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Excise Division to Hold Hearing on Qdoba’s ‘Summer Garden’ & ‘Full Drink’ Request

The Qdoba chain’s latest store in the St. Louis region is open at Loughborough Commons. This afternoon the Excise Division will hold a hearing to determine if they should get a “full drink” liquor license and an outdoor “summer garden” permit. While the poor planning at Loughborough Commons disgusts me and I’m not fond of formula chain places I can’t imagine anyone telling them no at this point.

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The place is done, including the patio. The outdoor area will soon be ideal for watching those folks driving around the new strip center to order their latte at the Starbuck’s drive-thru window.

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What would happen if immediate neighbors all showed up at 2pm protesting the idea of people buying a bud light to go with their burrito? And further yet, drinking said bud on the patio.

So who is the excise division? Well, they are part of the Department of Public Safety — you know that department now headed by Charles Bryson. The DPS website doesn’t tell us much:

Excise Division

6 Employees
Robert W. Kraiberg, Commissioner
314-622-4191
The Excise Division is charged by City Charter with the regulation and control of liquor within the City of St. Louis. The Division is responsible for determining licensing in accordance with the City Liquor code, authorizing issuance of all liquor and non-intoxicating beer licenses, enforcement of City Liquor Laws and Ordinances and initiation of civil action to suspend, cancel or revoke licenses when violations to statutes occur.

That cannot be the extent of information about liquor licenses? So I went back to the main city site and used the search field. This is what I got:
cinliquor

The default is to search stlouis.missouri.org — the “CIN Main Site” or I could search stlcin.missouri.org which is a bit more descriptive. The third option is to the search the internet which we all can easily do from our browsers anyway. I picked the default and basically found press release information — even though press releases are found in the second search option according to the search page. So, I selected the second option and there I found a FAQ page on Liquor licenses. Why this is not linked directly from the Excise Division/Department of Public Safety site I don’t know.

liquorfaq

So we see a full drink license “cannot be issued if the surrounding neighborhood disapproves.” Gee, define surrounding. It seems they have a “formal procedure” that can only be obtained via a phone call from 8-5 Monday through Friday. I’d say secret procedure is more like it.  You know I think this whole web thing might actually take off so it would be OK to invest in getting more and more information available to the public via the internet.

People want solutions so here we go.  Explain the types of licenses in greater detail, linking to the appropriate ordinance(s).  Make the necessary forms available online as editable-PDF documents.  Explain the formal procedure so that everyone applying for a license, as well as neighbors, know the same rules.  List who makes the decision and what their criteria is.   Are these people appointed, elected or staff?

Back to Qdoba for some final thoughts.  A chain place can afford to build out a full establishment on the assumption that nobody will object to their having a liquor license and a patio permit.  I know I certainly don’t object — a few beers will likely make Loughborough Commons more tolerable.  But the local person seeking to open an establishment can’t afford such a proposition.  Can they get necessary approvals before spending their life savings on a building or lease space?  Without the finished space the neighbors might have concerns about what is planned.  Without the liquor and/or patio license up front a lender might see the proposition as too risky.
I may need to visit City Hall Room 416 today at 2pm to find out more.

 

St. Louis’ Board of Adjustment Votes to Restrict Free Speech on Eminent Domain

You’ve likely seen Jim Roos’ anti-eminent domain statement on the side of a building he owns in an area known as Bohemian Hill. Yesterday attorney John Randall argued before the Board of Adjustment the U.S. Constitution protects the rights of citizens to voice free speech. The Board of Adjustment hears appeals from those who’ve been denied permits by the building department. The member’s names, date appointed, term length, term expiration are not posted online on the city’s website, nor is their agenda published online.

During the meeting a total of three appeals were heard relating to signs — all did not meet the strict letter of the city’s antiquated zoning code regulations (see the “Comprehensive” Sign Control Regulations). All three were larger than allowed by the code, two were approved but one was not. Laclede Gas got approval for a large sign on top of their building in downtown St. Louis so they could hopefully get spotted by TV cameras during Cardinals games. Laclede Gas argued their sign on the top of their building would be a positive “contribution to the St. Louis skyline.” I saw the mock-ups of the sign, it wasn’t something to hail as great nor was anything bad. They indicated that the city’s maximum allowable size for a sign on their building would look like a “postage stamp.” If the city really wants to be business friendly they will take a fresh look at the sign regulations and I don’t know, maybe publish something on the building division site about signs rather than make the public wade through the technicalities of the ordinance.

