A dispute over whether a proposed three-unit townhouse at 540-542 Portland Ave. would fit in the Historic Hill District will return to the Saint Paul Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) for another public hearing on December 14. 

The HPC approved building plans and the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) approved six variances for the project in October. The City Council was set to hear appeals of both of those approvals on December 2, but laid the matter over until December 16.

The appeals were filed by William Garman “Gar” Hargens and Mary Staples Thompson of 548 Portland Ave. Hargens is a former chair of the HPC.

Hargens and Thompson said they and other neighbors did not receive notice of the online HPC hearing, which was held at the same time as the one for the BZA. They contend that their testimony was excluded from the HPC hearing, which prompted the commission to hold the hearing again.

The appellants also argue that the variances for setbacks, lot size and parking do not meet required standards, such as demonstrating that there are practical difficulties of developing the property and the use will not alter the essential character of the surrounding area.

Several other neighbors also oppose the project, as does the Ramsey Hill Association and the Summit Avenue Residential Preservation Association. They contend the townhouse would be too large for the site and would be an “odd duck” in the neighborhood.

portland development
The front elevation (facing Summit Avenue) of the proposed three-unit townhouse at 540-542 Portland Ave.

“We believe we have a plan that fits very well into the neighborhood,” Perez said, adding that the project would be a major improvement to what is now a vacant lot.

Developer Sullivan Property Investments II has received several letters of support from other neighbors and the backing of the Summit-University Planning Council. The company contends that the project will provide a needed housing option, and that its design is consistent with existing historic guidelines.

The new townhouse would be built on the rear of a lot that already has a three-unit townhouse fronting Portland. The front entrance of the new building would face Summit Avenue. It would be similar in design to the existing Dutch Colonial building.

Architect Carlos Perez said the development team met twice with neighbors to discuss the project.

“We believe we have a plan that fits very well into the neighborhood,” Perez said, adding that the project would be a major improvement to what is now a vacant lot.

— Jane McClure

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