Taco Bell cannot replace its longtime restaurant at 565 N. Snelling Ave. On a unanimous vote Sept. 16, 2020, the St. Paul City Council upheld an appeal by Hamline Midway Coalition (HMC) and overturned an August Planning Commission decision approving the planned new restaurant’s needed conditional use permit.
The current restaurant, which is in a building dating from 1973, can remain open with its existing drive-through hours. Operations can continue under the current conditional use permit, which allows for closing as late at 3 a.m. on weekends and 2 a.m. on weekdays.
The restaurant has been a flash point over the years, with opponents contending it is a magnet for disruptive late-night behavior. There are also questions about having a drive-through restaurant at a time when many activists are calling for more walkable neighborhoods. Its property was recently rezoned from commercial to traditional neighborhoods use as part of a larger neighborhood-wide rezoning process.
Taco Bell owner Border Foods has tried in recent years to get a new conditional use permit to rebuild the restaurant, but has met mixed community reaction. Border Foods contends its latest plans would meet all of the needed requirements for a new conditional use permit, and that a new restaurant would be an improvement to the neighborhood with more distance from nearby homes, better traffic flow and a more attractive building. One issue cited in written and Planning Commission testimony is the demand for drive-through food service during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Planning Commission Zoning Committee voted to recommend denial of the permit, saying it didn’t meet the required conditions. Another issue the committee raised is the difficulty in revoking a conditional use permit if there are violations. That’s been the case with the controversial Starbucks at Marshall and Snelling avenues, which has caused traffic backups over the past several years.
But the full Planning Commission approved the permit, with some commissioners questioning if objections were based more on restaurant clientele than on land use issues.
Ward Four Council Member Mitra Jalali said the vote isn’t about whether or not people like a particular business, or who goes there. The issue is one of land use and of meeting all five conditions required for the permit. Jalali contends that not all standards are met.
Granting the permit and allowing a new restaurant isn’t in substantial compliance with the city’s comprehensive plan, Jalali said. The plan calls for the Snelling area to be a mixed-use corridor, with compact commercial uses and a walkable feel for the area. Building a drive-through and a large parking is contrary to the compact commercial development the plan calls for and doesn’t give priority to pedestrians.
HMC’s appeal stated, “Border Foods has deliberately chosen an auto-centric, non-conforming building plan. The applicant is also proposing 18 off-street parking spaces, more than 200 percent over the maximum allowed for restaurants within a light rail transit station area. Although this is a reduction from the existing 1973 site plan we expect the city to evaluate development based on the standards in the 2040 St. Paul Comprehensive Plan.” The district council urged Border Foods to build a larger structure that would better service more pedestrians and transit users.
Other council members supported the appeal. Ward Seven Council Member Jane Prince, who served as Ward Four council aide for a decade, was surprised that the restaurant can stay open until 3 a.m. noting the business backs up to a residential neighborhood.
The council considered written testimony. No one testified in person due to the pandemic. The permit and appeal drew more than a dozen written comments from St. Paul residents, most in opposition to the new permit and restaurant.