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Roos and his attorney argued this is not a sign, per the city’s regulations. I’m not going to take you through all the various points of the ordinance but in large part, per the code, a sign faces a public street. The building above was originally a rear building — the public street is to the left out of view. The side of the building, clearly visible from the interchange of highways I-44 & I-55, does not face a public street — it faces an adjacent parcel of land owned by someone else. The poorly constructed zoning code relating to signs also addresses the question of what is a sign vs what is not:

If for any reason it cannot be readily determined whether or not an object is a sign, the Community Development Commission shall make such determination.

Again, it was argued this was not a sign but Bob Lordi from the city’s building division determined it is a sign. The ordinance language is unclear as to how this debate of sign or not gets resolved. Some of the best humor was provided by a June 28, 2007 letter from alderwoman Phyllis Young (D-7th Ward):

“If this sign is allowed to remain then anyone with property along any thoroughfare can paint signs indicating the opinion or current matter relevant to the owner to influence passersby with no control by any City agency.”

When this was read during the proceedings I actually laughed out loud. The irony, of course, is that earlier this year Young advocated razing the entire area where the “sign” is located for a new development. She passed legislation blighting the entire area and now wants to protect it from a sign put up in response to the very real threat faced by these home owners. I will have more on the status of this project separately.  Click here to view the entire letter in PDF format.
Another part of the letter gave me reason to chuckle as well:

I have worked diligently throughout my career as an alderman to reduce the number of billboards cluttering our neighborhoods and our city. As you drive I-44 you’ll see no billboards in my ward from Compton east to the intersection with I-55 other than the one in the commercial area at Jefferson. The wall sign is an affront to the neighborhoods, drivers, and the city. It should be denied and removed.

One of the most telling comments is that being an alderman is a “career” rather than simply a public service. But I think Phyllis needs to get in her Prius, or better yet a good pair of sneakers, and just check out more of her ward, including downtown.

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… Continue Reading

 

“St. Louis-based” Scottrade Has No Branch Office in the City of St. Louis

The discount brokerage firm Scottrade recently opened their 300th branch office (press release), however, the company located in St. Louis’ suburbs does not have a branch in the City of St. Louis.  Their name is in big letters downtown but as the naming rights for a sports facility. Can someone downtown please give Scottrade CEO Roger Riney a tour of available spaces?

 

Cities Chasing Retail

The April 2007 issue of Governing magazine has an interesting cover story called, The Retail Chase with a subitlte: Cities will do almost anything to land the story of their dreams. From the article:

Much of the change in the retail market is happening not just within cities but in the middle of downtown. All over the country, young professionals and empty nesters — people with disposable income to spare — are moving into new lofts and high-rise condos. Those new residents have to shop somewhere. In downtown Minneapolis, now home to 30,000 people, three grocery stores are coming, and not one of them requested government subsidies. “For years, all the cities in the Midwest wanted to have a Michigan Avenue,” says Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, referring to Chicago’s famous high-end shopping street. “Michigan Avenue is spectacular, but we’re not all going to have a Michigan Avenue.” What’s evolving downtown now, in Rybak’s view, is a hybrid retail model where destination shoppers can still buy $200 shoes, but where the people living upstairs can find a dry cleaner. “Focus on the housing first,” Rybak says, “and the retail will follow.”

The above is valid, we don’t buy expensive shoes everyday (I never do). What we do need are groceries, toiletries, prescriptions, basic clothing and dry cleaners. A number of these are available in downtown St. Louis currently. But really, every neighborhood needs to have these in close proximity (… a short walk).

The online version of the issue also has some additional interviews with retail experts. One of the three is Robert Gibbs. As it turns out, Gibbs was in town recently as the retail consultant to DPZ on the Dardenne Prairie town center charette. He was certainly interesting to talk to and he did a great job communicating retail strategy to the general public. One of the things he stressed was having high design standards, explaining that retailers have several store models and will simply do the least they can get away with in the community. Retailers, much like home owners, don’t want to overbuild for the area. Gibbs indicated high standards for store fronts and lighting were very important. From one of the online-only articles:

It’s generally agreed now that the underserved markets are urban markets. From inner cities with low-income populations to high-end wealthy cities, urban centers are vastly under-retailed for lots of reasons. If you’re a retailer and you’re growing your stores, you have to figure out how to get into urban locations. To do that retailers are doing things they never would have considered five years ago. They’re modifying their old standards for store sizes in order to fit on smaller, more compact sites. They’re lowering their parking standards. They’re even changing the merchandising mix to fit the urban consumer. So there’s a tremendous opportunity for cities to attract retail.

You mean, we don’t just have to accept the type of store the retailer builds in the exurbs? The city of St. Louis is underserved from a retail perspective. We can have our cake and eat it too: higher design standards and still attract retailers seeking a market in which to grow their business.

