BZA decision is setback for one of first buildings proposed at Ford site

CommonBond Communities’ plan to construct a five-story apartment building for low-income seniors was met with both skepticism and partial rejection from the St. Paul Board of Zoning Appeals on June 29. Though a 2-foot setback variance was approved for the proposed building at 830 S. Cretin Ave., the BZA voted 5-1 to deny a variance to an open space requirement.

The vote was a blow to one of the first developments proposed for the site of Ford Motor Company’s former assembly plant in Highland Park. CommonBond is working with master developer Ryan Companies on the building, which would provide 60 of the 760 low-income housing units planned for the 122-acre Ford site.

The building would have a surface parking lot with 29 spaces and some open space around the building. The Ford site’s master plan requires that a minimum of 25 percent of the parcel be devoted to open space. CommonBond had sought to reduce that amount to 16 percent.

The north (top) and south sides of the 60-unit apartment building that CommonBond Communities has proposed on the Ford site for low-income seniors age 55 and older.

“I do think this project is suffering from a lack of open space,” said Clarksen. He suggested CommonBond consider a rooftop patio or other ways to provide open space for tenants.

BZA member Diane Trout-Oertel objected to the lack of open space. “I’ll acknowledge that it’s a very small site,” she said. “But green space is important.”

Board members Robert Clarksen, Joyce Maddox, Daniel Miller and Luis Rangel Morales joined Trout-Oertel in voting down the variance. Thomas Saylor cast the sole vote against denial.

The BZA approved the 2-foot setback along the north side of the building, where a 4-foot setback is normally required. The smaller setback was tied to the location of the building’s off-street parking. The request for a third variance to waive a required parking space for an electric vehicle was dropped by CommonBond before the BZA meeting.

The Highland District Council (HDC) and city staff had recommended the approval of all three variances. Seven letters were received in support of the variances; 166 letters were received in opposition.

Some BZA members pushed for underground parking as a way to add open space on the site. At the HDC meeting in June, CommonBond representatives said the high cost of underground parking would make it more difficult to provide affordable housing. Another suggestion was that CommonBond convert some of the surface parking lot to open space, but that would have required a parking variance.

“I do think this project is suffering from a lack of open space,” said Clarksen. He suggested CommonBond consider a rooftop patio or other ways to provide open space for tenants.

Representatives of CommonBond and Ryan Companies testified that the variance for open space does not reduce the 55 acres of parks and open space planned for the Ford site. Justin Eilers, senior project manager for CommonBond, and project architect Britta Carlson from the firm LHB said the building includes a porch and oudoor patios for residents along with community rooms inside. A park is also planned just a short distance away, they said.

Rangel Morales, who chairs the St. Paul Planning Commission and is the commission’s representative on the BZA, said he was concerned about the placement of affordable housing on the Ford site and the large number of units planned for low-income seniors. “We may lose the forest for the individual trees here,” he said. “We may lose what the Ford site master plan was intended to do,” which is to blend affordable housing into the entire development.

According to Eilers, the master plan’s intent is being met. The CommonBond project is just one of about 10 buildings for low-income residents planned for the Ford site. The low-income apartment buildings are pegged to various income levels and household sizes.

CommonBond’s building will be limited to residents age 55 and older who make no more than 30 percent of the Twin Cities area’s median household income. The building would have 48 one-bedroom and 12 two-bedroom units. Under levels set by the Metropolitan Council, rents would be $562 for a one-bedroom and $675 for a two-bedroom apartment. Seven apartments would be earmarked for people who have been homeless. 

BZA decisions are final unless they are appealed to the City Council within 10 days. As this issue of the Villager went to press, no appeal had been filed.

—Jane McClure


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