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Copia the same Nearly Four Months After Fire

On the morning of December 29th Copia Urban Winery went up in flames — ruled arson by investigators. The following message was posted on their website within days after the fire:

We regret to inform you that Copia Urban Winery and Market will be closed temporarily due to an unfortunate fire. The Copia family would like to extend their gratitude to all of you for your dedicated loyalty and support. We apologize for any inconveniences this occurrence may have caused. Plans to rebuild are already in motion, and updates will be posted regularly. We look forward to seeing you very soon.

Nearly four months later the Washington Ave restaurant remains boarded up with no signs of rebuilding taking place. The website is the same. To my knowledge there have been no arrests either. With so much good stuff happening on Washington Ave it is unfortunate to not see something happening here.


City Policy on Street Vendors Counter to Desire for Vibrant Streets

Bustling sidewalks and numerous food vendors are hallmarks of great urban streets. Food vendors sell everything from hot dogs, pretzels, nuts, ice cream, water/soda, kabobs and all sorts of other street food. In St. Louis our laws severely limit food & other street vendors leaving our sidewalks less than lively than they could or should be.
By design food vendors are limited to the CBD with a maximum number of 10 permits being issued. Yes only 10 permits are issued for the entire city. When I was in Toronto in 2006, for example, I could often see 10 vendors up and down streets from a single position. All cities place limitations on the use of the public sidewalk — that is reasonable. But there is a point where you can get so restrictive then you don’t achieve the type of environment that you want. More pedestrians would certainly attract more retailers, residents and businesses.

The argument against an increased number of food vendor permits is that they compete with established restaurants that have greater investments in their location and such. I don’t personally buy into this argument.

The person seeking a nice sit-down lunch isn’t going to grab a $3 hot dog just because they pass a vendor. Similarly, the person that wants a veggie dog with sauerkraut isn’t necessarily going to eat out an a restaurant if said dog is not available from a vendor.

We never have all 10 vendors out at one time. The hot dog vendors we do have lack a veggie dog option — very frustrating to this fan of street food. Every vendor I encountered in both Toronto and Vancouver, for example, offered veggie dogs. I see a potential void in the market here but these vendors have a lock on all the permits — new competition offering more choice is not an option.

Street vending is a

great way to start a small business. Although the carts are not cheap, they certainly require less upfront capital investment than many other businesses.

Vending in the city is limited to a few small districts such as Soulard Market, a section of South Broadway just South of Meramec and a portion of downtown:

A. “Downtown Vending District” shall mean (1) the area bounded by the Mississippi River on the east, Cole Street on the north, Tucker Boulevard on the west and Interstate Highway 64/U.S. Highway 40 on the south; and (2) the area bounded by Fourth Street on the east, Interstate Highway 64/U.S. Highway 40 on the north, the former Ninth Street (vacated by Ordinance 9191) on the west and Gratiot Street on the south.

So while our leaders talk about creating a 24/7 downtown it is clear that is all hot air — they are not doing the things necessary such as totally revising our vendor laws. Currently vending is only allowed from 6am to 11pm. Hardly 24/7. For more information on the city’s vending laws see Revised Code Chapter 8.108A.

Nothing prevents the selling of newspapers — freedom of the press and all — but many newsstand vendors in cities like New York also offer items like candy, water, books and perhaps item targeted to tourists like t-shirts and film. Under St Louis’ law, that would require being inside one of the few & limited vending districts and getting one of the very rare permits.

I’d like to see the sidewalks in our commercial districts teaming with vendors as well as have the storefronts of local businesses spilling out onto the sidewalk.

The sidewalk area in front of the convention center consumed by an ill-placed taxi stand should be packed with all sorts of vendors. Around Metrolink stops downtown we should also see concentrations of vendors. Vendors should also line the sidewalks leading to/from the arch. When people leave the Fox after a play there should be vendors offering street food as well as play-related merchandise.
If the city were to increase the number of permits and open up all the sidewalks to vending I think we’d see more vendors in the market. This would be a very good thing. And I’d be able to get a vegetarian hot dog with mustard and sauerkraut.


State & City Help fund competition for existing grocery store

Last month Mayor Slay made an announcement many had been expecting:

Schnucks will build downtown’s first full-service grocery store, a 20,800 sf urbanized version, in the Missouri Development Finance Board’s Ninth Street Garage at 9th and Olive Streets.

I guess I am not clear how mayor Slay defines “full-service.” City Grocers opened in October 2004 and offers this downtown resident everything I expect from a grocery store. Of course, I don’t expect to fill a prescription at a grocery store. Nor do I expect to get mylar balloons & florals from a grocery store. I expect groceries.
The Mayor continues:

This is an important step forward for downtown. I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me why downtown doesn’t have a supermarket, and where downtown residents shop. Now we have a great answer to both those questions — we will have a Schnucks downtown later this year or early next year, and downtown residents will shop at it.

And what exactly has the Mayor told all these many people asking about where to shop ? Hopefully City Grocers.

The business journal had more:

It will cost $7.56 million for Schnuck Markets Inc. to build out, stock and open downtown St. Louis’ first full-service grocery store. But the family-owned supermarket chain is getting help.

Lots of help — from tax payers of course.

