No parking, no problem?

The vacant building at 871 Payne Ave. could be bringing in a new tenant, a pre-paid cell phone store, if the building owner gets his way. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

Prospective cell phone storefront looks to skip parking requirement

Steve Rorem, a real estate investor based in Eden Prairie, wants to dodge the Payne Avenue parking bullet.

In order to bring in a tenant to the former furniture warehouse at 871 Payne Ave., he has to convince the St. Paul Board of Zoning Appeals to give him a variance on the property.

Rorem bought the building about a year ago, and Swan Leasing, the company he owns, has been looking for two tenants to fill the space ever since.

He found one in a cell phone company called Cricket Wireless, to the dismay of some East Side residents.

It was only a few months ago, after renovation plans had been drawn up by an architect, that he faced the same parking issue that has troubled many new businesses on Payne Avenue.

Swan Leasing hasn’t lined up any deals for the other half of the building.

Ed Bertges, who owns Schweitz Saloon and has been struggling to get the place back open, said much of his struggle has had to do with parking. Similarly, the owners of Ward 6 had to find additional parking in order to open the restaurant.

By current city code, the building Rorem bought would need nine parking spaces to bring in the cell phone store, and has none to speak of.

So, Rorem went before the Payne-Phalen District Council’s Community Planning and Economic Development board looking for support in advance of a May 28 city hearing.

Board members weighed a decision whether to voice support of Rorem’s request, while taking into consideration the larger picture of parking on the growing commercial corridor.

“A business is a business on the avenue, and that’s certainly what we want,” said one board member. But on the other hand, she said, there are already a number of cell phone stores nearby, and she noted some neighbors were opposed to adding another.

Robin Kennedy from Donald’s Apparel, located just down the street, said the clients at the current cell phone stores “are not the type of clientele we want in our area.”

She also claimed Cricket Wireless has a reputation of going into low-income neighborhoods.

“I think they prey on impoverished people and that bothers me,” she said. “It’s not a business that brings anything to the table for this community.”
Beyond wanting to find someone to pay rent on the facility, Rorem noted that the empty building is visible blight -- “it’s the thing you see right on the corner... it’s a visual thing.”

Payne-Phalen resident James Lockwood said that despite his personal hang-ups with the type of store going in, “Cricket is a legitimate business. ... It’s like a White Castle for the wireless community,” he said. At the very least, it would mean “bringing an actual tenant” to the avenue.

Parking a pain on Payne

Anne DeJoy, director of commercial development at the East Side Neighborhood Development Company, put Rorem’s issue into a larger context of parking on the avenue.

“There is a parking deficiency on Payne Avenue,” she said. “ESNDC has been working on parking since I started in 2005.”

DeJoy said the existing supply of parking means it’s hard for existing businesses to expand.

While she said city code requirements are unrealistic for the avenue, which was built at a time when horses were a main form of transportation, parking is still sorely needed along the street.

DeJoy said ESNDC is working with business owners nearby to put together a 42-stall parking lot on Wells Avenue, just to the west of Payne. But, a $50,000 funding gap remains.

When prodded by board members, Rorem said Swan Leasing could be interested in investing in the lot, but was noncommittal.

Al Oertwig, president of the Payne-Phalen Community Council, noted that if the parking variance is granted, Rorem and Swan Leasing have “no obligation to work with the other businesses whatsoever” on a parking solution for the corridor at large.

The variance would hold as long as the building was occupied.

The CPED board voted 11-3 in favor of recommending Rorem get the variance for the building, with the condition that he make a good faith effort to work with other property owners to address the parking problem at large.

The variance request will be considered by the St. Paul Board of Zoning Appeals on Thursday, May 28.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at Follow him on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.


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