The Selling of Patel's Motel

Death by red tape: Embattled proprietor Jay Patel says he's had enough
Craig Lassig

At first glance, the acrimonious fight over the fate of St. Paul's embattled Travel Inn motel would seem to be drawing to a close. Current owner Jay Patel's license is in jeopardy, due to a steady barrage of neighborhood complaints about the clientele and number of police calls--242 in a recent 15-month period, ranking it second only, among the city's motels, to the Twins Motor Inn. The city's licensing department has recommended denying Patel a license to operate. On October 14, the St. Paul City Council deadlocked on the issue 3-3--council member Jay Benanav was absent--amid testimony from motel residents who vouched for it as a needed form of hard-to-come-by transitional housing. Even council member Chris Coleman, who voted against denying the license, isn't much of a fan of the property: He offered a resolution for a 60-day license with the aim of giving residents time to find new quarters, rather than one meant to save the property. Owner Patel doesn't want the property any more than does the neighborhood. He wants to sell it.

But no matter what happens when the council takes up the matter of Patel's license again today (October 28), the city will not be free of the issue. Patel has a signed purchase agreement with a group of three prospective owners who want to operate a motel in the building, located two blocks east of the state Capitol. And they intend to apply for a license to do just that.

Attorney David Lawson, who is representing the trio, says each member of the group currently operates a motel and isn't concerned about skepticism toward a new licensee. "We don't foresee any problems with that," Lawson says. "I would think the city might be happy that it's going to be sold." Nor is he particularly worried that the potential denial of Patel's license would negatively affect his clients' plans. In the long run, he says, the motel might be franchised, adding that, "I think it's certainly a location that could be a viable business." The purchase is contingent upon the prospective buyers' ability to secure a new license.

Bob Kessler, director of the city's License Inspections and Environmental Protection (LIEP) agency, says, "We'd do the same kind of check on them to make sure that they're capable of being a good license holder." Under city policy, he points out, the record of a past owner can't be held against a new applicant, provided the applicant has no connection--financial or otherwise--to the previous owner.

One member of the purchasing group is Bipin Bhakta, who currently owns the Starlite Motel in Hilltop and another in the Quad Cities. He says there's no relationship between anyone in the group and Patel. He says he and his partners are interested in improving the property, adding that when it comes to his business operations, "I've never had somebody shutting down any hotels."

At the four-story, off-white Travel Inn, a cloudy plexiglass window separates lobby from office; phone numbers for the nearby Domino's and Green Dragon are written on the glass in black magic marker. The small lobby holds two green plastic chairs, a black vinyl couch, and a literature rack that includes one pamphlet encouraging you to write "For Your Free Copy of Our 1992 Vacation Guide to Northwestern Ontario." Discounting the two used for storage, there are 48 rooms at the Travel Inn, and it's nearly full these days, according to Patel's brother Sonny, one of the motel's managers. The posted rates are $49.50 for a single, $60.50 for a double; or $198 and $250 per week, respectively. Checks and credit cards are not accepted.

Patel acquired the motel at the end of April 1997. In January of this year, the building was closed for code violations and stayed that way for nearly two months before reopening in March with a clean bill from city inspectors. Patel applied for a license in February, a move that set in motion the current controversy. Per policy, the city issued standard notices to neighborhood groups and other interested parties about the application. Neighborhood groups sent letters opposing relicensing, as did the nearby Regions Hospital. That put the matter before an administrative law judge in August.

Among the problems cited were the 242 police calls to the address between May 1, 1997 and July 31, 1998, under Patel's ownership. While the judge's findings acknowledged that the majority of those calls did not result in police reports being filed--and in some cases did not even involve residents of the motel--18 police reports in that period were for incidents at the motel, including assaults and drug activity. The judge also noted that while the Patel brothers had been cooperative with the St. Paul Police Department and had implemented many of their suggestions, the problems had not abated.

Critics of the motel note that at $800 a month for a room with one bed, the Travel Inn's rates don't really offer what's considered to be affordable housing. Still, residents of the motel argue that it does answer a need for people in transition who need a place to stay--whether it's for a few nights or several months. "The bottom line is, this is a cheap motel and it's in an area where the city doesn't want it," offers John Lynch, who's staying a few days before moving out of town. Why does he stay here? "It's cheap," he says, noting that the rates are negotiable. Carrol Eaton, who is getting set to move out, says, "I've got myself together, but it did take me a month."

The nearest neighborhood to the Travel Inn is Capitol Heights, sitting at the crest of the hill above the motel. Prosper Egan, co-captain of the area's block club, says that for the seven years she's lived in the neighborhood, the motel has been a constant problem. Simply switching owners is, to her mind, no solution. "I think that another motel is not really going to work there," she says, "The same types of people are going to gravitate towards that area. We don't want to see the people living there thrown out on the street, but that is a nuisance property and needs to be removed. It's a flophouse motel."

There have been other designs on the property of late. The state's Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board weighed in on the issue in July, concluding that there is a "higher and better use than what currently exists" on the Travel Inn site. Specifically, they're working on rezoning the area for governmental/institutional use. But according to the board's senior planner, Paul Mandell, the current use as a motel is grandfathered in, and that standing would not necessarily lapse even if it ceased to operate.

Regions Hospital, which sits kitty-corner from the motel and owns much of the surrounding land, has been unsuccessfully trying to buy the property for a decade. Patel's attorney Stephen Kelly says that Regions' last offer of $450,000 came in well below the independent appraisal of $1.12 million for the property. Both sides acknowledge there are no negotiations in play.

For now, the only deal in the works will bring a new motel license applicant in front of the City Council. Whether or not the council approves Patel's license at today's meeting, his attorney says Patel plans to go ahead with the proposed sale. Council member Jerry Blakey, who represents the ward in which the Travel Inn sits and has opposed Patel's license, says he would have concerns about the property continuing as a motel. "We're not talking months that this has been a problem. We're talking years." With that in mind, he says the next applicant for a new license would likely have strict conditions placed upon them: "The license would have to be so tight that if they sneezed we would close it down."

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