Since the master plan for the Ford site was approved in 2017, Neighbors for a Livable Saint Paul has monitored the project to ensure that new building construction is consistent with the original principles of that plan. As Ryan Companies works with the city on the permitting and variance process for the first few buildings, it has become apparent that the master plan is merely a pretext to create unwritten rules about inconvenient zoning laws and to inflate the scale of the already out-of-scale plan.

Neighbors for a Livable Saint Paul has asked the city’s Department of Safety and Inspections to enforce the provisions of its zoning code and the master plan that the city developed. The city has refused. Therefore, the neighbors are pursuing legal action against the city to compel it to enforce its own zoning laws. Several neighbors have filed a writ of mandamus and a declaratory judgment action petitioning Ramsey County District Court to declare that the city must enforce the formal variance process if Ryan intends to deviate from the master plan by counting private rooftop decks and apartment balconies as “open space.”

The master plan prescribes that each development parcel has a certain percentage (typically a minimum of 25 percent) of public open space (i.e., landscaping, gardens, trees and parkland) that is distinct from the percentage of the parcel that is occupied by the building. These controls benefit the community by enhancing the aesthetics of the development with appropriate green space in order to avoid creating an urban canyon.

“Counting apartment balconies as open space is the latest disappointment in the development of the Ford site. The city planned one of the most densely packed neighborhoods in the country at the Ford site, and now buildings are being designed to expand the scope using a dubious interpretation of what ‘open space’ means.”

   

Despite the clear distinction between “open space” and “building lot coverage,” Ryan requested variances for its first buildings on the Ford site in order to increase the lot coverage of the buildings from 70 percent to over 90.3 percent. This increase in building footprint reduces the public open space from 25 percent to less than 10 percent of the lot. For the proposed building at 2170 Ford Pkwy., Ryan applied for a variance from the minimum 25 percent open-space requirement. However, the city inexplicably determined that a variance wasn’t required.

In a departure from the plain meaning of the master plan and the municipal code, the city developed a new formula that counts privately owned rooftop decks and apartment balconies as “open space.” This is unacceptable and inconsistent with nearly every codified definition of “open space” or common-sense understanding of the term, as well as the intent of the Ford Site Task Force that worked for more than a decade to shape the master plan.

This will inflate the scale of the development beyond the controversial high-density plan that was originally approved. The results are bloated building scale, maximum high density and insufficient open space. If allowed to move forward, an unlawful precedent will be established resulting in a series of individual building parcels with greatly diminished open space and an aesthetically obtrusive urban canyon-style development.

 

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Neighbors for a Livable Saint Paul remains committed to promoting responsible community development that enhances the existing neighborhood and the city overall. Given the concerning lack of checks and balances in Saint Paul city governance, the neighbors cannot stand by and watch the city break its own zoning rules.

“Counting apartment balconies as open space is the latest disappointment in the development of the Ford site,” said longtime Highland Park resident and Neighbors for a Livable Saint Paul affiliate Jim Winterer. “The city planned one of the most densely packed neighborhoods in the country at the Ford site, and now buildings are being designed to expand the scope using a dubious interpretation of what ‘open space’ means.”

Neighbors for a Livable Saint Paul has always supported reasonable development at Highland Bridge. We are making a reasonable request that the city and the developer abide by the plan they developed and agreed to in the first place.

—Kate M. Hunt and Howard J. Miller, Highland Park.

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