City says changes are meant to clarify code.

Proposed changes to the regulations governing building and open space lot coverage in Highland Bridge are now in the hands of the Saint Paul Planning Commission. The regulations are included in the city’s master plan for redeveloping the 122-acre site of Ford Motor Company’s former assembly plant in Highland Park. The amendments are intended to simplify and clarify the regulations, according to city staff. However, most of those who testified before the Planning Commission on July 23 opposed the changes, saying they could make it easier for developers to overbuild their lots and leave little open space around their structures.

An artist's representation of the Highland Bridge development when fully built out according to the city's master plan for the old Ford Plant site.

The Planning Commission’s Comprehensive and Neighborhood Planning Committee is reviewing the comments received in the public hearing, which included four speakers and more than 40 pages of written testimony. The committee’s recommendation will be brought back to the full Planning Commission in August and then sent to the City Council for a final public hearing and vote.

The open space lot coverage regulations in the Ford site master plan have caused considerable confusion. So have the proposed amendments. Some people thought the amendments represented a change to the public open space requirements on the Ford site. That is not the case. The open space lot coverage regulations are intended to allay concerns about buildings filling up development lots and creating a canyon-like effect on the streets separating buildings. According to city staff, the amendments do not alter that intent.

The requirements for open space lot coverage are separate from the requirements for building lot coverage. Currently, the footprint of new buildings may not cover more than 75 percent of the lot. That requirement does not change under the proposed amendments.

Under the current requirements, a minimum of 25 percent of a building’s lot must be open space. Open space is defined as ground-level courtyards, patios, walkways and gardens as well as balconies, roof decks and  green roofs.

City staff have proposed eliminating the term “open space” in the master plan as it pertains to private parcels and to no longer include green roof areas as open space. City staff maintain that there are other regulations that govern open space lot coverage, including rules that deal with building lot coverage, building footprint, building setbacks, building floor area ratios, landscaping and stormwater management.

The requirements for open space lot coverage are separate from the requirements for building lot coverage. Currently, the footprint of new buildings may not cover more than 75 percent of the lot. That requirement does not change under the proposed amendments.

 

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A change in how green roofs are regulated

However, the amendments would change the way green roofs are regulated. Developers who provide a green roof would be granted a lot coverage bonus, allowing their building to have a larger footprint and occupy a greater percentage of the lot than usual.

City staff have proposed raising the maximum lot coverage for buildings that have a green roof by up to 10 percent, depending on the size of the green roof. The green roof would have to face a public right-of-way, civic plaza or park or the central water feature that will flow north and south through Highland Bridge.

A green roof is defined as an area on top of a building that is open to the sky and surfaced with soil and plants for the purpose of absorbing the sun’s heat and retaining rainwater. The depth of the soil and plant materials must be at least two inches.

Local residents are skeptical about the changes

Neighbors for a Livable Saint Paul (NLSP) are among the most vocal critics of the proposed amendments. NLSP took the city to court last fall over the Highland Bridge building and open space lot coverage requirements and the number of zoning variances that have been approved for the project. According to the group, the proposed amendments represent a “substantial departure” from the Ford site master plan, which they said was “carefully crafted” over a period of 10 years to ease neighborhood concerns about the high density of the project.

“By eliminating the definition of open space (in the master plan),” NLSP testified, “the city has effected a bait-and-switch, further blurring the distinction between the percentage of each parcel that is covered by buildings and the percentage that is allocated to open space. The likely result is that developers will have carte blanche to increase concrete, brick and mortar and decrease grass, landscaping and trees beyond the intent of the codified plan.”

Macalester-Groveland resident Julie Kaupa said that she is concerned that after so many years of citizen input, the Ford site master plan is being eyed for changes.

Highland Park resident Kate Hunt called the proposed amendments “baffling” and a “blunt maneuver to squeeze in more density” at Highland Bridge.

HDC approves changes in part

The Highland District Council (HDC) Community Development Committee has recommended approval of the proposed amendments to the open space lot coverage requirements for the most part. The HDC agreed with the removal of the definition of “open space” as it pertains to private property, the revised definition of green roof and the granting of a lot coverage bonus tied to green roofs. However, it questioned the size of the lot coverage bonus.

While green roofs have environmental benefits, HDC committee members said, the bonus should be limited to 5 percent to better prevent buildings from overcrowding
their lots.

— Jane McClure

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