Plans for a five-story apartment building at the southeast corner of Lexington Parkway and James Avenue will return to a skeptical Saint Paul Planning Commission Zoning Committee on January 13 after some members questioned whether the latest proposal meets all needed legal findings for variances.

Committee members voted 2-4 on December 30 to turn down requests for a revised conditional use permit for building height and new setback variances, and then laid the matter over. The delay is intended to give city staff and the developers more time to review the plans.

Lexington-James apartments
A rendering of the five-story, 114-unit apartment building proposed for the southeast corner of Lexington Parkway and James Avenue.

The project has now been on the drawing boards for more than two years. In late 2021, original developers Chet Funk, Erich Leidel and Nathan Jameson added Minneapolis-based developer Yellow Tree as a partner.

Six single-family homes along James are to be demolished to make way for the building. The project has been before the Planning Commission several times. The proposed height is now 69 feet 10 inches instead of 65 feet 8 inches, which requires a conditional use permit. The proposed building now includes 114 apartment units instead of 91, balconies facing Lexington and the alley to the south, and no surface parking.

“It’s clear that the developer is trying to maximize the number of units in this proposal in order to maximize financial return on the project—and that isn’t a sufficient reason to grant a conditional use permit for height, and it certainly isn’t a good reason to grant setback variances,” Makarios said.

The project also needs new setback variances due to the change in height and the desire to add balconies. Instead of the minimum setback of 18 feet 11 inches, 4 feet 5 is requested on the south side facing the alley for the balconies, 10 feet on the north side facing James and zero feet on the east side facing an I-35E frontage road. There is no longer a need for front setback variances along Lexington.

Zoning Committee member Simon Taghioff and Luis Rangel Morales were among those questioning whether legal findings were met for all of the variances. “We’ve seen a plan for a smaller building and smaller variances,” Taghioff said.

The developers said sloping site conditions are creating difficulties. “It’s a challenging site,” said Robb Lubenow, owner of Yellow Tree. He and project architect Eli Zmira defended the project’s changes, which they said would allow more affordable housing units to be offered.

The Macalester-Groveland Community Council’s Housing and Land Use Committee supported the changes, as did one other person. Ten people sent letters opposing the project, including two former Planning Commission members, Kris Fredson and Kyle Makarios.

“It’s clear that the developer is trying to maximize the number of units in this proposal in order to maximize financial return on the project—and that isn’t a sufficient reason to grant a conditional use permit for height, and it certainly isn’t a good reason to grant setback variances,” Makarios said. According to him, the redesigned building simply does not fit on the site.

The current building design includes 82 structured parking spaces on two levels, down from the 88 and at one time 95 previously planned, with 114 bike parking spaces. The building’s front door would now be on Lexington, and the square footage would be 83,044 instead of 71,457.

— Jane McClure

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