Cities don’t have to turn themselves into a mall, but they do have to do what shoppers want. Last year 70 percent of all sales occurred after 5:30 at night. If downtown is going to compete, it has to have stores open in the evenings or on Saturdays. It has to offer the goods that people want to buy at the prices people want to pay. Last year only 2 percent of all apparel sales occurred in downtowns. In that 1950s, that’d be more like 90 to 95 percent. Downtowns have lost almost all their market share. Most are either entertainment districts or they sell knick-knacks and antiques and other things we don’t need.

Yes, evening hours are harder on the mom & pop stores but if that is when the public has time to shop that is when you need to be open for business. This is not the 1950s anymore, mom works to help the family get by so she is not out at 2pm shopping. Despite being gay, I do not go antiquing.

Cities should have a master plan to show how they can accommodate modern retail. Cities should have a written policy saying they want to be competitive and gain market share. Cities need to have high design standards for signage, lighting and building design and be willing to enforce those standards. And they have to have a public parking strategy.

Are you folks down at City Hall and the downtown partnership getting this? A plan, a policy and “high design standards” that are actually enforced! And by “parking strategy” I don’t think Gibbs is advocating the razing of historic structures for additional parking garages, he is referring to good parking management. Gibbs continues:

Cities can get back up to 30, 40 or 50 percent of market share with a policy. There’s a demand for retailers. A lot of them want to locate in downtowns. A lot of cities don’t know that.

The eight or ten cities we consult in have this huge unmet demand. Even a blue-collar town with modest income has a big demand for shoes and apparel. Urban consumers drive farther than normal to get goods and services, and the goods and services they do get downtown they overpay for. That’s the norm. Old Navy knows that now. Target knows that.

Gibbs give a good reason why we can demand higher standards:

Time matters for retailers. Stores have to open to keep their stock prices rising. A development director for a chain is told to open five stores in a region by a certain date, and if they don’t open he gets fired. So those people will go to a city only if the city can give them some assurance that the store can open by a certain date. That’s hard to do.

With good zoning & urban design codes we, as a city & region, can demand better retail design. It will not be offered to us on a silver platter, we must ask for it — no — we must demand better. The chain’s development director, faced with termination for not opening enough stores, will work with us and reluctantly pull off the shelf one of the more urban formats used in other cities. Walgreen’s will not abandon the City of St. Louis. They are on a mission to be in every part of every city and state. They are also trying to beat CVS in the race to tap new markets. QuikTrip is in a similar situation.
Wall Street doesn’t give a damn about St. Louis or if a new store is urban or has a big parking lot in front. Their concern is new growth as evidenced by new stores and eventually, steady or growing same store sales. Period. All these national retailers want to make sure they please their shareholders and Wall Street. They build the very least they can get away with and still please investment analysts that track their stock. If a reasonable urban design code requires good sidewalk access, bike parking, and caps the auto parking then the retailer will go along — that is much easier than answering to shareholders when the stock takes a dive.

Part of the problem is that retailers generally don’t build their own buildings. They work with developers, often local developers, to construct & own the facility and lease it back to them. In the St. Louis region we have a limited number of such retail developers like THF, Koman Properties, and DESCO. These developers, through campaign contributions throughout the region (Missouri & Illinois) keep things favorable to themselves. High design standards? Not for them! They will cite retailers demands but we know that really isn’t true. If they want to stay in business they will need to comply with the community’s design standards. Do you think THF included all the trees in the Chesterfield Flood Commons project out of some altruistic reason? No way! Chesterfield has high landscaping standards. With enforced design standards in place a developer can go back to a retailer and say, “our hands are tied, [insert municiapity] requires that you [insert requirement].

In addition to some basic demands, non-financial incentives can be used. For example, parking can be reduced if the developer includes bike parking (up to a point, and distributing the bike parking throughout the development). Many cities use creative incentives to improve design by giving developers choices that will make the project look & function better and not really add to the overall costs.

It is time for St. Louis to stop acting like a city losing thousands of people every decade. We are on the upswing per the latest figures from the census.

 

The Loop: Eclectic Stores vs. National Chains

Recently I read about two chain restaurants taking over the Streetside Records building on Delmar in the Loop. The store was not closing but the building owner made a deal to lease the space to two chain restaurants when the Streetside lease expires. To everyone upset about the loss of “record” stores, don’t be. When was the last time you passed a typewriter store? Markets shift and like it or not records are like 8 track tapes. Hell, I can’t even recall the last time I purchased a physical CD — certainly before the iTunes Music Store opened.

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This week the RFT had a follow up story on the subject of chain stores in the loop, it seems some local merchants want to set a limit on the number of chain establishments:

Spearheading the move to institute a cap on chains is Patrick Liberto, owner of Meshuggah Café, who says the incursion of two new restaurants spurred him to action.

