Restaurateur: Fire sprinkler rules dousing business

Fireside Pizza has served up pies on West 63rd Street and Penn Avenue in Richfild for more than 50 years, but the restaurant’s owner says his business is threatened due to city fire code that is hindering expansion. (Sun Current staff photo by Andrew Wig)
Fireside Pizza has served up pies on West 63rd Street and Penn Avenue in Richfild for more than 50 years, but the restaurant’s owner says his business is threatened due to city fire code that is hindering expansion. (Sun Current staff photo by Andrew Wig)

The name of a Richfield pizza joint may seem ironic given its place in a debate over the city’s fire sprinkler code.

Fireside Pizza might have to close due to costs associated with a Richfield ordinance, and the city of Richfield should step in to help, owner Rich Thompson believes.

“To be realistic, the doors are about to close here,” Thompson said of his 53 year-old Penn Avenue restaurant, adding that to stay competitive, he needs to add a party room and remodel.

But that is going to cost him – more, Thompson says, than he can afford.

City code requires that businesses like Thompson’s, located in commercial buildings without fire-suppressing sprinkler systems, must install the safety feature if they want to add on to their property. The Richfield City Council and Planning Commission covered the sprinkler issue during a Tuesday, June 11, worksession devoted to the topic of impediments to redevelopment.

The Sun Current later clarified with Richfield’s director of public works that some of those taking part in the discussion operated under incorrect information that it is the norm for water mains to be buried under the middle of streets in Richfield, and that the water main on Penn Avenue was uniquely situated on one side of the street – the east side. Fireside Pizza stands on the west side of the street.

Thompson and City Councilmember Pat Elliot used the information about the plumbing arrangement to argue that Fireside Pizza should not have to pay extra – due to poor city planning – to connect a sprinkler system to the opposite side of the street.

However, Director of Public Works Mike Eastling said later in the week that it is not the norm that water mains be located under the middle of a road. Sewer lines are normally under the middle, with water mains 10 feet to either side of the middle.

The water main on Penn Avenue is 10 feet to the east of the street’s center, and most or all of Richfield’s roads run above water mains offset in one direction or another, according to Eastling.

“What occurs on Penn Avenue occurs on every street,” Eastling said three days following the work session. Eastling was at the meeting while all those present – including some planning commission members, the city council and the city manager – appeared to believe Penn Avenue’s plumbing infrastructure deviates from the norm.

“The study session was cut short,” Eastling later said of the gathering that lasted the allotted one hour, offering this explanation as to why he did not correct the meeting’s participants: “We didn’t get down to the bottom of it.”

Connecting a sprinkler system to the water main on a road like Penn Avenue is still costly, though, because it is a concrete county road and difficult to dig through, Eastling said.

Regardless of plumbing details, the issue of city code threatening businesses’ viability was still at play.

“It’s the death knell of the east side of Penn Avenue,” Elliott, who represents the west side of Richfield, including Penn Avenue, predicted during last week’s meeting.


Commerce vs. precaution

The dilemma brings to question the balance between public safety and commercial viability along the aging commercial strip, where most of the buildings were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s. The building housing Fireside Pizza was built in 1959, according to Thompson.

Richfield voluntarily operates under Minnesota Chapter 1306, which covers requirements for fire protection systems.

The rules on sprinklers that come with the policy are essential to fire safety, according to Richfield Fire Chief Wayne Kewitsch. Theoretically, the city could rescind its adoption of the ordinance, Kewitsch said, although that is an action “which I, personally, am extremely opposed to.”

Sprinklers save lives, he noted.

“I don’t want to ever, ever have to tell another person that their loved one died in a fire,” he declared. “I’ve done it once. I don’t ever want to have to do it again.”

And that sentiment, of course, extends to his crew. “I don’t ever want to lose a firefighter. And where do we lose firefighters? Commercial, non-sprinkler buildings,” Kewitsch said.

But there are other options to give a break to business owners along the west side of Penn Avenue. The city could develop a plan to charge assessments to property owners to install the sprinklers and connect to the water main. The cost would be paid back over time.

It is an initiative that could be put into place relatively soon, according to Devich.

“That would not be a long term project,” he said, later confirming via email that such an assessment has occurred before in Richfield.

Fireside Pizza doesn’t have long under the current conditions, according to Thomspon, who says  customers often call and ask about a party room.

He tells them there is none. At that point, “they’re not going to come here,” Thompson said, tired of waiting for policy action.


Penn priority? 

“If they talk about it any longer, they won’t have to talk about it, because we’re going to be gone, and this will be another Chinese restaurant,” Thompson said.

The city has helped with financing for some recent redevelopment projects such as Cedar Point Commons and Lyndale Gardens, initiatives Thompson highlighted when he said, “The city of Richfield – they want to throw money all over the place, except for on the west side of Penn Avenue.”

The city also gave Pizza Lucé $250,000 in excess tax increment funds when the pizza chain moved to Richfield last year. Fireside Pizza was invited to apply for the funding, but didn’t, said Karen Barton, Richfield community development manager. The funds were made available by expiring state legislation and the city would have had to give the money up to the county if it did not spend it, Barton added.

Giving a nod to Penn Avenue, Richfield leaders did make the corridor a priority during a goal setting session this year.

“As part of our budgeting for next year, that’s something that we’re going to be looking at,” Barton said.

As for assertions that the city is forgetting about its west side, “we certainly have not turned our back on it,” she added.

Aside from funding sprinklers through assessments, perhaps exceptions to city code could be made, Kewitsch suggested. “If you’re going to add 200 square feet or 300 square feet, maybe we trade off a monitored fire alarm system” if no sprinklers are installed, he offered as an example.

Elliott thinks some sort of exception to the sprinkler requirement is in order.

“It seems to me that that is a one-time situation that should warrant going in and saying, ‘You know what, we need to go in and doing something to help them,’” he said in an interview.

Richfield’s fire policies may also help business owners financially, Kewitsch said. The city has been aggressive in fire prevention, which, he noted, “saves commercial property owners some money” through lower insurance rates.

That is, Elliott shot back, “If they remain viable.”


Contact Andrew Wig at [email protected]