Potential change in soup-kitchen zoning has businesses upset
CHAMPAIGN — City officials want to loosen the rules on soup kitchens and make sure they are allowed to serve food in central locations, but the move has North First Street business owners rankled.
City council members are likely to change zoning rules so that soup kitchens or "meal centers" for people who have no other means to get food are regulated exactly like for-profit restaurants. The zoning change would allow soup kitchens to open their doors wherever restaurants are allowed by city code.
But after hearing rumors that the Daily Bread Soup Kitchen is planning to move into the old Emerald City Lounge building in the 100 block of North First Street, area businesses asked the city council this week to leave the rules alone.
"People hanging out around my business, I don't think that would be a good look on First Street," said Samantha Carter, who owns Jazzie Looks Beauty Salon just a couple doors down.
Daily Bread leaders say they have not made any final decisions on a new site, but they want a standalone location where they can serve food seven days a week. Daily Bread is currently located in the New Covenant Fellowship church at 124 W. White St., C.
"Right now, no, we don't have a place," said Daily Bread board president Bob Goss. "No matter where we go, people may not want us in their neighborhood. But we need to be here in the neighborhood."
Soup kitchens are not specifically addressed under existing city rules. Churches, for example, are allowed to locate in any zoning district. Restaurants may open in business districts, but because of a quirk in the definition, restaurants are only considered restaurants if they charge for meals.
At its current location, Daily Bread is in a unique situation. It's essentially a restaurant inside of a church, but it doesn't charge for meals and it's not part of the church itself.
"They have this unique scenario where they are allowed everywhere but also allowed nowhere," said the city's Assistant Planning and Development Director, Rob Kowalski.
City officials' solution: Get rid of the quirk that says they must charge for meals to be considered a restaurant. Daily Bread otherwise looks and functions like a restaurant, and therefore would be regulated the same way. It also means they would be allowed to move to the North First Street business district.
Kowalski concedes that a soup kitchen's clientele may not be the same as a for-profit restaurant — but that's not the point of the zoning ordinance.
"Perhaps that's true, but the purview of the zoning ordinance is to look at the land use function," Kowalski said.
In a 9-0 straw poll this week, city council members agreed. They will need to formalize that decision at an upcoming city council meeting.
That has not assuaged the concerns of North First Street business owners. They worry about the crime and property value effect of having a soup kitchen in the neighborhood.
William Jones, the president of the North First Street Business Association and the owner of Rose & Taylor Barber and Beauty, said he wished the nearby owners would have been consulted.
"Think before you make a decision long-term, the consequences of what this is going to do," Jones said.
Council member Will Kyles said he's already reconsidering his straw poll vote. He wants a more in-depth conversation about what happens when soup kitchens mix with for-profit businesses.
"If you put a soup kitchen next to any business district, I don't care whether it's on the south end of town or the north end of town, the reality of the situation is that businesses aren't prepared because they don't know what to be prepared for, and neither is the soup kitchen because they don't know what to be prepared for," Kyles said.
He said he wants to avoid generalizations — that people will lose business or that soup kitchens introduce safety concerns into a neighborhood — but wants more discussion before the city council makes a final decision.
"We have to also recognize that there are some compromises on both sides that have to be made and some understanding," Kyles said. "But if we just do it without facilitating that conversation, you're not going to have a successful flow."
Council member Deborah Frank Feinen, whose office until recently was just a block from the current Daily Bread location, said changing the zoning ordinance to address all instances levels the playing field.
"I have not had any negative effects personally, that's all I can base it on," Feinen said. "And I think that this is the fairest way to handle this issue. It takes the emotion off the table. It's a zoning issue. And if it really is much like a restaurant, which I believe that it is, then it ought to be allowed anywhere a restaurant is allowed."
Goss said the Daily Bread Soup Kitchen has "not brought the divisiveness that is being purported" to its current location. He said that, quite the opposite, they feed people and do their best to provide resources that might get their patrons back to work.
"What we want is the right to be who we are," Goss said.
Champaign's definition of a restaurant actually has two quirks, both of which officials aim to eliminate. The second is much less controversial, but it requires that restaurants offer food "for consumption in the building or at tables on the lot in which the establishment is located."
That means carryout is not allowed. And because nearly all restaurants offer a takeout option, they would not be considered "restaurants" by city definition.
City officials have not enforced that kink in the law — it would create big problems for, say, downtown Champaign, where every restaurant would need a special city permit to offer food for carryout. But the changes they likely will finalize at an upcoming city council meeting will eliminate the oddity.