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A downsized Big Top wants variance on distance requirement

Posted on 07 May 2018 by Calvin

Longtime Midway Center tenant Big Top Wine & Spirits could become a lot smaller. The liquor store must relocate as part of the Allianz Field soccer stadium development. But will city officials amend a longstanding policy of distance requirements between liquor stores, to allow even an interim move?

Plans call for the store to move temporarily from Snelling and Spruce Tree Drive to the former Midway Perkins restaurant building at 1544 University Ave. The Union Park District Council (UPDC) Land Use Committee voted Apr. 16 to support the liquor store’s efforts to relocate. That includes support for a pending city ordinance change as well as a waiver of the 45-day waiting period on the changed address.

Nancy Rosenberg, managing partner for Big Top, said the interim move is needed because the current store’s lease expires January 20, 2019. The building will be torn down and replaced with an extension of Shields Ave. to the east, as well as sidewalks and an interim parking area. Longer-term, part of the site is slated for denser redevelopment.

The move to the former restaurant is temporary, said Rosenberg, and will be only until a new location is found. Perkins closed in the fall of 2017. Big Top could wind up in a redeveloped Midway Center or elsewhere in the area.

This temporary location for Big Top wouldn’t be as big, dropping from about 15,000 to 6,000 square feet. The relocated store would also sell more prepackaged foods including sandwiches, salads, meat, and cheese.

“The look and feel of the store would be very different from what you see now,” Rosenberg said.

Most UPDC committee members said they’d like to see the city find a way to address the distance issue. Several people said Big Top has been a good community business and should be able to stay at Midway Center.

Committee member Scott Berger said he’d like to see more done to address behaviors around a relocated store, especially one so close to a busy transit area. “It’s a liquor store, and things happen that are not the most appealing,” he said. Berger asked what Rosenberg would do to make a relocated store more appealing and attractive.

The relocated store would open at 9am Monday through Saturday, instead of the current 8am opening. That could reduce some problems, Rosenberg said. The store would continue to close at 8pm Monday through Thursday, and 10pm Friday and Saturday. Sunday hours would remain 11am to 6pm.

How liquor stores in St. Paul are regulated complicates the move. Big Top has been at Midway Center since 1978, founded as part of the late entrepreneur Sid Applebaum’s empire of grocery stores that included Applebaum’s, National Tea, Rainbow Foods, Holiday Food and other Big Top locations. Rosenberg, who is one of Applebaum’s daughters, said the family has had some retail presence at or near University and Snelling for more than 60 years.

What could trip up a move is an existing city ordinance.

In the 1980s the St. Paul City Council set distance requirements between off-sale liquor stores. The concern was that some neighborhoods had concentrations of several liquor stores, which caused problems with public drinking, loitering, and bad behavior. Existing stores, including Big Top and Snelling Avenue Fine Wines and Liquors to the north (500 N. Snelling Ave.), were grandfathered in. New stores, and existing stores that try to relocate, now have to meet a minimum one-half mile or 2,640-foot minimum distance separation. Over the years a few stores that wanted to relocate couldn’t because of the distance requirement.

The ordinance change hasn’t been released yet by the St. Paul City Attorney’s Office. One idea would be to allow liquor stores to move within a development area under the same ownership and waive the distance requirement. A future Big Top move outside of Midway Center would likely mean an additional license approval process.

If any neighbors file a complaint with the city, the license issue will go to a legislative hearing officer before moving on to the St. Paul City Council.

City officials have never allowed the distance requirement to be waived in neighborhoods, but whether it is still needed is debatable. Having too many liquor stores in an area has been criticized as being a blighting influence by some. Others say the distance requirements are onerous.

Enforcement has not been consistent. In a 2005 disagreement between Macalester-Groveland stores Thomas Liquors and Wine Thief over distance requirements, city staff ruled that the measurements need to be building to building.

In 2014-2015 when Midway SuperTarget made plans to add a liquor store, Big Top and some area residents questioned if the new store met the minimum distance requirement. The controversy then was how distance was measured. City officials measured the distance from the shared store-liquor store door. Then Big Top and its allies contended the distance should be measured from the westernmost corner of the SuperTarget store and shouldn’t be granted. Measuring from the western wall didn’t meet the half-mile requirement, but measure from the store door did. City staff and Target corporate officials said the measurement should be from store to store.

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