Minneapolis closes unlicensed Linden Hills sauna; owners fight city law

Minneapolis officials are ordering a popular but unlicensed neighborhood sauna club to close next month. While the city noted Embrace North’s lack of a license and health violations, its owners said a 1980s zoning law labeling saunas as sexually-oriented adult businesses contributed.

In recent years, traditional Scandinavian wellness practices have gained steam among modern adherents of heat and cold therapy for cardiovascular and metabolic health. Embrace North has accrued about 900 members in its year and a half in business in the city’s Linden Hills neighborhood.

The law — passed in the 1980s to curtail the AIDS crisis — corrals adult bookstores and movie theaters, massage parlors, rap parlors (businesses “providing nonprofessional conversation”) and saunas into the downtown Warehouse District along with strip clubs.

It’s never been updated, despite the proliferation of mobile saunas, DIY backyard saunas, sauna rentals, sauna villages and that giant golden sauna egg that drew crowds to the American Swedish Institute in 2019.

“I see this as an opportunity to work with the city to lay a new path forward,” said Embrace North co-owner Kellen Kersten. “There are lots of creators, buildings and sauna spaces in Minneapolis. It would be a really cool thing for the city to dive into and encourage. It could be a staple of Minneapolis to have a unique sauna experience.”

More than 1,000 people have signed a petition launched Monday asking the city to delist saunas from the ordinance relegating adult businesses to downtown and allow Embrace North to stay open while it figures out a way forward.

The sauna club’s members have flooded Council Member Linea Palmisano’s office with support for Embrace North.

Palmisano lives two blocks away from the business in Linden Hills and says he’s never heard anyone complain about its existence. As a sauna user, she agrees with the people arguing that saunas are simply not sexually explicit businesses and that the law should change.

However, Embrace North’s regulatory issues with the city stemmed from a complaint about the insufficient sanitation of its ice water tubs, Palmisano said. Repeated Health Department inspections found noncompliance with established protocol requiring the owners to dump the water and disinfect the tanks between patrons.

Embrace North is also afoul of the city’s “enclosed building requirements,” which says all aspects of a commercial business must take place indoors.

To the sauna club’s supporters it seems like an arbitrary distinction that a mobile sauna like the one belonging to 612 Sauna Society could park prominently outside the Trailhead in Theodore Wirth Park all winter while Embrace North could not legally operate outside on a permanent basis.

But Palmisano argues an important function of the city is to consider how businesses integrate themselves in communities, next to residential areas, long-term.

“We just want to figure out how we have checks and balances on these things such that we get the kind of like environment we want,” she said. “There are a lot of considerations that people who just want a sauna and ice bath may not fully see here.”

The city is currently in the middle of updating zoning codes to align with its 2040 Comprehensive Plan. Staff are already planning to remove saunas from the list of sexually-oriented businesses, but the current draft of the Land Use Rezoning Study does not propose changing the enclosed building requirements that would still stand in the way of legalizing Embrace North.

“That being said, they would at least have the option to apply for a variance to the enclosed building requirements,” said city spokesperson Sarah McKenzie.

There is no license for Embrace North nor is there one in the process, she added.

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