But neighborhood sentiment is running heavily against project.

The proposed development of a five-story building on the site of Dixie’s on Grand, Saji-Ya and Emmett’s Public House restaurants at 695 Grand Ave. took another step forward on July 15 when the Saint Paul Planning Commission’s Zoning Committee voted 5-1 to recommend approval of the variances and a conditional use permit needed for the project.

The recommendations will be reviewed by the full Planning Commission on July 23. Planning Commission action on the conditional use permit and variances will be final unless appealed to the City Council.

The property is owned by the Kenefick family, who have been working with Reuter Walton on plans for a mixed-use building that would include Saji-Ya, Emmett’s and two other businesses on the first floor and 80 apartments above. The variances would allow the developers to sidestep the zoning overlay district that for the past 15 years has limited the size of new buildings on Grand.

Dixie's site
The stepped-back facade of the proposed five-story development at 695 Grand Ave. with its restaurant patio off the sidewalk and second-floor terrace.

The Planning Commission on July 9 voted 17-2 to recommend the rezoning of the property from business to mixed-use Traditional Neighborhoods 3 (TN3). That recommendation goes to the City Council for a final public hearing and vote later this summer.

The Zoning Committee hearing on July 15 lasted almost three hours, focused largely on the East Grand Avenue Zoning Overlay District. The district was adopted in 2006 as a way to preserve the character of Grand by limiting building heights and footprints between Dale Street and Ayd Mill Road. That 1.3-mile stretch of Grand has not had a new mixed-use development since, according to city planner Emma Siegworth.

The East Grand Avenue Zoning Overlay District limits building heights to a maximum of three stories or 36 feet, building footprint to a maximum of 25,000 square feet, and building size to a maximum of 75,000 square feet. The Zoning Committee recommended variances that would allow a building height of five stores or 59 feet 10 inches, a building footprint of 30,500 square feet and a building size of 124,000 square feet.

The Zoning Committee received 63 comments in support of the development as proposed and 122 against. The commission also received a petition with 465 signatures in opposition.

TN3 zoning allows a building height of up to 55 feet. The Zoning Committee recommended the approval of a conditional use permit for a height of 59 feet 10 inches. The committee also recommended a variance from the maximum 10-foot front-yard setback, allowing an 18-foot setback to accommodate restaurant patio space.

The zoning change, conditional use permit and all of the variances have the support of the Summit Hill Association. The SHA is currently studying the East Grand Avenue Zoning Overlay District. It opted to support a variance to the overlay district in hopes of preserving the district while it considers recommending to the city any changes to its parameters.

The Zoning Committee received 63 comments in support of the development as proposed and 122 against. The commission also received a petition with 465 signatures in opposition.

Neighbors testify for and against

More than 20 people testified at the hearing against the project as planned. While some objected to how it would affect the neighborhood’s historical character, most spoke in defense of the zoning overlay district and the protections it provides. Margaret Gadient said the overlay district was developed over three years with extensive neighborhood participation. “The limits are there for a purpose,” she said, and that is to provide a balance in development on Grand.

Sonja Mason, who lives across Saint Albans Street from 695 Grand, was among several speakers who said the development as proposed is just too big for the site. The new building would tower over adjacent homes, blocking light and air, she and others said. “Neighbors do want more housing,” Mason said. But they do not want what she described as “high-density luxury boxes.”

“This will greatly impact the livability of the neighborhood,” said Marit Kucera, a resident of Saint Albans Street. According to her, the increased traffic from the development would pose a greater risk for pedestrians.

Five people spoke in support of the permit and variances, saying the project will provide new housing and vitality for the neighborhood. “I think this is something Grand Avenue needs,” said neighborhood resident Beth Strusinski.

Zoning committee votes 5-1 in favor

Zoning Committee chairman Cedrick Baker asked Ari Parritz of Reuter Walton if the developers would consider continuing their discussion with neighbors to resolve some of their objections to the project. Parritz, however, cited the months of discussion that has already taken place and did not believe that would be productive. A smaller building, he added, would involve tradeoffs, such as giving up the ground floor restaurant and retail space.

Baker joined committee members Kristine Grill, Nate Hood, Simon Taghioff and Omar Syed in recommending the conditional use permit and variances. Jake Reilly was the lone vote against.

Reilly questioned whether the project meets all of the required legal findings for approval, including “practical difficulty.” He also cited the 4-to-1 neighborhood opposition.

Reilly also cast one of the two votes against rezoning the property on July 9. He thought a more reasonable solution would have been to rezone the property to TN2, which would have allowed for many of the features the developers sought in their proposal but not such a large building.

—Jane McClure

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