How much power do neighborhood groups have?

Some neighborhood boards think their opinion matters at City Hall more than it does — as Tangletown leaders found out

On a recent, crisp fall morning, City Councilmember Scott Benson sat alone at Francine’s Coffee Caffee, reading the newspaper. Attendance at his late-September "Coffee with Scott" meeting was sparse, to say the least. "Sometimes five people show up, sometimes 20," said the 11th Ward representative, adding with a laugh, "Sometimes I get to read the paper."

Someone who’d been to the Tangletown Neighborhood Association (TNA) meeting a week earlier might’ve been surprised to see Benson get any quiet time. They might’ve expected to see him surrounded by angry neighbors shouting "Unbank!" at him.

"Unbank" is the brand name of the business that TNA board members voted against 6-1 in April. The locally owned check-cashing business had come to TNA as part of the city approval process to move into a strip mall at 4612 Nicollet Ave.

Katie Mark, TNA member for seven years, said Unbank’s request "was completely shot down" at what she called "a very hot board meeting."

Board members say they thought that Benson, their representative, would make sure that the matter was shot down at City Hall, too.

Said Mark, "We’re just mortified that [TNA’s opposition] wasn’t given enough credence to deny the permit. We just thought this isn’t going to fly, and we thought we made it plain and clear."

The neighborhood group sent a letter opposing Unbank’s proposal to the city’s Planning Department. The Department included a summary of the letter in its report to the city’s Planning Commission — which recommended approval of Unbank’s request.

TNA president Karen Larson said, "We’re up in arms because we thought that our letter and our vote to oppose would carry more weight than it really did."

"There are instances where your hands are tied," Benson explained of the permit-approval process Downtown. "It’s kind of unfair because I want to be fighting for the neighbors."

Unsavory Unbank Mark said the check-cashing business caters to "unsavory-type people who maybe have a criminal record and can’t get a checking account or have such bad credit…I don’t know who those people are that need check-cashing services, but it just doesn’t sound good. Doesn’t look good, doesn’t sound good."

Stuart Tapper, vice president and an owner of the chain of Unbanks, responded, "Those are the types of things that agitate me. My customers are anyone that you see, [who,] for a variety of reasons, could need my services."

Tapper said his business offers customers more than check-cashing. Its other services and products include money transfers, stamps and envelopes, direct-pay billing services with over 50 companies (AT&T, Xcel, Time Warner and Qwest among them), money orders, prepaid long-distance cards, a notary service, prepaid credit cards and more.

"We’ve got people that for some reason maybe they forget to pay their bills. Well, instead of having their bill go late, they’ll come in and make their bill payment with us. Or they’re about to have their phone cut off. So you tell me: who could possibly have their phone cut off. Is it only criminals? I would say that that’s 100 percent inaccurate," Tapper said.

Responded Mark, "I don’t know what kind of person needs that. If it’s a service for immigrants, great. But it’s one of those not-in-my-backyard issues. Why don’t you put it where they can use it, where they need it?"

Explained Larson, "Our residential makeup isn’t really a lot of immigrants or poverty, so it doesn’t really seem like it would fit us. It’s hard to explain some of that stuff without sounding classist or racist. It’s not a comfortable topic," she said.

Mike McAneney was TNA’s president when Unbank made its proposal this spring. He lives right behind where the Unbank will open its doors.

"I think the reason they’re going in there is not to serve Tangletown, or because they think they’re going to serve Tangletown, but because it’s a major business intersection and a bus transfer point," he said. "They won’t be serving the people buying the $4 lattes at Caribou Coffee, but they may be serving the people who make the $4 lattes at Caribou."

Said Tapper, "To have that feeling that a retail is designed only for the residents of that area, I would say that’s sort of a nave position."

Tapper is part of the group that owns the Nicollet Avenue strip mall where the Unbank will soon open. The mall is also home to a Caribou Coffee shop, Subway sandwiches shop, Tobacco Warehouse, Snyder Drug Store, Fresh Wok Chinese restaurant, Cost Cutters Family Hair Care, Pepitos Mexi-Go Deli and National Karate School.

"Are they upset about the people Subway brings into the area?" Tapper asked. "How about the karate studio? Are they upset about the people Caribou Coffee draws into the neighborhood?

