED) Senior Planner Merritt Clapp-Smith attended the May 10th board hearing to help explain the rationale and the potential impacts identified through staff research and by the St. Paul Planning Commission in its recommendation to the city.

Clapp-Smith provided an overview noting that the possible revisions to current zoning requirements could differentiate and recognize higher impact and parking demand created by businesses serving alcohol or providing entertainment versus similarly sized establishments focused on serving food service and closing before midnight. PED staff looked at research from other cities in and out of state including Minneapolis in how they deal with this issue; analyzed St. Paul police reports on service calls to bars and restaurants serving alcohol in terms of who was creating the neighborhood nuisance problems and the hours of operation.

After the research, PED staff concluded that the hours of operations was the best basis for differentiating between restaurants and bar serving alcohol: restaurants that close by midnight didn’t create nuisance problems generally; but a percentage of bars operating after midnight did. From that two new zoning categories were proposed: “Restaurants” serving alcohol that operate no later than midnight and “Bars” operating after midnight.

Restaurants serving alcohol would have their parking requirements reduce from current 1 space/125 sq. ft. to the same as retail at 1 space/400. PED staff did not give a recommendation for “bar” parking, but instead provided the matrix of possibilities running from current 1 space/100 to as little as 1 space/200 sq. ft.Finally, as there are single-building “malls” in the city such as Victoria East and West that currently do or could end up with a restaurant or bar wanting to move in, PED staff proposes that the off-street parking requirements for those uses in a mall be computed separate from the mall’s requirements.

One SHA Board member asked “What impact would these changes have on Grand Ave?” to which Clapp-Smith answered that there may be more restaurants wanting to move into “retail” space in St. Paul and on Grand Avenue. But not every restaurant owner will want to move into space that doesn’t have sufficient off-street parking. That will be a limiting factor. And on the “bar” side of the equation, bars wanting to move into retail will need to apply for a parking variance, although a lower one if the changes are made to current requirements. But there is no guarantee that the City Council would support bar variances.

Another board member noted that based on other vibrant urban areas, tight parking is a sign of success! Not to say there shouldn’t be permit parking to prevent spillover, but tight parking is part and parcel of the urban experience. Divided in viewpoints, but in response to the proposed changes, the SHA Board of Directors voted 7-3 to support a motion expressing to the City Council, SHA’s concern that as Grand Avenue and the surrounding portions of Summit Hill have their own unique issues regarding off-street parking, that the “one-size fits all” approach of the proposed amendments is not appropriate for Grand Avenue, which may instead benefit from a separate off-street parking overlay or other targeted solution.