St. Paul: Several W. 7th Street businesses resist inclusion in downtown improvement district, say safety is priority

18 July 2023

At the Apostle Supper Club in downtown St. Paul, restaurateur Brian Ingram flinches before urging loiterers to mosey down the street.

“You ask them to move, they throw a brick through the window,” said Ingram on Tuesday. “Our windows get broken every single week.”

His two restaurants off the West Seventh Street business corridor — Apostle and Hope Breakfast Bar — have been broken into “probably a dozen times this year alone,” said Ingram, recounting how his establishments’ patio furniture tends to disappear and end up in a small homeless encampment across the street.

Not long ago, workers found a patron dead in the Apostle bathroom of an apparent drug overdose. In the past month or so, they’ve spotted three more apparent overdoses on the nearby sidewalk.

So when a business coalition invited Ingram to sign a petition in favor of expanding an existing Downtown Improvement District down West Seventh Street, Ingram declined. The prospect of being charged thousands of dollars to pay for street greeters, graffiti removal, litter pick-up and other services struck him as besides the point.

He’s looking for more fundamental assistance from the city.

“We need safety,” Ingram said.

Objections to proposed expansion

On Tuesday morning, a roomful of commercial property owners from throughout the proposed expansion area shared the same message with the leadership of the St. Paul Downtown Alliance, which launched the business improvement district in 2020.

Organized by Dave Cossetta of Cossetta Alimentari, the group — with 19 attendees — raised multiple objections to the prospect of being charged mandated new dues or membership fees for services several property owners said they already provide themselves.

“Businesses in St. Paul have done so much for the community and deserve to have a voice,” said Pat Boemer, owner of Patrick McGovern’s Pub. “Clean-up is not an issue. It’s really safety.”

The St. Paul City Council opened a public hearing on whether to expand the business improvement district last week, and will continue to take testimony on Wednesday. A vote on the new district boundaries may follow. Some property owners said they were just learning of the plan and said they will ask the council to hold off on making a final decision.

Expansion requires 25 percent consent by businesses

By state statute, expanding the downtown improvement district requires the consent — an active petition — from 25 percent of commercial property owners within the new boundaries.

On Tuesday, Boemer said that he and Tom Reid of Tom Reid’s Pub, who had already given their consent, likely would withdraw their approval, raising questions about whether the requisite threshold had been achieved. McGovern’s, for instance, has three properties — two adjoining buildings and a parking lot — so its ownership effectively has three votes.

And even if the newly-expanded district is approved by the city council, a petition from 35 percent of the commercial property owners could override the council decision.

Based on a formula that charges assessments to commercial buildings based on square footage and linear street frontage, Cossetta said his annual membership fee would add up to approximately $8,000. Even though they’re substantially larger, United Hospital and other Allina Health properties would pay about $15,000 because much of Allina’s holdings are classified as nonprofit rather than commercial property, leaving them partially exempt.

“We’re paying for United Hospital … and all these big entities, and we’re the small guys,” Boemer said.

All told, the combined new and existing district is expected to generate some $1.4 million in fees. Downtown Alliance officials said Tuesday that while residential properties are currently exempt, they hoped to include residents in the petition process within a year or so.

John Bandemer, director of safety strategies for the Downtown Alliance and the Business Improvement District, said he spent 31 years with the St. Paul Police Department. In many instances, his street team can react to incidents faster because they’re not spread through the entire city.

After a police report is filed, it might take two days for a break-in to get assigned to a police investigator, he said.

In contrast, within hours of receiving security video from Wells Fargo Place, he was recently able to share screen grabs from footage of a break-in at the dog leash store “Jack and the Pack” with private security personnel at 34 downtown locations by email and phone apps.

That level of innovation and cooperation just isn’t possible without the overarching structure of an improvement district, he said.

A visible difference

Joe Spencer, president of the St. Paul Downtown Alliance, said the existing Business Improvement District has made a visible difference in and around Rice Park, where downtown ambassadors, or street greeters, actively sweep up litter, aim to remove graffiti within 24 hours and offer a second set of eyes with a direct link to a dispatch center that communicates directly with St. Paul Police.

Spencer estimated that the greeters, employees of Louisville, Kentucky-based Block by Block, are successful in helping transient individuals move along from a commercial doorway some 80 percent of the time without involving police.

“There are people who are hostile who we are not going to be successful with. We are not solving for that 20 percent. But let’s say someone is asleep in your doorway, and your guests are just walking past them,” said Spencer, addressing Cossetta directly. “Eventually, somebody calls 911. Two officers are going to respond. That’s going to take two to three hours of their time. … That’s going to be two officers who are not on patrol for two or three hours.”

Scott Burns, a technology entrepreneur who has launched multiple businesses downtown, echoed similar sentiments on social media on Tuesday.

“The (Downtown) Alliance has made a huge difference in keeping downtown safe and clean,” said Burns, reacting to the discussion on Twitter. “It is not perfect, but we would be far worse off without it. … I hope we don’t just throw our hands up here and say there’s nothing we can do about downtown until it’s solved.”

Meanwhile, Cossetta, in a written letter of objection to the city, said he received official notice of the plans on July 12, rather than the requisite 10 days before last week’s public hearing. David A. Berg, owner of DJs Properties and Development parking lot, said he was never notified about the project, and wouldn’t have known about it if Cossetta had not contacted him.

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