A decision on how open space on private property at the Highland Bridge development is regulated is now in the hands of the City Council. The Saint Paul Planning Commission on August 20 voted 12-3 to recommend changes to the regulations as they are spelled out in the master plan for the 122-acre site of the former Ford Motor Company assembly plant property.

The changes are intended to simplify and clarify the regulations, but they have sparked controversy in the surrounding Highland Park neighborhood. The Planning Commission’s Comprehensive and Neighborhood Planning Committee had to wade through more than 40 pages of public comments from 64 parties.

The regulations regarding the minimum requirements for open space on private lots are intended to allay concerns about buildings creating a canyon-like effect on the streets in between. 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, rooftop decks and green roofs.

Those provisions would not change with the proposed amendments. However, city staff have proposed eliminating the term “open space” in the master plan as it pertains to buildings on private lots. According to city staff, there are other regulations in the master plan that govern open space lot coverage, including rules that deal with building lot coverage, building footprints, building setbacks, floor area ratios, landscaping and stormwater management.

“What we’re trying to do is remove a problematic definition,” said city planner Menaka Mohan, who recently stepped down as the lead planner on the Highland Bridge project.

Are green roofs open space, and if so, how much?

The Comprehensive and Neighborhood Planning Committee debated at length the provisions in the master plan regarding green roofs and how they affect the open space requirements, according to planning commissioner Rich Holst. Having a green roof can provide a building with a lot coverage bonus of up to 10 percent. Instead of 75 percent, a building’s footprint could cover up to 85 percent of its lot. The Highland District Council has asked the Planning Commission to reduce the lot coverage bonus to a maximum of 5 percent.

A green roof is defined as an area on top of a building that is open to the sky and surfaced with soil and living plant materials for the purpose of retaining rainwater and absorbing heat from the sun. The substrate and planted material must be at least two inches deep. To be considered for the bonus, the green roof must also face a city park, a civic area or a public right-of-way.

 

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Planning Commission chair Luis Rangel Morales cast one of the three votes against the changes, citing his concerns about green roofs and how they factor into the open space requirements.

“Is it better to have undeveloped open space on the ground or green roof space that is only accessible to people in a building?” he asked.

— Jane McClure

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