The Saint Paul City Council on October 13 voted 6-0-1 to amend the open space and lot coverage requirements for new buildings in the 122-acre Highland Bridge development.
 
“When the master plan for redeveloping the Ford site was drafted, there was concern about really large buildings on the site,” said city planning director Luis Pereira. The maximum lot coverage and minimum open space requirements were intended to address those concerns.
 
 
Ford site
An artist's rendering of the master plan for the 122-acre Highland Bridge redevelopment project on the site of the former Ford Motor Company assembly plant.
The changes adopted on October 13 are intended to simplify and clarify the regulations, but they have sparked controversy in the surrounding neighborhood.
 
Under the original requirements, a minimum of 25 percent of a building’s lot had to be open space. Open space was defined as ground-level courtyards, patios, walkways and gardens as well as balconies, roof decks and green roofs. Those provisions do not change with the amendments. However, the term “open space” has been eliminated as it pertains to private property. According to city staff, there are other regulations in the master plan that govern private open space, including rules that deal with a building’s footprint, lot coverage, setbacks, floor area ratio, landscaping and stormwater management.
 
City Council member Jane Prince abstained from the vote, saying she wanted to better understand what the changes would mean. “This was put into the Ford site master plan for a reason,” she said, citing the extensive community process that went into the planning process.
 

Ongoing fear of a canyon-like effect between buildings

The changes were opposed by the group Neighbors for a Livable Saint Paul, which filed a lawsuit in the fall of 2020 over the open space requirements and how they were being interpreted by the city. The neighbors were concerned about the many zoning variances that were being granted to Highland Bridge’s developers.
 
According to the group, the changes will make it easier for Highland Bridge developers to construct large buildings without having to apply for zoning variances. The group is concerned that without provisions for open space, new buildings will create a canyon-like effect on the streets of Highland Bridge.
 
Neighbors for a Livable Saint Paul pointed out that the judge in their lawsuit ruled that it was possible to conclude that the city failed to perform its official duty to enforce the Ford Site Zoning and Public Realm Master Plan.
 
“To evade this finding, the city’s solution is to eliminate the concept and definition of ‘open space’ from the master plan,” the group stated. “These changes remove the guardrails that are intended to prevent reckless development.”
 
The Highland District Council supported most of the amendments approved by the City Council, but asked that the lot coverage bonus for green roofs be reduced from 10 to 5 percent. The City Council kept the bonus at 10 percent, which means that new buildings with green roofs may cover up to 85 percent of a lot without a variance.

— Jane McClure

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