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Do Drive-thru Fates Depend on the Concept?

The battle over restaurant drive-thru service has motored into St. Paul. Thus far in 2020, two requests have met very different fates. 

A Starbucks coffee café planned for the Highland neighborhood’s Sibley Plaza shopping center had its city staff site plan review in early February, with a goal of a construction start this summer. That follows December approval of a needed conditional use permit from the St. Paul Planning Commission.

But a proposal to replace a Midway neighborhood Taco Bell and retain its drive-thru service was shelved in January before its conditional use permit and variance request could be heard by the commission. Taco Bell owner Border Foods withdrew its request, meaning the current 1970s-era restaurant at 565 N. Snelling Ave. can remain in place and operate as is.

Taco Bell’s actions means neighbors may have less leverage to seek changes in what they considered to be a disruptive drive-thru, especially after bar closing time. The trade-off is that it drops a plan that would have put vehicles closer to adjacent homes.

The site has been occupied by a fast-foot restaurant for 47 years, first as Zapata. It was zoned commercial back then and was a permitted use with a conditional use permit. Under the new zoning code adopted in 1975, the property was zoned for general business use. Its zoning changed again to traditional neighborhoods use.

What has historically caused difficulty for neighbors is that the original permit lacks conditions to limit late-night operations. City staff found in 1973 meeting minutes that a Zapata representative indicated the restaurant would close at 11 p.m. weekdays and 1 or 2 a.m. weekends. Zapata’s successors, including Taco Bell, have used the permit subject to the 1973 permit. But hours were never written into the original permit itself. 

All drive-thru services in St. Paul require conditional-use permits. Because restaurant owner Border Foods wanted to tear down the Snelling Avenue restaurant and build a new one, a new conditional use permit was required. The new restaurant plans also brought a requirement for a modification for the restaurant separation between a drive-thru lane from the nearest adjacent residential property. A minimum 60-foot separation is required, and 24 feet was proposed.

Some neighborhood activists have called for St. Paul to follow Minneapolis’ lead and ban new drive-thru services of all types. Minneapolis’ ban took effect last year and has already blocked two shuttered Burger King restaurants from reopening and using their drive-thru lanes. The two restaurants had been closed for more than a year and lost “grandfathering” rights, which would have allowed the drive-thru lanes to continue operating.

In St. Paul, enacting a similar ban would require the Planning Commission to launch a zoning study. Such studies are typically initiated by the City Council, then conducted by planning staff and commission committees. While the notion of a ban on new drive-thru services has been raised, Planning Director Luis Pereira said the commission and city staff already have a backlog of study requests for other zoning issues.

Planning Commission members have expressed mixed feelings about such a ban, with some saying the lanes cause conflicts between motor vehicles and pedestrians, a contradiction in a city trying to be more walkable. Commissioners have said the services meet a need, especially for people with disabilities. Another point is that few requests are seen for new drive-through services, which require conditional use permits from the Planning Commission. 

In the two recent cases, one factor was neighborhood sentiment. Little opposition was heard to Starbucks. Highland District Council (HDC) supports the request for the coffee café’s needed conditional-use permit. HDC Executive Director Kathy Carruth said area residents are clamoring for development at the strip mall, which is still partially empty after a facelift.

Another factor was how the Starbucks would be designed, with queuing space in the shopping center property for more than a dozen vehicles, and additional space in the mall parking lot as needed. Planning Commission members were satisfied that the design wouldn’t block area streets.

But Taco Bell met with staunch opposition at a neighborhood meeting in late 2019, and its neighborhood district council Hamline Midway Coalition (HMC) voted to recommend denial of its conditional use permit and variance of minimum distance from residences. 

Until recently the restaurant drive-thru was staying open until 4 or 5 a.m., but had trimmed back its hours before seeking the new conditional-use permit.

City staff recommended denial of the request. This was Taco Bell’s second try in less than five years to replace the restaurant. 

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