Changes designed to increase density, promote more affordable housing

By Jane McClure

The Saint Paul City Council on September 9 adopted sweeping changes to the city’s multifamily zoning regulations to increase the density of housing and to promote more affordable housing. The council’s 6-1 vote does not alter the underlying zoning of the properties, but it does change how those properties can be redeveloped.

The changes address a section of the zoning code that has not been revised since 1975, according to principal city planner Bill Dermody. They open the door to new triplexes and fourplexes by eliminating the minimum lot size of 9,000 square feet, raising the maximum lot coverage for buildings and easing the off-street parking requirements. However, developers will have to meet stricter design standards for the buildings and place them closer to the street.

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Saint Paul has three types of multifamily residential zoning. RM-1 is low-density, multifamily zoning for predominantly one- and two-family houses, townhouses and small apartment buildings. RM-2 provides for more extensive multifamily residences and a variety of congregate living arrangements, especially near major thoroughfares and transit corridors. RM-3 has long been used for high-rise buildings.

According to a staff report, there are 1,182 parcels in the city that are zoned RM-1; 4,077 parcels zoned RM-2; and 88 parcels zoned RM-3. Many of the RM-3 parcels have high-rises constructed in the 1960s and ’70s in park-like settings. RM-1 and RM-2 properties are found in most city neighborhoods, with larger numbers in Summit Hill, Ramsey Hill, Highland Park, Macalester-Groveland, the West End and Hamline-Midway and along Selby and Grand avenues.

One of the first projects affected by the changes is in Macalester-Groveland—a proposed apartment building on the southeast corner of Lexington Parkway and James Avenue.

Dermody outlined the many changes to building height, setback and floor-area-ratio limits at a City Council public hearing. The changes allow more density in the same way that the city’s Traditional Neighborhood zones allow, though without the mixed-use residential-commercial focus.

More than 50 pages of public comments were received by the City Council on the zoning changes. Opponents contend the changes add too much density and create potential health and safety risks with more crowding. Supporters praised the effort to encourage more housing density and the offer of abonus to developers who agree to add affordable units in exchange for being allowed higher density in a project. To qualify for the “density bonus,” 10 to 20 percent of the apartments must be affordable to people making 60 percent of the area median income and remain that way for at least 15 years.

Ward 7 City Council member Jane Prince cast the lone vote against the changes. She wanted the council to consider suggestions made by the Summit Hill Association (SHA). Many RM-1 and RM-2 properties are found along Grand Avenue in the Summit Hill area.

One key change sought by the SHA would encourage the construction of buildings that are wider but shorter, so that they do not tower over neighboring buildings. The city is allowing maximum heights of 40 feet in RM-1, 50 feet in RM-2, and 75 feet in RM-2 with a conditional use permit. Prior to the revision, the maximum height in RM-2 was 50 feet with a conditional use permit.

The SHA requested height limits of 35 feet, or 45 feet with a conditional use permit, in RM-1 and RM-2. “Additional density is more likely to gain broad community support where it is achieved by building broader, not taller,” the SHA stated in a letter.

The SHA also wanted the city to retain the current RM parking requirements. One key change for parking is to waive all off-street parking requirements within a quarter-mile of the light-rail Green Line.

Other district councils had mixed reactions to the multifamily zoning changes. Some wanted more time to review the changes, citing the complexity of the regulations and the difficulty in community engagement during the pandemic. The Macalester-Groveland Community Council voted in support of the changes.

One of the first projects affected by the changes is in Macalester-Groveland—a proposed apartment building on the southeast corner of Lexington Parkway and James Avenue. The developers had asked and the City Council agreed to rezone a row of six single-family houses at 1074-1096 James Ave. to RM-2. They were contemplating building 60 apartments there, although that could change with the recent amendments to multifamily zoning regulations.

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