Fewer variance requests expected for new homes, additions

By Jane McClure

After years of discussion, the Saint Paul City Council approved revised residential design standards for homes in the Highland Park and Macalester-Groveland neighborhoods on September 23. District council members, builders, city staff and others involved in new construction or home additions are hoping the revisions mean fewer variance requests to the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals.

The changes constitute a comprehensive update to a set of zoning regulations that were adopted by the city in 2015. The changes were brought forward at the time to address the growing trend of tearing down older homes in Highland and Mac-Groveland, and constructing larger houses and home additions that often dwarfed adjacent residences.

Residents complained that the large new infill houses blocked light and air to adjacent yards, caused water runoff problems and did not fit the character of their neighborhood. They also felt that the teardowns and construction of larger and more expensive “McMansions” adversely affected the city’s affordable housing stock.

The City Council received letters of support for the revisions from the Highland and Macalester-Groveland district councils and a Highland resident. No one contacted the council in opposition. That is a stark contrast to the dozens of comments and the many people who attended Planning Commission and City Council hearings when the design standards were first approved in 2015.

Ward 3 City Council member Chris Tolbert praised the changes and thanked city planner Mike Richardson for his years of work on them. Tolbert said the intent was to keep the protections that the design standards provide, while adding flexibility and reducing the number of variance requests.

Shortly after the original standards were adopted, there were complaints that some regulations were either too strict or needed further clarity

The residential design standards are meant to address issues including the height, massing and design details of new homes and large additions in the two neighborhoods. That intent does not change with the revisions. However, shortly after the original standards were adopted, there were complaints that some regulations were either too strict or needed further clarity. BZA members complained that many variances were recommended for approval by the two district councils, and questioned why the regulations were even needed.

Both the Highland and Macalester-Groveland district councils worked with Richardson over the past few years on the revisions. The Planning Commission recommended approval of the changes in August.

The regulations approved on September 23 make several technical revisions. One change is to increase the height limit in single-family residential zoning district from 22 feet to 24 feet. That would address issues created by the combination of modern truss systems and the smaller residential yards in both neighborhoods.

Another change that is expected to result in fewer district council and BZA reviews is that smaller projects can be reviewed by city staff.

More flexibility also is provided on what is considered to be sidewall articulation. The requirements are meant to prevent large, flat expanses of wall space on new homes and large additions. The new residential design standards change the requirement from “grade to eave” to at least one story starting at or below the first-floor. They also allow more options for sidewalk articulation, such as bays, building projections, roof line changes, chimneys, windows and other design features.

City staff will get more say on what fits sidewalk articulation standards to create more consistency for approvals. Projects that maintain the same building footprint, such as a second-story addition, will be exempt from sidewall articulation requirements, but would have to meet other residential design standards.

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