CommonBond project will provide 60 units of affordable housing

By Jane McClure

CommonBond Communities may proceed with its plan to build a five-story, 60-unit apartment building for low-income seniors at 830 S. Cretin Ave. The Saint Paul City Council on August 5 voted unanimously to uphold an appeal by the Highland Park-based nonprofit developer and overturn a Saint Paul Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) decision to deny an open space variance for the project.

Work on the $14 million building is expected to begin in the late summer or early fall of 2021. The building will be one of the first to rise at Highland Bridge, the newly christened site of the former Ford Motor Company assembly plant in Highland Park.

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The building will be restricted to residents age 55 or older whose household incomes are at or below 30 percent of the Twin Cities area’s median. The building will have 48 one-bedroom and 12 two-bedroom apartments. Monthly rents will be $562 for a one-bedroom unit and $675 for a two-bedroom unit under the current levels set by the Metropolitan Council. Seven apartments will be earmarked for people who have been homeless. Twenty-nine off-street parking spaces will be provided. 

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Located on the northeast corner of Bohland and Cretin avenues, CommonBond Communities’ five-story apartment building for low-income seniors will face Bohland Avenue.

“Part of the intent (of the open space requirement) is to not have large, monolithic buildings that fill entire lots,” said Merritt Clapp-Smith, who served as the city planner for the Ford site for more than a decade.

According to the master plan for the Ford site as adopted by the City Council, buildings are limited in the amount of the lot they can occupy. Without a variance, a minimum of 25 percent of CommonBond’s lot must be set aside for open space, whether it be gardens, a landscaped yard, walkways, patios, recreational facilities, play areas, decks or courtyards.

CommonBond has proposed devoting 16 percent of its 0.53-acre lot on the northeast corner of Cretin and Bohland avenues to open space. That is in addition to the surface parking lot that, while it does not meet the definition of open space, creates the appearance of open space, according to a city staff report.

“Part of the intent (of the open space requirement) is to not have large, monolithic buildings that fill entire lots,” said Merritt Clapp-Smith, who served as the city planner for the Ford site for more than a decade, before leaving the city’s Department of Planning and Economic Development in late 2017.

The open space variance had the support of the Highland District Council and local commercial property owners. However, the city received 166 letters in opposition to the variance.

“I find the attempts very sad to further gobble up minimally required open space,” writes Mount Curve Boulevard resident Renate Sharp. “The good health of our population and an attractive appearance of the neighborhood are indispensable to quality of life.”

“Every single variance requested is a complete contrast to what was promised to the community,” writes Pinehurst Avenue residents Laura and Tim Donovan.

In the appeal, CommonBond senior project manager Justin Eilers cited the difficulties of achieving the design goals of the Ford site’s master plan. According to him, meeting the open space requirement is constrained by the dimensions of the lot, the street frontage, the relatively steep slope of the property and the underlying bedrock.

“The open space is limited largely because of the need to provide the required parking at the surface rather than structured within the building,” Eilers said. “However, providing structured parking in lieu of the current surface parking design would lead to a solution that actually compromises rather than enhances the site and building design.”

Adding underground parking to meet the open space requirement would not only affect the building’s design but add to construction costs, Eilers said. CommonBond has estimated the increased cost of adding underground parking at $1,339,000, or $22,317 per apartment.

One argument that BZA members made in rejecting the lot coverage variance was the desire to provide CommonBond’s tenants with more open space. However, the variance will not affect the amount of public parks, trails and other open spaces that are planned for the 122-acre Highland Bridge, according to Ward 3 City Council member Chris Tolbert. Due to the practical difficulties posed by the site, the variance is justified, Tolbert said.

While she supported CommonBond’s appeal and the provision of affordable senior housing at Highland Bridge, Ward 7 City Council member Jane Prince said city officials may want to revisit the zoning requirements in the Ford site’s master plan. “We’re seeing variance after variance after variance,” Prince said. “Variances are supposed to be exceptions to the rule.”

The open space lot coverage variance is one of two variances CommonBond requested for the project. The BZA in June approved a setback variance along the north property line between the CommonBond building and a larger proposed mixed-use building to the north. A four-foot setback is required and a two-foot setback was approved.

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