"It’s funny that everyone gets up in arms," he added, "[But] there was not a single person that came to the [Planning Commission’s June 2] meeting, and not one single person [from TNA] voiced an objection to it. Matter of fact, the city had recommended approval of it. There wasn’t even any discussion because no one showed up to voice any concern."

Mark said, "We assumed that it would never pass because our experience working with Dor Mead, when she was city councilmember, was that things do not get past the Planning Commission if the neighborhood doesn’t want it. Because who does the commission represent? Us. So the neighborhoods are in the best position to evaluate what’s best for the neighborhood."

Legally speaking However, neighborhood objections — while potent politically — are only one piece of the urban planning puzzle.

Unbank is one of many businesses required to get a conditional-use permit before opening its doors. Other such businesses include movie theaters, auto repair shops, antique stores, shopping centers, residential complexes with more than five units and tobacco stores.

Hilary Watson, a senior city planner who evaluated Unbank’s request, said a conditional-use permit report "just typically means [the request] needs a bit more review…you want to look at the traffic, the noise, the availability of parking."

She said her job is to look at what sort of impact a business will have on neighbors and nearby businesses and how well the request dovetails with the city’s zoning code and comprehensive plan. She said Unbank’s location raised no red flags.

"To me, it’s a bank," Watson said. "In my opinion, the neighborhood felt that this would draw people that weren’t wanted in the neighborhood. I can’t define for you what that group of

people is."

Watson’s report informs Planning Commission decisions.

"One of the reasons we have a Planning Commission is to somewhat remove these decisions from the political process," said Benson, a lawyer, as he sipped his coffee at Francine’s, 5155 Bloomington Ave. "I’m not sure who had the impression that we could stop it [Unbank’s proposal] because I don’t think we would ever have communicated that."

The Commission has 10 members, including four designated by the mayor and City Council. After the Planning Department issues its report and recommendation, the Commission votes on the matter. Appeals of its decision must be filed within 10 days; the appeals go to the City Council’s Planning and Zoning Committee.

No one from TNA appealed the Commission’s Unbank approval.

"In the past, all it took was a letter," Mack said. "We’ve never shown up at a hearing."

Said McAneney, "I suppose, seeing after the fact how staunchly people are opposed to it, maybe there should have been more follow-up than simply sending the letter. Should I have encouraged people to go to the Commission hearing to further oppose it? Perhaps. In hindsight, people are still so upset about it, perhaps a neighborhood presence could have done something."

Rallying the troops Benson said it would’ve been improper for him to speak on behalf of the neighborhood group before the Planning Commission.

"It’s not proper for the councilmember to be rallying the troops," said Benson. "The City Attorney’s office has definitely pounded this into our heads."

He said the appropriate legal role for a councilmember is to reserve judgment on all planning issues until there’s a City Council vote. If a councilmember takes a position before the Commission, he or she couldn’t vote on the matter at the Council.

"We typically do not take a position on these things until we’re ready to vote in a Council meeting," Benson said. "I think to do so would require recusal, and if you don’t recuse yourself, you’re probably acting unethically and illegally.

"Frankly, it’s a lot to expect for our neighborhood groups to be able to sort through all that," he said of the city’s planning process. "I don’t blame people for not getting it. It took a long time for us to get it."

He plans to conduct what he calls "Z&P 101," a crash course in the subtleties of zoning and planning, for TNA board members, to familiarize them with their own roles in the process and with the roles of others as well.

"In this case, [a neighborhood vote] would’ve been advisory to the Planning Commission," Benson noted.

Councilmembers typically ask neighborhood groups to give their opinions and advice on rezonings, variances to zoning and conditional-use permits — but when legalities are at stake, these amount to elaborate courtesy calls.

A retired attorney, Mark said she’d keep her four young children away from Unbank and the strip mall where it was scheduled to open Oct. 1.

"That’s why I care about these issues, not because of anything else but [her kids]," she said.

Tapper insisted there’s little for Mark and her neighbors to worry about.

"Most of their fears are unfounded and just truly out of that they just

don’t know," he said. "Unfortunately, in this world, there will always be people who will object. Believe me, we’re not forcing anyone to come in and use any of our services. I think that they will find out that we’re not a problem to the neighborhood."