But 8-7 majority is still in need of a legal basis to deny site plan.
Plans for a six-story, 288-unit apartment building at 411-417 N. Lexington Pkwy. face an uncertain future. The Saint Paul Planning Commission voted 8-7 on January 22 not to approve the site plan for Lexington Station, then voted 10-4 to lay the matter over until February 5 as it sought a legal basis to deny the site plan for the project.
The $57 million development by Minneapolis-based Alatus LLC is opposed by the Summit-University Planning Council, Frogtown Neighborhood Association and the advocacy group Midway RiseUp for not offering apartments with rents that are affordable to people in the neighborhood.
The local groups fear that the higher rents at Lexington Station would gentrify the area by driving up rents and property taxes throughout the neighborhood. They also prefer smaller-scale developments more in keeping with the surrounding area.
Alatus could not be reached for comment after the vote. However, its director of development, Chris Osmundson, told the Planning Commission’s Zoning Committee that the rent for 150 of the 288 apartments would be affordable to households making no more than 60 percent of the Twin Cities metropolitan area’s median income (AMI). The AMI ranges from $72,350 per year for a single person to $103,400 for a household of four. Sixty percent of that would be an annual household income of $43,410 and $62,040, respectively.
Lexington Station would have alcove, studio, one-bedroom, one-bedroom with den, two-bedroom and four-bedroom apartments. The first floor would include 3,000 square feet of commercial space and 254 parking spaces. Monthly rents have been estimated at $1,400 for a one-bedroom and just over $2,000 for a two-bedroom, although that is without the reduction for affordability. Fifteen of the four-bedroom units would be co-living apartments with a shared kitchen and living room renting for $850-$900 per bedroom.
Zoning Committee chair Cedrick Baker noted that Lexington Station would occupy a site that has been vacant for 12 years. The property is zoned for Traditional Neighborhoods 4, and Alatus is not asking for any zoning variances nor rental subsidies. The developer would provide incentives for residents to use mass transit and ride-sharing programs along with space for storing bicycles.
Planning commissioner Kristine Grill said that the only way that the city can require more affordable apartments is to provide a public subsidy. Unlike Minneapolis, the city does not have the kind of inclusionary zoning that requires developers to provide affordable units in all developments. However, planning commissioner Bill Lindeke pointed out, the level and number of affordable units offered by Alatus would meet the inclusionary zoning requirements in Minneapolis.
“I don’t pretend that this project is perfect, but there’s no legal reason to deny it,” said planning commissioner Nate Hood.
Unlike Minneapolis, Saint Paul does not have the kind of inclusionary zoning that requires developers to provide affordable units in all developments. However, planning commissioner Bill Lindeke pointed out, the level and number of affordable units offered by Alatus would meet the inclusionary zoning requirements in Minneapolis.
Other commissioners disagreed. “I have a hard time with rigid parameters that don’t take the values of the community into consideration,” said commissioner Kathy Mouacheupao. “We don’t just have a housing shortage, we have an affordable housing shortage.”
Planning Commission chair Luis Rangel-Morales noted that the city has no legal mechanism to hold Alatus to its promise of affordable housing. “All we have is the word of the developer,” he said.
Another sticking point is the lower median income in Saint Paul. For a family of four, the annual median income in the capital city is closer to $58,000, and 60 percent of that would be $34,800.
“It’s obvious that this developer does not have this community in mind,” said planning commissioner Adrian Perryman. According to him, Lexington Station would have a negative impact on the surrounding neighborhoods, including promoting higher property taxes and higher rents.
Planning commissioner Trang Hong said the proposed rents in the building conflict with the city’s comprehensive plan, which calls for a range of housing options.
The Saint Paul Bicycle Plan of 2015 and the 2010 Bike Walk Central Corridor Plan both call for a bicycle-pedestrian path directly through the Lexington Station site. However, Alatus has said it would provide a different bike and pedestrian connection through the property.
In any case, the issue of affordability is not germane to a site plan review, according to planning commissioner Luis Pereira.
After the Planning Commission’s vote, Jens Werner of the Summit-University Planning Council, Danielle Swift of the Frogtown Neighborhood Association and Isabel Chanslor of Midway RiseUp thanked opponents of the project.
Lexington Station is just a stone’s throw from the Summit-University and Frogtown neighborhoods, but is in the area served by the Union Park District Council. The UPDC has not taken a position on the site plan.
— Jane McClure
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