Ground could be broken as early as this winter on a five-story building on the northwest corner of Grand Avenue and Saint Albans Street following the Saint Paul City Council’s denial of a neighborhood group’s appeal.
 
The City Council voted 5-2 on September 15 to uphold the Saint Paul Planning Commission’s approval of a conditional use permit and variances for the building at 695 Grand Ave. The structure will replace the longtime home of Dixie’s on Grand, Saji-Ya and Emmett’s Public House with four commercial spaces on the first floor and 80 apartments above.
An artist’s rendering of the restaurant patio in front of the five-story mixed-use building planned at 695 Grand Ave.

 

The neighbors, who organized under the banner Friends of a Better Way Saint Paul, have not said whether they will continue the fight in court. The project has divided the Summit Hill neighborhood for months. Supporters say it will bring new vitality and needed housing options to the eastern portion of Grand Avenue. Opponents contend that the building is too large for the site, will tower over neighboring buildings and bring more traffic and parking congestion to the area.

“I cannot see a reason why this building needs to be this tall,” said City Council member Rebecca Noecker, whose Ward 2 includes the project site…. If the overlay district restricts growth to too great a degree, and I believe it does, the remedy is to amend or abolish the overlay district, not to grant substantial variances to it.”

Council members Amy Brendmoen, Mitra Jalali, Dai Thao, Chris Tolbert and Nelsie Yang voted to deny the appeal; Rebecca Noecker and Jane Prince voted against denial. A motion by Noecker to uphold the parts of the appeal that addressed building height failed by the same 2-5 margin.

The Kenefick family, which owns the property, is working with developer Reuter Walton on the $32.5 million project. In addition to the apartments, it will have underground and at-grade parking for tenants and customers. Emmett’s and Saji-Ya will relocate in the new building, but the Dixie’s name and concept will be retired.

“We appreciate the council’s denial of the appeal and we look forward to breaking ground this winter,” said Ari Parritz of Reuter Walton. “This project will be a place for the entire community to live and gather. We can’t wait to bring this important investment in Grand to life.”

Five stories requires rezoning, permit and variance.

To make way for the project, the Planning Commission approved a variance to the East Grand Avenue Zoning Overlay District, which limits buildings on Grand east of Ayd Mill Road to a height of three stories or 36 feet, a footprint of 25,000 square feet and an above-ground size of 75,000 square feet.

 

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The City Council rezoned the property from business to traditional neighborhoods 3 (TN3), allowing for a height of up to 55 feet. The conditional use permit increases the maximum height to 59 feet 10 inches. With the variance for an 18-foot setback for much of its Grand Avenue facade, the C-shaped building will have a footprint of 30,500 square feet and a total above-ground size of 124,000 square feet.

The appellants contended that the Planning Commission erred in granting the conditional use permit and variances for the project, saying the developers failed to show hardship in having to abide by the zoning code. They said the five-story building is out of scale with the rest of the neighborhood and inconsistent with city and neighborhood plans, including the zoning overlay district.

Noecker’s opposition does not sway council majority.

“I cannot see a reason why this building needs to be this tall,” said Noecker, whose Ward 2 includes the project site. At almost 60 feet, she said, it will be about 20 feet taller than the multi-family buildings nearby. The existing buildings define the neighborhood’s character, she said, and a five-story structure will be a detriment to that character.

The East Grand Avenue Zoning Overlay District was adopted in 2006 when there were fears of large national chain stores moving onto Grand and displacing the small, locally owned businesses that have defined the avenue since its renaissance in the 1970s.

The Summit Hill Association is currently studying the impact of the overlay district and whether it should be amended or eliminated altogether. Supporters of the district say it is needed to protect Grand’s character. Critics say the restrictions have discouraged development, and cite the dearth of new construction there over the past 15 years.

“If the overlay district restricts growth to too great a degree, and I believe it does, the remedy is to amend or abolish the overlay district, not to grant substantial variances to it,” Noecker said. “What’s relevant here is not whether we want to see this project or not. We need to follow the law. I don’t see a reason why this building needs to be this tall.”

Jalali led the charge for denying the appeal. According to her, the Planning Commission did not err when it approved the conditional use permit and variances, and the building is appropriate for Grand. “It’s clear that the project will not alter the essential character of the area,” she said. The developers have worked to design a building that fits into the neighborhood, Jalali said, and not granting the conditional use permit and variances would make it impossible to build.

— Jane McClure

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