Several community members at a St. Paul City Council meeting Wednesday strongly supported proposed zoning changes that would allow the construction of more homes throughout the city to accommodate population growth.
Council members listened for about an hour as attendees highlighted the potential to increase rental options, improve access public transportation, and create more housing opportunities for homebuyers and renters.
“This small change proposed by this 1-4 Unit Housing amendment to the zoning code will make a huge change in how many people in this city gain access to housing, income expansion, and rent mobility,” St. Paul resident Ann Schulman said at Wednesday’s public hearing.
The proposed zoning changes focus on building triplexes, duplexes, and fourplexes in more places throughout the city as Phase 2 of the city’s 1-4 Unit Housing Study that started in 2020. Phase 1 zoning changes were implemented in March 2022, and allowed major changes to the sizes of homes and accessory dwelling units, which are smaller, secondary homes on the same lot as a standalone home.
Sahan Journal reported on Phase 2’s proposed zoning changes this past April before the city’s planning commission made alterations to it in August. Some of the new changes include expanding two residential districts, eliminating one district, and giving greater bonuses to developers in order to encourage the construction of affordable housing.
“I want to say that I don’t often leave public hearings, especially when it’s about zoning code changes feeling excited,” said Council Member Rebecca Noecker. “But there was so much positivity and enthusiasm, and so much of a vision expressed here today for a more dense and vibrant city that I just want you to know that it’s left me feeling charged, and really eager for the changes that are in front of us.”
The City Council is expected to vote at its October 11 meeting whether to approve the zoning changes. Here’s what you need to know about the proposal:
One of the biggest alterations to the proposed zoning changes is eliminating a residential district, H3, and expanding two other residential districts—H2 and H1. The city’s planning commissioners recommended the changes in order to be “fairer” and “simpler.”
The proposed zoning districts:
- RL large lot residential: Allows two units on one residential lot. The units can consist of either two single-family homes or a duplex.
- H1 residential: A maximum of four units allowed on a lot. The units can consist of a combination of either single-family homes, duplexes, triplexes, or fourplexes.
- H2 residential: A maximum of five units allowed on a lot. It proposes changing lots within high-frequency bus routes and the Randolph Avenue and East 7th Street corridor to H2 residential zoning. The lots along Metro Transit’s planned H Line bus route in the Como and Maryland avenues corridor is also included in that proposal.
The criteria for developers and property owners to receive a “density bonus” have also changed. The density bonus is an incentive for developers and property owners that allows them to add an additional unit to their projects only if they first agree to convert or add to an existing structure, offer affordable units, or build units with three or more bedrooms.
For example, a developer is allowed to build up to four units in an H1 residential district. But if the developer rents one of the units to a tenant who earns an income that is 60 percent of median income in the area, which is about $72,520 for a family of four, then the developer is allowed to add one additional unit to the lot.
The city’s planning commission also recommended reducing the maximum height of homes in H1 and H2 zoning districts, and reducing size requirements for parking spaces and driveways.
More detailed information about the most recent proposed zoning changes can be found here.
Many attendees at Wednesday’s public hearing said council members should consider expanding the geographic boundaries of the H2 residential zoning district. That would encompass plots of land within a quarter mile of bus routes, encouraging the construction of more homes near public transportation, which would help combat climate change.
“The context here is the climate crisis. Vehicle miles traveled, and car dependency is the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state of Minnesota,” said Cody Fischer, a St. Paul resident who lives in the Summit-University area. “We need to be doing absolutely everything we can to face this crisis to reduce vehicle miles traveled. Expanding housing that we need to have, and doing that close to transit as much as possible is the best way we can do that.”
Fischer is the founder and director of Footprint Development, which builds, owns, and manages multi-family housing in Minneapolis. He said St. Paul’s zoning changes encourage “gentle density,” unlike Minneapolis’ recent challenges with zoning.
In 2019, the Minneapolis City Council approved a 2040 comprehensive plan, which allowed the construction of triplexes and duplexes in zoning districts that were historically limited to single-family homes.
But several environmental groups brought a lawsuit against the city, arguing that the 2040 plan would increase pollution and reduce green spaces for wildlife. In early September, a Hennepin County district court judge ruled in their favor, which put a stop to Minneapolis’ 2040 plan.
Minneapolis city officials filed an appeal, asking the Minnesota Court of Appeals to reverse the judge’s decision so the city can move forward with the 2040 plan.
A few attendees at the St. Paul City Council meeting voiced concerns that the proposed zoning changes could negatively affect the character of neighborhoods and reduce green spaces.
“I am extremely concerned about this legislation. What it does is it encourages covering more land with buildings,” said Stephanie Digby, a concerned St. Paul resident. “I do not comprehend why you do not decide to go upwards—20-story buildings, would be much more efficient than covering every little spec of green land with building and more building.”
After the public hearing ended, Council Member Nelsie Yang and Council President Amy Brendmoen said they supported the proposed zoning change. Council member Mitra Jalali spoke positively about the proposed changes, adding that she will look further into expanding housing density around high-traffic areas that are close to transit and bike paths.
Council Member Jane Prince said she worries about the potential impact on neighborhoods on St. Paul’s East Side in Ward 7, which she represents. There are benefits to the proposed zoning changes, she said, adding that more investigation is needed to eliminate potential unintended consequences.
“We have lower property values on the east side of town and I worry about a financial incentive that we’re creating for developers to come in and eliminate a lot of the fabric of the community that has provided terrific numbers of opportunities for first time homebuyers to purchase a home,” she said.