Lilligren pushing to legalize liquor sales at several Southwest event centers

Several Southwest event centers, some that have skirted the city’s liquor laws for more than a decade to serve alcohol, might soon be able to fill wine and beer glasses legally.

During a blanket zoning change in 1999, several properties such as Semple Mansion at 100 W. Franklin Ave., Van Dusen Center at 1900 LaSalle Ave. and Gale Mansion at 2115 Stevens Ave. were rezoned “office-residential,” making alcohol sales illegal at the sites according to the city charter.

“I think the idea was to encourage office redevelopment and job creation and have it be more consistent with a residential area,” said City Council Member Robert Lilligren (6th Ward).

But many of the rezoned mansions hosted weddings and other parties at which alcohol was served. Some have been serving alcohol through temporary permits issued from the state; a practice Lilligren said still goes against the city’s charter.

“We all know this is going on but in theory we shouldn’t be allowing it,” he said.  

Lilligren is hoping to change that by introducing an amendment that will allow the rezoned event centers to be issued a liquor license. City staff and elected officials have turned a blind eye to the issue for years, since alcohol sales at the mansions never caused any problems, Lilligren said.

“Part of the reason it goes unresolved is because there’s really no huge urgency to resolve it,” he said. “I would guess if we had an operator that was very negligent and whose business was having a really negative impact on the community, we’d probably hear a lot more about it.”

But there’s still reason to make a change now, Lilligren said.

“It’s not a good thing to allow businesses to be out of compliance with their zoning,” he said. “Zoning is one of the strongest tools a municipality has to direct the development and the activity within the city limits, so it’s in our best interest to protect the integrity of our zoning.”

The Boiler Room Café, 1820 3rd Ave. S., is among the properties that could benefit from Lilligren’s amendment. Alcohol isn’t sold at the coffee shop now, but manager Ruth Kostik said it’s something the business and building owner has talked about exploring.

“I definitely think if (the owner) decides to go with that in the future it would be a great addition to the neighborhood because there isn’t anything really close by,” Kostik said.

Christine Viken, former owner Van Dusen, said some event centers that violated the city’s restrictions made the playing field uneven among other centers that stayed law-abiding. The law was interpreted differently from property to property and simply ignored at some.

“We were not allowed to have a cash bar, as the law was represented to us,” Viken said in an email. “This put our event center at a disadvantage, as a cash bar is favored by many for its ability to pass the cost of the liquor on to the guests. There were some event venues that violated (those) restrictions, which certainly gave them a leg up on bookings, especially those events booked by less affluent hosts.”

Kristi Oman, owner of the Semple Mansion, said the building only hosts dry events or requires guests to provide their own alcohol. She said she knows some of her competitors are less law-abiding, but it hasn’t had much of an impact on her business.

Steven Gallagher, executive director of the Stevens Square Community Organization, said the mansions in the area are assets that give back to the community by sponsoring and hosting neighborhood events. Allowing them to serve alcohol would probably not cause any controversy, he said.

“It just seems like it’s logical to have places like that be able to serve alcohol and it is kind of hurting them that they’re not able to right now,” he said.

Lilligren said he first brought up the liquor compliance issue a year and a half ago and city staff has been gradually working on it. He was hoping to get the issue resolved this year.  

Minneapolis spokesman Matt Laible said a staff report and proposed amendment would be presented to the City Council once research is complete.

“Regulatory Services staff are looking forward to getting input from the community and the industry on how liquor catering would impact Minneapolis,” Laible said. “And that input is a valuable part of their research.”

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or [email protected].