Construction of a five-story apartment building at the southeast corner of Lexington Parkway and James Avenue can proceed. On January 21, the Saint Paul Planning Commission approved a conditional use permit, variances and site plan for the building. The commission’s decision is final unless it is appealed to the City Council within 10 days.

Lexington-James apartments
A rendering of the five-story, 114-unit apartment building proposed for the southeast corner of Lexington Parkway and James Avenue. Six houses will have to be removed to make way for the new building.

The commission split 9-5 on the requests from the development team of Chet Funk, Erich Leidel, Nathan Jameson and Minneapolis-based Yellow Tree Development. The proposed 114-unit building would replace six single-family homes on James. It would front 470 S. Lexington and would have below-grade parking for motor vehicles and bicycles.

Commissioners debated the project for an hour before casting their votes. A state-mandated deadline governing action on zoning cases meant they had to make a decision by January 21. Otherwise, the project would have been automatically approved.

Members were split on whether the revised project met all legal findings required for the variances. City planning staff and the developers said the site’s sloping terrain constituted a practical difficulty. The site has a roughly 25-foot change in grade from northwest to southeast.

Opponents said that while they support the need for greater housing density and more affordable units, previous plans for a 91-unit building had already won the commission’s approval in 2021. They speculated that the increase in the number of units was based on economic reasons, which cannot be considered a valid legal argument for claiming practical difficulty.

“This is a tough one,” said commissioner Nate Hood, noting that he supported the smaller project. He called the slope argument “flimsy.”

“This is a tough one,” said commissioner Nate Hood, noting that he supported the smaller project. He called the slope argument “flimsy.”

The revised project should be considered as a new request, said commissioner Kristine Grill in supporting the variances. She said the current plan is not that different from the one that was approved in 2021.

The project had a recommendation of support from the Macalester-Groveland Community Council. However, several neighbors opposed the plan, saying the building would be out of scale for the area.

The project has been on the drawing board for more than two years and was delayed at one point to allow for citywide changes to multifamily zoning. The changes allow more density if developers add affordable units and agree to keep them so for at least 15 years.

The Planning Commission approved a conditional use permit and variances for the project last March, even though city staff recommended denial at the time. Since then the project was redesigned to add 4 feet 2 inches of height and more balconies, and to eliminate surface parking. That triggered a new application, which was recommended for approval by city staff.

The project required a conditional use permit to allow a building height of 69 feet 10 inches instead of 65 feet 8 inches. It also needed new setback variances. Instead of a minimum setback of 18 feet 11 inches, 4 feet 5 inches was requested on the south side, 10 feet on the north side and zero feet on the east side. A front setback variance along Lexington was no longer needed.

— Jane McClure

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