Should a Hamline-Midway pizza restaurant be allowed to provide carryout and delivery service overnight until 6 a.m.? That’s a question the St. Paul Planning Commission’s Zoning Committee will take up later this month, as the committee members consider a request from Doge Pizza, 629 Aldine St.
After almost two hours of debate, the committee laid the matter over until May 18. The committee is asking Doge Pizza owners Ahmed and Said Abdi and neighbors to meet with the Hamline Midway Coalition (HMC) Community Development Committee. Zoning committee members are hoping some sort of compromise can be found. The restaurant is a nonconforming use, in the middle of a residential neighborhood.
629 Aldine was built in 1915, with a storefront on the first floor and dwelling space above. For many years it housed a corner store.
By 1992, the storefront was vacant. That year the Planning Commission approved a permit for reestablishment of nonconforming use, which allowed a pizza delivery restaurant to open on the main floor. The property is zoned for residential use, but in this type of situation where a longtime property use predates the modern zoning code, a use can stay with a permit and conditions.
A condition of approval was that the restaurant be closed between 12 a.m. and 8 a.m.
Different restaurants have operated in the storefront since 1992, including Cheney’s, Eden Pizza and Eureka Vegan Compass. Doge moved into the space in 2021.
Since August 2021, several complaints have been filed with the city’s Department of Safety and Inspections (DSI) about noise generated by the building’s hood/vent system. Neighbors have also complained about noise, trash and what a city staff report describes as “potential prohibited commercial sales activity.”
The overnight pizza sales started earlier this year. Doge’s owners said they didn’t know they were in violation.
The owners indicated in one application to the city that they want to extend hours to 4 a.m. During the May 4 meeting, the suggestions was made that hours be extended to 6 a.m. Ahmed Abdi said the owners are struggling to keep the restaurant open, and that the early-morning sales have been a boon to business.
Senior City Planner Josh Williams recommended denial of the request to expand hours, citing the potential for additional commercial traffic in a residential area, and detriment to the character of a largely residential neighborhood.
“My analysis is that changing the hours expands the noise and traffic impacts in the neighborhood,” Williams said.
HMC recommended approval at a recent meeting, but some neighbors said that meeting wasn’t noticed properly. They also pointed out that Ahmed Abdi is a district council member and has a potential conflict of interest.
Action at the zoning committee level was delayed earlier this spring to allow HMC to weigh in. The district council could opt to not review the matter again, said Assistant City Attorney Peter Warner.
Commissioners said they want to see more community discussion. “What I see is a bunch of conflicting issues, which make it hard to make a decision,” said zoning committee chair Jake Reilly. Others on the committee agreed, saying they’re inclined to deny the request outright unless some kind of compromise can be reached.
“We are not profitable,” Abdi said. The extended hours were tried without the restaurant owners being aware of the restrictions tied to the nonconforming use permit. The extended hours have boosted business and meet requests of neighbors wanting an overnight food option. The busiest time for business is 1-2 a.m.
While they sympathize with the challenges Doge has faced during the pandemic, commissioners are also concerned about impacts on neighbors, with vehicles coming and going at all hours.
While the zoning committee and ultimately the Planning Commission can vote on operating conditions for Doge as part of a change in nonconforming use, commissioners agreed that any property code issues have to go to the Department of Safety and Inspections (DSI). One issue opponents have cited is noise from a ventilation/hood system. Abdi the hood system isn’t operated overnight.
He also said his family has made significant investments to the Aldine building. They rent the space and do not own it.
Abdi said when his family took over the building, “it was a mess.” There is still a need to replace the ventilation hood system, which could cost as much as $100,000. He said the restaurant owners will seek a sales tax grant from the city.
The request to change hours got 34 letters of support, mainly from people who want food during the overnight hours. Abdi said about 70 percent of orders are for delivery, with 30 percent pickup.
Opponents sent in 20 letters, with half a dozen testifying before the zoning committee.
Brian Mundy, who lives next door to Doge, said the owners won’t deal with issues and won’t work with neighbors. His family deals with the stress of vehicles pulling up and doors slamming, and headlights shining in their home’s windows overnight.
Mundy said despite a warning from the city about violating the nonconforming use permit, Doge continued to operate in violation for a time.
Julie Hellwich is a longtime small business owner and neighborhood resident. While she understands the challenges small businesses are facing, she said the overnight hours put too much of burden on the neighborhood.
Five other neighbors testified in opposition, saying the overnight hours aren’t compatible with a residential neighborhood, and that the Doge owners should have known what they were dealing with when they moved into the building. “This is not a good fit,” said Teresa LePaine.
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