Along-debated University of Saint Thomas parking lot at the northwest corner of Grand and Cleveland avenues would be able to remain in place for up to 15 years if the Saint Paul Planning Commission grants its approval on April 2. The commission’s Zoning Committee voted 7-1 on March 25 to recommend that the lot remain in place until March 31, 2036.

At that time, Saint Thomas must either submit another site plan to retain the parking lot or bring in a proposal for a mixed-use building that is consistent with the conditional use permit for the campus.

parking lot
The university-owned parking lot at Grand and Cleveland avenues could be revamped and remain in place until March 2036. Photo by Brad Stauffer

The university was allowed to expand its boundaries in 2004 to include the two blocks bounded by Summit, Cleveland, Grand and Cretin avenues. The permit called for the Grand-Cleveland corner to have a building with commercial uses on the first floor and student housing above.

How the site should be developed has been debated by neighbors and UST officials ever since the 32-space lot was deemed an interim use when the university’s McNeely Hall was planned in 2005 at the corner of Summit and Cleveland. UST recently proposed modifying the parking lot, with electric vehicle charging stations and bike racks. The lot would also get new landscaping.

The Zoning Committee laid the request over earlier in March, raising questions about the property’s long-term use. Most commissioners liked UST’s proposal to redesign the lot, but they balked at the notion that the lot stay in place indefinitely.

Commissioner Luis Rangel-Morales cast the sole negative vote on March 25. “I think we’re just kicking the can down the road,” he said.

“I think we’re just kicking the can down the road,” said commissioner Luis Rangel-Morales.

 

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Earlier in March, commissioner Nate Hood questioned allowing the lot to be in place permanently. Development should “hold the corner,” he said, not a parking lot.

Hood later quipped, “In 15 years all of our terms will be expired.” Planning Commission members can serve up to three consecutive three-year terms.

Amy McDonough, chief of staff to university president Julie Sullivan, said the parking lot is not seen as permanent. “We hope to be back before you within 15 years with a better use for this space,” she said.

The parking lot has been operating under a temporary agreement that expired on March 11. If the Planning Commission denies the university’s request, the parking lot would have to be removed and the property converted to open space.

Loss of the lot could have a significant impact on nearby Davanni’s restaurant, which rents 16 of the parking spaces for its customers. Davanni’s has lost parking in recent years due to nearby residential permit parking and the construction of bike lanes on Cleveland.

The request before the Planning Commission is for a modification of a condition of site plan approval, said senior city planner Josh Williams. “It’s a little unusual,” he said, adding that while a parking lot is not the best use for the property, “a lot has changed since 2005.”

Back then, the Planning Commission found that surface parking was an acceptable use on the corner for a period not to exceed 10 years. Because no plans to develop the lot took shape, Saint Thomas was given an additional three years in 2015 to maintain the lot. That permit was renewed in 2018 for an additional three years. Those past requests generated some neighborhood opposition, but this time around few people spoke against the request.

In recent years, Saint Thomas has completed several major projects as part of its new campus plan, including an athletic center, a student center, a parking ramp and two dormitories.

The request for extended use of the parking lot has the support of the Macalester-Groveland Community Council and West Summit Neighborhood Advisory Committee.

— Jane McClure

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