Schnucks will pay $3.42 million necessary for tenant improvements, inventory and other opening expenses at the downtown location, at Ninth and Olive streets, according to state finance board documents. The remaining money will come from a combination of state, federal and city subsidies.

“If we didn’t have the public support, it wouldn’t be a viable project,” said Scott Schnuck, chief executive of Schnuck Markets. “We’re starting with a space that wasn’t designed for a grocery store.” The location will require a leveled floor, extensive wiring and other improvements, he said.

Not designed for a grocery store? Who’s fault is that? Schnuck’s development arm DESCO was involved in building the garage. And in razing the National register listed Century Building. And in suing two downtown property owners who believed a parking garage facing the Old Post Office would be a detriment to downtown.

Does this mean they could not lease the space to anyone else?

Back to the article:

The grocery chain will receive $1.1 million in state funds from the Missouri Development Finance Board (MDFB), $1.29 million in proceeds through the federal New Markets Tax Credits program and $1.75 million from the city of St. Louis through a development agreement that will operate like a tax increment finance (TIF) plan, according to a resolution approved March 18 by the state finance board. The city’s Board of Aldermen approved the development agreement March 14 and has sent its bill to Mayor Francis Slay for his signature.

So tax dollars are now being used to buy inventory??? Inventory that will be sold for profit! WTF?  Meanwhile we have a grocery store already — just not one that is heavily subsidized.  Granted prices will likely be less at this new Schnucks compared to City Grocers.  So we are helping buy food for downtown loft dwellers.

Do we really want the state and city government handing out favors to help one business at the risk of harming another?  What message does this send to someone looking to start a small business in the city?  That once you’ve taken a huge financial risk and proven the market does exist we will swoop in and give favors to our wealthy buddies so they can steal your customers!
From the same article on the new store; “it will have a pharmacy — something that’s been missing downtown since Walgreens left a few years back.“  Walgreens, ironically was located in the very same spot — on the ground level of the Century.  Walgreens was booted out so the building could be razed for a parking structure.

It will be nice to see a new Schnucks without a massive treeless surface parking lot out front.


Wal-Mart gives the Shanks the shaft

March 30, 2008 Local Business 43 Comments

You’ve probably heard the story — Wal-Mart is suing a former employee that is brain damaged and living in a nursing home. Wal-Mart has won their case on a couple of levels — the health plan that paid nearly a half million dollars of her medical expenses had a clause which allowed the company to recoup expenses if the employee gets a settlement.

Debbie Shank received a million dollars from the trucking company that caused the accident that left her incapacitated — about $477K after legal expenses. The intent of the settlement was to pay for her on-going care. Wal-Mart is limited to only the amount that remains in the trust — just under $300K. The Shank family wonders why Wal-Mart can’t just let it go — who needs the money more? CNN has the full story.

This is a good example of the big corporate chain vs. the local retailer  the local merchant that is part of the same community would not take such a step.

Wal-Mart could take this amount of money from their foundation to recoup the health plan. The Walton family could dig through their sofas for this much. But the world’s biggest retailer is hiding behind corporate policy. So besides driving manufacturers to send jobs overseas and a long list of other strong-arm tactics, this is yet another reason not to shop at Wal-Mart & Sam’s.

For more on this story, links to help contribute to her care and a petition you can sign visit walmartwatch.com Please think about the costs to society for that “low price.”  It just is not worth it.


Fire Heavily Damages Downtown Restaurant

Earlier today an act of arson (per the Post-Dispatch) heavily damaged a downtown restaurant as well as adjacent living spaces. Thankfully, everyone was evacuated safely.


Just past 7:30am this morning a few fire trucks were still on the scene that started after 3am, according to news reports. Police had Washington Ave blocked in both directions. Copia was in the main floor of the lovely two story building in the center, above. The Vangard Lofts are to the left, a narrow building is to the right and finally The Meridian to the far right. Residents of all these buildings were evacuated. Unfortunately, The Vangard suffered some smoke & water damage.


From the back, above, we see the rear patio area. The front dining room seemed to have suffered mostly smoke & water damage, as the tables appear ready for dinner. However, the rear of the building was severely damaged.

The back of these buildings front onto St. Charles St., a narrow alley-like street. I’m not sure if parking is allowed on this section of the street. Still, a silver Mustang was parked at the end of Copia’s ramp at the back. The Fire Dept looks to have cut the railing apart to get access to the back entrance. Good thing they had that practice on Lou Hamilton’s diving board!


Above, St. Louis’ new fire chief Dennis Jenkerson changes shoes at the back of his car before leaving the site.


From the front, with the exception of the broken glass and debris, it doesn’t appear a 4-alarm fire just did the damage that it did. Again, the dining room was damaged by smoke and water, not fire.


Later crews were on the scene to board up the building and deal with damage at the Vangard Lofts as well.

Regular readers will note this is the same restaurant where I had my video-tapped confrontation with owner Eyad “ET” Tammas, over valets consuming too much public parking. Despite that, and the on-going valet problems, I would never wish arson upon anyone. Copia, like many other places, was an important part of the downtown scene. I wish them well in their rebuilding. The valet guys, and their tactics to take up more spaces than is fair, can stay gone as far as I am concerned unless they learn to play well with others.