The Saint Paul Planning Commission recommended rezoning a vacant lot at 83 Douglas St. from single-family to townhouse residential on December 17 to accommodate plans for a cluster-style housing development for veterans. City Council action is expected in early 2022.

The rezoning would allow for four single-family, prefabricated homes to be built. West End residents Charles Stephens and Laurel Gamm own the property and are working with New Brighton-based YardHomes and the nonprofit Minnesota Assistance Council for Veterans (MACV) on the project. The one-bedroom homes would have permanent foundations and one parking space each. Detailed site plans, including building dimensions, were still being finalized.

Veterans occupying the homes would be at risk of homelessness. They would not receive on-site services, so the units would not be considered supportive housing. Jon Lovald, chief operating officer for MACV, said anyone housed in the four dwellings will go through a support and vetting process. The housing would be considered permanent and not transitional. Residents also would have to abide by conditions tied to their leases.

Stephens and Gamm would own the property and YardHomes would initially own the dwellings. MACV would pay the property owners and YardHomes to house the veterans, with ownership of the buildings transferring to Stephens and Gamm after 10-15 years.

The zoning change was supported by the Planning Commission’s Zoning Committee on December 9 and by the West Seventh/Fort Road Federation on December 13. The site has been vacant since 1998.

If the City Council approves the rezoning, it would reverse a change made in 2011 when the property and 756 others in the neighborhood were downzoned. The rezonings took place in an area bounded by I-35E, Grand Avenue, Smith Avenue, Shepard Road and Grace Street.

The downzoning was sought to address concerns about poorly done conversions, irresponsible landlords and overcrowding on some properties, and to preserve family-sized housing, rather than have dwellings divided into smaller units. Small lots, narrow streets and lack of alleys on many blocks also factored into the changes.

“The 2008 housing crisis created countless foreclosures that threaten the area’s viability,” said neighbor Brittney Schuller.

Eight neighbors, many of whom recently met with Stephens and Gamm, sent letters opposing the rezoning. One issue is that it would reverse efforts to attract more single-family homeowners to the area. The development also comes as the neighborhood struggles with gentrification issues and increased demand for parking.

“The 2008 housing crisis created countless foreclosures that threaten the area’s viability,” said neighbor Brittney Schuller. “The Little Bohemia Neighborhood Association worked tirelessly with the Fort Road Federation and the city of Saint Paul through the Invest Saint Paul program to change the area’s housing stock back into owner-occupied homes. A new zoning designation for 83 Douglas would be a step backward in all the strides this area has made in the last 10 years.”

Douglas Street neighbors Joe O’Brien and Jessica Minczeski said that when they bought their home in 2013, “this part of Little Bohemia was plagued with homes in foreclosure and all of the elements that go along with that—squatters, violence, theft, property damage, etc. Since then, there has been a valiant and largely successful movement to rehab these homes and move this part of the neighborhood toward single-family or owner-occupied multifamily dwellings.”

Douglas Street resident Sharon Lynch was among those asking why a single-family home cannot be built on the property. Other neighbors said MACV has built other single-family dwellings to house veterans and that should be considered. Neighbors said Stephens and Gamm also have not told them what their future plans are once they own the four homes.

Planning Commission members supported the rezoning, noting it would put a longtime vacant property back into use. Commissioner Simon Taghioff called it an “ideal project.”

Stephens said he and Gamm had spent time looking for ways to develop affordable housing on the lot before finding out about MACV and its work with YardHomes. “We’re looking forward to make this something good,” Stephens said.

— Jane McClure

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