17 September 2008

New Belleville Cafe? Not Yet Says Council

When someone starts a news-intensive site or blog, you expect to hear from people when you openly ask for their stories. This story is about a building in Belleville which was built for a prominent business man around 100 years ago. More recently, the building was a tavern with a less-than-stellar reputation in its part of town. But it is also a story about those who purchased that same property with hopes to reopen the building as a nice neighborhood cafe. But it seems, also, to be about the awareness of the project and how it may be misunderstood by neighbors, city officials, and civic groups.

THE (not-so-abridged) STORY:

A recent Zoning Board recommendation in Belleville to the city's council was to approve the change of zoning to a building at 400 Mascoutah Avenue from residential to commercial. The full Belleville city council met on Monday, September 15,and after a discussion and public hearing in which two more residents spoke against the zoning change than in favor of the proposal --- the full board voted on the variance issue. Certainly the 4 - 2 vote by the zoning commission sounded favorable. However the owners of that building, which once housed a bakery a century ago, now have their hands full because the aldermanic council voted 14 to 1 AGAINST the variance which would have resulted in an operational neighborhood cafe.

For now, there sits a vacant historic building in a residential neighborhood.

Angela Prosser and Mike Lieb have names. They have an all-American dream to own their own business. They bought a large brick structure at 400 Mascoutah Avenue in Belleville with plans to fix up what was most recently a tavern that had run its course and transform the building into a local cafe. Unlike the tavern, they figured it would be easy to open in a nice neighborhood if they were serving sandwiches, soups, hot dogs, ice cream and other desserts, perhaps coffee and teas. Like any entrepreneurial group, they hope to make enough money to offset their plans which include the rehabilitation of the entire building so they may also live in the upstairs apartment. Angela told News St. Louis before the Monday night meeting that their plans had not yet stalled, but added that they ran into some opposition by select neighbors. She also said that in Bob Blaies and Paul Seibert, the two Ward Six alderman, they received no support.

Prosser says she and Lieb are apparently are not the only business people who have bought a property located within Belleville in recent months and found a possible flaw in local legislation. She maintains others with the same entrepreneurial spirit sought to purchase "empty commercial buildings (all over) in Belleville that can not be financed by...banks because of the zoning." And she maintains that many of those buildings "sit in limbo, unusable," and believes the reason is because "zoning laws changed" each commercial building to residential. In the case of the potential "Cafe 400", Angela Prosser says she and Mike Lieb "asked the city before we bought the building if there were any known issues --- and they said if we did not have a liquor license they saw no issue." It is her opinion that the city officials were saying "They thought it was a good idea." But now Prosser says they later were told by the city that since the property had been vacant for more than a year, 400 Mascoutah had automatically reverted to an "A1 residential property" and she adds that it was the aldermen who told them its status could not be changed. That proved to be the case at the aldermanic meeting --- although the board could have voted in favor of the zoning variance --- the recommendation of the zoning commission --- if they had felt the proposal was better than having the building stay vacant.

Back a few months, the couple looked into the situation. They studied the potential problems, addressed those issues with some of the neighbors, and, having taken the issue to the Zoning Commission recently, they received the commission's okay to put the issue before the full Belleville Council for a vote. That is the overwhelming "no" vote which took place on Monday evening.

As Mike and Angela pieced together plans to open the cafe, they came to realize that the large two-story building has historic value. Said Prosser, "The building is 3000 square feet. It was built in 1907 as a bakery for...the president of the Bakers' Union." She says it was that man's dream "to run his own bakery, as is it is ours to rehab his dream building and run it as a cafe."

Apparently that idea may be a problem to members of the group known as Citizens Reviving Historic Belleville. The local non-profit group's website MISSION STATEMENT is: "To protect, promote and share the wealth of our historical architecture and our unique cultural heritage." That statement sounds benign enough, but according to Prosser, at least one member of the historic group has been a voice against the renovating of the building at 400 Mascoutah Avenue.
It was the hope of both Lieb and Prosser that the public show up to the council meeting whether for or against their proposal and speak out on behalf of the idea of a local building being used for a small neighborhood business. Their theory is that most people would agree that it is time to renew the city's neighborhoods with small businesses that serve the locals.

Apparently 14 Belleville aldermen/alderwomen don't agree.

It's back to the drawing board for Lieb and Prosser.

Two Belleville area residents hoping to open a neighborhood cafe in an historic building had their proposal go before the city council on Monday night and came up empty. Angela Prosser and Mike Lieb bought the century-old brick building at 400 Mascoutah Avenue and told News St. Louis before the aldermanic meeting that they had run into opposition by some, including Ward Six supporters of ongoing historic preservation. Prosser says the zoning commission recently gave preliminary approval to have the former bakery re-zoned commercial following a stage "in limbo" as a residential building because the property sat vacant for more than one year. Although she hoped for public support of Cafe 400, Prosser and Lieb found the majority of residents who attended and spoke out were against their proposed neighborhood-based small business. The two owners are now considering their options, including resubmitting their plans following a revision of the proposed hours of operation.

We'll keep you posted.

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