“We are going to lose our eclectic qualities. We’re going to look like Clayton,” Liberto complains. “The Loop is going to get a lot less interesting to people if they see the same things here that they see in their own neighborhood.”

Liberto wants to set a limit that no more than ten formula restaurants and ten retail chains be permitted in the Loop, and that none can occupy a space greater than 4,000 square feet. The Delmar Loop is home to seven retail chains, including Footlocker and Blockbuster Video. When Chipotle and Noodles & Company arrive, the number of chain eateries will rise to thirteen, versus thirty-four independently owned restaurants.

The irony here is Streetside Records is part of a chain of stores! 

I personally hate chain places, especially chain restaurants. We have so many wonderful locally owned establishments in our region, why go generic. That said, I’m not sure I believe in artificially creating such a cap. First, we must define a chain. Is locally owned Pasta House a “chain” because they have muliple locations? Do we distinquish between a locally owned & operated franchise (say a Subway) vs. a company owned store from a non-local national operator? The St. Louis Bread Co. is most definintely a chain — they had two locations at one time on the loop (disclosure: my investment club is a very minor shareholder in Panera).

The Loop is quite unique to the region but not just because of the mix of the stores & restaurants. The architecture and scale of the place is unique as well. I’ve been to the Noodles & Company at South County mall twice now and I can certainly say the experience is totally unlike going to the Loop. Sure, the food might be the same as well as the interior decor but the Loop still has the right feel I am looking for when I am out and about.

I personally am not a fan of regulating uses, my usual concern is building form which creates the feel of the public space (aka the street). Some franchise places have very strict standards on their signage & storefronts while others are more flexible, allowing adjustment for local flavor.

I think it should be noted “The Loop” is often considered that portion of Delmar in University City — up to the lions heads on the west end. However, over the last few years the portion of Delmar in the City of St. Louis has become quite interesting. I consider them together to be the Delmar Loop or simply the Loop, I never say the U-City Loop. But, it is the U-City portion feeling threatened by the influx of chain stores.

if the merchants want to be concerned about the character of the area and attracting people they need to look at doing something about the bad buildings such as this one:

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These cars are all in for repair. Across the street, within the city limits, is another old gas station that has been boarded for years and the lot is simply used for additional parking.

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At Skinker we have this horrible gas station, hardly a good anchor for a pedestrian district. The next rebuild should require the convenience store functions to be moved to the corner to create more urban context, leaving the pumps in the back less visible to the street.

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The Church’s is no gem either. I believe these types of buildings, not their uses, do more to detract from the loop experience than the addition of a chain noodle shop in an urban building. I’d have not problems with the Church’s in a more urban building form sans drive-thru.

But let’s say you want to make sure you keep attracting the eclectic crowd, not minivans full of suburban families? The Loop merchants need to take a look at the street and see what is missing for their core market. Warning, this is morphing into a brief bike rack rant:
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I stopped by the loop earlier today just to briefly snap a few pictures of the Streetside Records building and in the few minutes I was there I noticed four bicycles in front of several shops across the street.

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Two parking meters, a sign post and finally a tree. Wait, what is that in the background? Yes, an old fashioned “dish drainer” style of bike rack. These are horrible, no wonder none of these cyclists decided to use it. First, it doesn’t look well secured — someone could steal the bike & rack. Second, when you put your front tire between the smaller vertical bars it can warp your front rim. Place your mountain bike tire in the wide opening and the bike easily falls over (I don’t think most of these bikes had kick stands). It also makes it hard to lock the frame securely – especially when using U-shape locks as the first three are. The Loop group needs to think about proper bike racks if they plan to keep their core customers.

But the debate really isn’t about chains, gas stations or even bike racks, it is about money. As owners of buildings decide to retire or when they die the buildings get sold for current market value. As such, new owers seek to recoup their investments with higher rents. Chain stores with deep pockets or local franchisee’s seeking to establish a business seek out thriving areas like the Loop.   Do places that can’t afford the newer rents need to think about relocating to other commercial districts in their price range? Of course, if many of the local places leave that will hurt the chains as well as they moved in because of the foot traffic the area generated. Areas can become so popular they hurt themselves.

The RFT article talks about a “tipping point” of having too many chains to the point where people stop coming because a place has become too generic. The problem is, in my view, is that is so hard to quantify. What number of chain restaurants or retailers is the right number? Is it simply quantity or a percentage of the streetfront or square footage? Maybe some retail experts have done some research but then I’d want to know who paid for the reseach.

My advice to the smaller local merchants: get a long term lease, buy your building, plan for higher rents in the future or think about options for new locations.

 

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