Minneapolis ordinance change clears way for boutique hotel over Restaurant Alma

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Minneapolis chef Alex Roberts envisions a casual dining spot that will combine a coffee shop and bar in the front with table service in the rear. The six-room boutique hotel would occupy the second story.

Minneapolis chef Alex Roberts wanted to do something different with a building he bought in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood. On the second story of the historic building that houses his Restaurant Alma is enough space for a boutique hotel with just six rooms. Roberts had been inspired by a similar project above a Chicago restaurant called Longman and Eagle.

Great idea, except for the fact that at the time — under Minneapolis law — it was illegal. As he started exploring the boutique hotel concept, Roberts found that the city doesn’t allow hotels with fewer than 50 rooms outside downtown. And the code goes on to block hotels of any size in the zone where Alma sits on University Avenue SE — a type of zone dubbed Commercial Activity Center (C3A in zoning-speak). Only large commercial areas such as Uptown, Stadium Village and St. Anthony Main could legally house a hotel.

No one is sure why small hotels were banned outside of downtown. One theory was that smaller places sounded like motels, with a reputation for being cheap, even sleazy. Another was that small hotels might actually be brothels; Minneapolis had a history of tolerating prostitution as long as it stayed in areas like the river district of downtown.

History aside, those quirks of the city code are now, well, history. A unanimous city council Friday voted for a broad rewrite of the hotel rules.

In anticipation, Roberts submitted plans to the city for his project on Thursday. First he wants to convert the ground floor space next to Alma where a Dunn Bros. coffee shop was. He envisions a casual dining spot that will combine a coffee shop and bar in the front with table service in the rear.

Above will be the hotel with six rooms. The restaurant and hotel spaces are being designed by James Dayton Design. The contractor is Diversified Construction. Roberts hopes for city approval by September and estimates construction to take five months.

“It’s going really well,” Roberts said. “We’re just being patient with the city.”

In the meantime the restaurant space is being used by Northern Spark for its arts projects. There will be an open house in September to view the installation and see the building, Roberts said.

Roberts said he knows people in the neighborhood miss Dunn Brothers because every day he sees people park and dash to the now-closed coffee shop. “We feel bad on the one hand but feel good about bringing something back that we think will be a better experience.”

Council Member Jacob Frey sponsored the changes. He’d been approached by Roberts once his idea ran into city code. He’d also been discouraged by the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association to abandon plan A — a request to upzone the neighborhood surrounding his building. Such a move would have allowed the hotel but it also would have allowed a lot of other uses permitted in large commercial nodes but not the toned-down Commercial Activity Centers.

Frey was willing. But once he started looking at the code he realized it had bigger problems than the one uncovered by Roberts. A six-month review and rewrite followed, culminating in Friday’s vote. Before it was approved, however, it was amended at the urging of Council Member Lisa Goodman to keep current bans on hotels with 20 or more rooms in mid-range commercial zones, such as around Loring Park.

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