Debate centers on need for more residential projects in St. Paul to
offer affordable housing

By Jane McClure

The ongoing debate over the need for more affordable housing in new St. Paul residential developments has delayed city action on a proposed 60-unit apartment building at the southeast corner of James Avenue and Lexington Parkway.

After much discussion on June 26, the city’s Planning Commission voted 11-1 to postpone rezoning 1074-1096 James Ave. from single-family residential to multifamily residential. The request will go back to the commission on July 10.

Preliminary plans unveiled by developers Chet Funk, Nathan James and Erich Leidel earlier in June showed three to four levels of apartments above two levels of parking. Six houses would be removed to make way for the new building. The developers also have discussed plans to construct a second apartment building on the northeast corner of Lexington and Randolph Avenue in partnership with another property owner. That building would mean the removal of four dwellings.

A preliminary sketch of the 60-unit apartment building planned for the southeast corner of Lexington Parkway and James Avenue, on the site of six single-family homes.

Funk, a Summit Hill resident, said the delay would affect the timeline for the Lexington-James project, but that it was not a major concern. “We’re still early in the process of this development and are looking to work with all stakeholders on what the best use of this land will be in the decades to come,” he said.

Under state law, the Planning Commission has until July 27 to act on the rezoning request.

While they are seeking the zoning change, the developers are also waiting for pending changes to regulations in the city’s residential multifamily (RM) zoning code before moving ahead with the project. The changes would allow developers to add more density in projects on RM-zoned sites.

 

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The Planning Commission held a public hearing on the RM zoning changes this spring and hopes to take action this summer. The final decision will be up to the City Council.

The commission’s Zoning Committee voted in June to support the Lexington-James rezoning. Still, several commissioners expressed concern over the need for more residential developments in the city to provide affordable housing. 

“I want to see an affordable component to this project, which in this neighborhood is very important,” said commissioner Cedric Baker, “but I feel like our hands get tied.”

Baker said he is tired of “rubber-stamping” development projects and not seeing more affordable housing units.

“I want to see an affordable component to this project, which in this neighborhood is very important,” said commissioner Cedric Baker, “but I feel like our hands get tied.”

Commissioner Kristine Grill asked if the Lexington-James project should be the one on which the commission takes a stand. While agreeing with the need to provide more affordable housing, she said, “I feel like we’re making this decision on the backs of small developers.”

The sole vote against the layover was cast by commissioner Nate Hood. He said the commission voted to “kick the can down the road” with an unnecessary delay to a developer who lives in the neighborhood and is actively engaged with the neighborhood.

“Until the City Council adopts an affordable housing policy, which they should, the Planning Commission shouldn’t be delaying projects based on a policy that doesn’t exist,” he said.

An affordable housing policy is coming, according to city planning director Luis Pereira. The Metropolitan Council’s Housing Policy Plan calls for the region to add 37,400 housing units for low- and moderate-income people. St. Paul’s share is estimated at 1,973 units at varying levels of affordability.

At this time the path forward appears to be that of obtaining City Council approval for “inclusionary zoning.” Such zoning would require a given share of new construction to be affordable to people with low to moderate incomes.

A study of that zoning was paused due to COVID-19 and its impact on housing market conditions. Commissioners asked on June 26 to find a way to move the study along, possibly with housing market data from 2019 and earlier. Other steps include placing an emphasis on affordable housing in documents tied to zoning applications and amending the city’s 2040 comprehensive plan.

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