Barring a legal challenge, it now appears that Alatus LLC’s Lexington Station mixed-use development will move forward this summer. In a May 13 letter to the Saint Paul City Council, City Attorney Lyndsey Olson said that she was satisfied Mayor Melvin Carter had the authority to veto the City Council’s denial of the Lexington Station site plan and that she would not seek an opinion from Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison on the legality of that veto as requested by the council.
Six-story Lexington Station would feature 288 apartments above 3,000 square feet of first-floor commercial space and 254 parking spaces on a long-vacant parcel at 411-417 N. Lexington Pkwy. Alatus is not seeking any public subsidies for the $57 million project, nor is it requesting any zoning changes or variances.
However, the project has become a flash point in the debate over affordable housing and gentrification in the neighborhood. Local residents would like to see lower rents in the building, and they are concerned that the development will drive up rents and property taxes elsewhere in the area, leading to the displacement of longtime residents.
Alatus has offered to make about half of the 288 apartments affordable to households making from 50 to 60 percent of the Twin Cities area’s median income. However, opponents of the project maintain that those new studio and one- and two-bedroom units would still be financially out of reach for local families.
At a recent press conference, Frogtown Neighborhood Association co-director Caty Royce said opponents of the project would sue to block the development. That district council is one of several organizations opposing the project. Others include the Summit-University Planning Council, Midway RiseUp and the Black Ministerial Alliance.
A history of controversy
Most site plan reviews in Saint Paul are conducted by city staff. The controversy over the Alatus project prompted city staff to ask the Planning Commission to review the site plan and hold a public hearing. The commission voted 8-7 to reject the site plan, citing its six-story height and inconsistency with the city’s comprehensive plan.
Alatus appealed that decision to the City Council, which voted 4-3 to deny the appeal, citing the same concerns as the Planning Commission. Carter vetoed the council’s resolution denying the appeal. Without a fifth vote, the council was not able to override the veto, but it did vote 5-2 to ask the state Attorney General to conduct a legal review of the mayor’s veto authority in zoning matters. A request for an Attorney General’s opinion must be submitted by the City Attorney’s Office, which Olson would not do.
The mayor’s power to veto
In her letter, Olson said that Carter had several reasons for vetoing the council resolution. They included the city’s need for new housing at all income levels, the site plan’s conformance to the underlying zoning and the fact that the developer sought no public subsidy.
“The mayor has veto power over quasi-judicial decisions,” Olson stated. According to her, the city charter allows the mayor to approve or veto every resolution the council sends to him.
Olson stated that there is no Minnesota case law indicating that the veto is invalid. She cited a 1967 Duluth case that went to the Minnesota Supreme Court. In that case, which centered on a liquor license, the high court found that a mayoral veto in a quasi-judicial matter was valid.
Carter’s veto also simply nullified the council’s action, Olson added. She cited a Minnesota statute that places a 60-day deadline on zoning requests. Under that law, if a city does not act on a zoning request within 60 days, it is automatically approved. Developers can agree to a 60-day extension of that deadline in the case of an appeal, but even with an extension, the time ran out on denying the site plan on April 17.
City Council member Jane Prince said she was troubled by Olson’s legal opinion and the power the City Attorney is giving to the mayor. According to her, it sets a dangerous precedent to allow Lexington Station to proceed with the unilateral approval of the mayor.
— Jane McClure
COMMENTS TERMS OF SERVICE
The Villager welcomes comments from readers. Please include your full name and the neighborhood in which you live. Be respectful of others and stay on topic. We reserve the right to remove any comment we deem to be profane, rude, insulting or hateful. Comments will be reviewed before being published.