The rule comes from a more puritan age, when cities thought it wise to keep their innocents away from debauchery and sin. In St. Paul, that meant no liquor licenses were granted within 300 feet of a school or house of worship.
It might have been a tad unconstitutional, effectively granting religions veto power over land use. But the occasional collision was never enough to stir much of a fuss.
Then, last December, St. Paul Conservatory for Performing Artists issued a protest. The city had granted a license to the Gray Duck Tavern the year before. Since it was within 300 feet from the downtown school, board members wanted said license suspended.
Only months earlier, a similar collision had taken place in Minneapolis. Strip club magnate Peter Hafiz hoped to open a topless bar at 415 First Ave. N. Yet the location was within 500 feet of 3 Degrees, a former Christian nightclub turned church. 3 Degrees protested to the city, which ruled in its favor.
St. Paul is about to take different approach. It’s considering killing off the religious buffer altogether, and exempting downtown schools from possessing veto power – unless they’re backed by five of the city's seven council members.
The rationale is simple: Schools and churches don’t stick to the more traditional neighborhood locales of old, and bars certainly aren’t the dens of iniquity they once were.
The Gray Duck is Exhibit A of the latter phenomenon. This is a place that serves $14 cocktails, $26 plates of Swedish meatballs, and something called “duck cassoulet.” Which means it’s not a place where young roosters pound 10 Bud Lights, then fight the jukebox for looking at them wrong. There is little danger of a nearby student being soiled in any way, save for overhearing a highly technical discussion of the Japanese derivative markets.
Yet there is a danger to St. Paul if it continues to grant veto power over its nightlife. Though Lowertown is thriving, the rest of downtown can carry the feel of a retirement community after 6 p.m. "Let's party like it's Scottsdale!" said no one ever.
So while the federal government regresses, and state government languishes in a partisan stand-off, cities have become the pathfinders in delivering us from our antiquated past. As the Pioneer Press notes, St. Paul has “shown no rush to comply” with the conservatory’s request. In fact, it seems to be doing the just opposite.