For Mulroys, exciting renovation hinges on rezoning

Update: On April 30, city staff recommended that the Planning Commission deny Mulroy’s rezoning request.

“The rezoning to C2 would also introduce redevelopment possibilities that could be detrimental to the public health, safety, comfort or general welfare, because of their character or scale,” the staff report stated. 

Owner Pat Mulroy said today that he was “disappointed” by the staff recommendation and had not yet decided if he will either pull the application or wait to see if the Planning Commission and City Council vote against the recommendation.

Pat Mulroy has an ambitious vision for his auto body shop at 39th and Nicollet.

He wants to tear up his parking lot in order to install a geothermal system that will heat and cool his facility. He wants to build a storm water runoff system in the same lot that will collect rainwater that will be recycled and used to wash cars. He wants to completely remodel his office, because sinking soils have caused his floors to slant and slope. 

But because of his building’s strange zoning, he’s uncertain about how much he wants to invest in his building. Believe it or not, Mulroy’s Auto Body, a 25,000-square-foot facility, is zoned as residential. 

On May 7, the Minneapolis Planning Commission will consider rezoning his property to C2, which is known as a neighborhood corridor commercial district. If he gets the rezoning, he will do the work in the summer of 2013, when the city rebuilds Nicollet Avenue. 

“We’re going to remodel for the future,” Mulroy said. “We have extra space we can use for startup businesses to come in. What we’ve tried to do since we moved down here is create activity during the day, sometimes in the evenings and weekends.”

Mulroy and his wife Donna have been operating his business with something called a non-conforming use granted to him by the city in 2004. While that has allowed him to run his auto body shop that has been in the family for 51 years, it has created a whole mess of other problems. 

Mulroy can hang only one small sign on the front of his building. He can’t stay open past 5 p.m., even if he’s backed up with work after a hail storm or a slippery day on the roads. He can’t open on Saturdays, even when insurance companies are looking for price quotes. 

Most importantly, Mulroy says, is that he had to empty his building of three tenants when both he and the city realized he wasn’t allowed to rent to certain business types due to his residential zoning. 

Mulroy has about 5,000 square feet of space available, and has previously used the area as an incubator for small businesses, including ReGo, a company that converts hybrid vehicles into plug-in vehicles. ReGo has since opened its own shop at 60th and Nicollet. 

He had been renting the space to Golden Leopard Martial Arts Center, Katy Schmaty jewelry shop and a small painting business. 

When Mulroy went to the city for permission to hang three signs that he had purchased, the city found out he wasn’t allowed to have the tenants and he had to move them out after their respective leases expired. They were all gone by July 2011. 

He could only hang one sign, on the front of his building. The other two have been sitting in cardboard boxes in his office for years, as customers frequently drive past the shop from the north because they can’t see a sign. 

Mulroy, when he bought the place in 2004, asked the city to rezone the land from residential to C4, which allows the most uses of any commercial district. He was denied the rezoning request. 

This time around, he has gotten at least 75 percent of neighbors within 100 feet to support the rezoning, a requirement before he can apply.

In December, the Kingfield Neighborhood Association Board discussed Mulroy’s request, but never took a vote on it. A Kingfield redevelopment committee had supported the request, and Board Member Arthur Knowles made a motion to recommend the rezoning.

Knowles couldn’t get a second as some board members had questions and concerns. 

Sarah Linnes-Robinson, executive director of the neighborhood association, said the board had concerns about the long-term implications of rezoning the property to C2. The board, she says, supports several of his ideas, like added signage for new businesses and a second entryway for his tenants. 

But Linnes-Robinson said that the Mulroy’s space is unique because unlike most of Nicollet, its lot is about half as deep. Most of Nicollet’s west side has a full block before it becomes residential. But the Mulroy’s property has a one-block street between Nicollet and Blaisdell. It’s called Van Nest Avenue and homes are built right up the back of Mulroy’s facility.  

“C2 leaves us with a property that is zoned pretty intensely for neighbors that live on the backside,” Linnes-Robinson said. “Zoning decisions shouldn’t be based on whether he’s a good guy or not.”

Matt Perry, president of the Nicollet-East Harriet Business Association, said he has heard no complaints against Mulroy’s and also noted that 13 other properties on Nicollet Avenue south of Lake Street are zoned C2, including one just a block north of Mulroy’s. 

“The C2s already exist,” he said. “It’s not an unusual thing to have a C2 on [Nicollet].”

Mulroy says he’s been a good business owner and responsible neighbor — claims that have been validated at City Hall and in the community. He said his two children will run the business when he retires, just as he did when his dad retired. 

“I’ve been here through four mayors and five city council presidents. We’re not going anywhere.” Mulroy said. “When you make the kind of investments I am making, we’re going to be here a while.”

Mulroy’s proposal also would move his delivery door from Van Nest to his parking lot, which would reduce the delivery traffic on Van Nest by 80 percent, he said. 

The rezoning of Mulroy’s could open the door for a farmers market at his parking lot. David Brauer, board chair of the Kingfield Farmers Market, said roughly three years ago Mulroy approached the market about moving to his parking lot. Before the market could even consider it, however, Mulroy’s needed to be rezoned. 

Brauer said the Kingfield Farmers Market is happy at its current location in the lot of Frensius Medical Care, 4310 Nicollet Ave. S. But he said the market would listen to Mulroy if he got his property rezoned. 

“We love Pat. He’s a great guy. He’s super community-oriented. He has pretty much improved everything he has touched in the neighborhood,” Brauer said. “So anytime a neighborhood business owner like that really, really wants you, you’ve got to listen.”

Brauer said Mulroy has run a good business in Kingfield. 

 “Regardless of what happens with our market, it he wants to do something cool for the neighborhood on his site, he should be able to,” Brauer said. He’s certainly proved his worth.”

Mulroy installed solar panels atop his building in 2010. He said he has invested over $1 million in the building since he purchased it in 2010.  

Council Member Elizabeth Glidden (Ward 8) represents the area and lives a couple blocks away. She said she can’t comment on rezoning applications until they’re before her in a committee meeting, but did praise Mulroy for being a good business owner. She’s never received a complaint from neighbors about Mulroy’s to her office. 

“In general, it’s a very popular neighborhood business. I think he tries hard to be a good neighbor,” she said. “He’s continually investing in his business. He’s devoted to the neighborhood.”

Linnes-Robinson said she would like for the city to work on some protections for the neighborhood before rezoning. 

“Are there ways to say that, ‘yes, we agree with what Pat wants to do for the businesses, but can we put additional restrictions on the impacts that he and future businesses could possible have on immediate residential problems?’” she said.