The East Grand Avenue Overlay District was an issue last year when plans were brought forward to replace the building that housed Dixie’s on Grand, Saji-Ya and Emmett’s Public House at 695 Grand with a five-story, mixed-use structure (pictured). The new Kenton House development is now under construction.

The Saint Paul Planning Commission will initiate a study of the East Grand Avenue Overlay District on September 16 to determine whether longtime building height, setback and square footage limits should remain in place, be modified or dropped entirely. Any changes to the restrictions imposed by the overlay district would likely be taken up by the City Council in early 2023.

The commission’s Comprehensive and Neighborhood Planning Committee recommended on August 31 that the study proceed. City planners Spencer Johnson and Emma Siegworth are leading the study, assisted by a hired consultant and a 10- to 15-member advisory committee whose members will be chosen soon.

Council member Rebecca Noecker supports the study in the wake of recent development disputes along the eastern end of Grand. She believes the overlay district has discouraged new development along that stretch of Grand since it was implemented in 2006.

The East Grand Avenue Overlay District extends from Oakland Avenue to Ayd Mill Road. It limits new buildings to a maximum footprint of 25,000 square feet and sets height limits to 30 feet for commercial buildings, 40 feet for residential or institutional buildings, and 36 feet for mixed-use commercial-residential buildings. The limits also prohibit developers from adding building height in exchange for step backs on upper floors.

New structures must also follow traditional neighborhoods design guidelines. The overlay district no longer has parking requirements, since the City Council eliminated all minimum parking requirements last year.

The overlay district was approved in July 2006 by the City Council, a few months after the Summit Hill Plan was adopted. The overlay and district council plan have several goals, such as maintaining Grand Avenue as an eclectic mix of housing and small-scale shops, restaurants and services. Another is to encourage pedestrian activity at street level, and to preserve Grand’s character.

The overlay district was implemented as a way to deter larger-scale development. One worry in 2005-2006 was the potential for national chain stores to buy up and redevelop property along Grand. Another was the Oxford Hill mixed-use development at Grand and Oxford Street.

 

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The overlay has curbed development on Grand ever since. It was a flash point in the debate in 2019-2020 over a proposed mixed-use development at the northeast corner of Grand and Avon that would have included a Lunds & Byerlys and four floors of apartments. That plan was eventually dropped.

Council member Rebecca Noecker supports the study in the wake of recent development disputes along the eastern end of Grand. She believes the overlay district has discouraged new development along that stretch of Grand since it was implemented in 2006.

The overlay restrictions were also an issue in 2021 when the Kenefick family and Reuter Walton brought forward plans to replace the building that housed Dixie’s on Grand, Saji-Ya and Emmett’s Public House at 695 Grand with a five-story, mixed-use structure. The new Kenton House development is now under construction after protracted neighborhood debate. The debate highlighted the need to reexamine the overlay district.

The overlay district and parts of the current Summit Hill plan are seen as being inconsistent with the city’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan. The inconsistencies include 2040 plan sections on increased density and building design. State law requires consistency between comprehensive plans and other city plans, Johnson said.

SHA, which has been working on a district plan update for the past few years, is looking at the overlay district as part of its planning process. The district council in early 2021 released a neighborhood survey to collect feedback on housing, open space, historic preservation, parking, development intensity and other topics.

One question focused on the overlay district. Around 49 percent of survey respondents considered the overlay to be a valuable tool to maintain the neighborhood’s character. Another 42 percent said the overlay is in need of change or will be unable to support future needs.

Debate over the 695 Grand development prompted the SHA to seek a city zoning study that analyzes the effectiveness of the overlay district. The district council had hoped to weigh in on such a study by June of this year, but has been waiting for the city’s planning department staff to conduct the study.

The SHA ultimately supported the 695 Grand project, but opposed the developers’ request to opt out of the overlay district. Instead, the district council suggested a variance to the overlay restrictions be sought. SHA made it clear that it did not want a decision on 695 Grand to be indicative of a recommendation on the future of the overlay district.

— Byline

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