Saint Paul is considering height limits for downtown that would restrict river bluff development to 10 stories along Kellogg Boulevard. That is at odds with plans for the RiversEdge mixed-use development, where a 40-story tower has been proposed.

A key disagreement continues between Saint Paul’s proposed changes to the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area (MRCCA) regulations and Ramsey County’s longtime plans for a mixed-used development atop the Kellogg Boulevard bluff in downtown.

The Saint Paul Planning Commission’s Comprehensive and Neighborhood Planning Committee is considering comments made at a January 20 public hearing regarding the issue. Its recommendation will return to the full commission later in February or March. The City Council will then hold another public hearing on the MRCCA regulations and vote in the spring.

The January hearing drew almost two dozen people. Objections were heard from Ramsey County and the Downtown Alliance, which had asked that a November hearing on the regulations be delayed.

Restrictions would limit building heights along river bluff

The proposed height limits for downtown would restrict river bluff development to less than 10 stories on the Kellogg Boulevard site eyed for the RiversEdge mixed-use development. Additional height restrictions would extend through downtown and the West End.

County deputy director of community and economic development Josh Olson and County Board chair Trista MatasCastillo asked that the downtown height limits be reconsidered. They cited the years of work to develop the former county jail and Government Center West (old West Publishing) sites for RiversEdge. Four towers are proposed at RiversEdge. They include one that would be 40 stories high and contain apartments.

Olson cited the expense the county has gone through to clear the riverbluff site for redevelopment and the work done with developer AECOM. He also noted that some current downtown buildings could not be built today under the planned restrictions.

“Our downtown has a reputation as a sleepy place,” said Downtown Alliance president Joe Spencer. While new development has made downtown more vibrant, he said, “We need to grow our density.”

RiversEdge project would have to be redone

Planning Commissioner Nathaniel Hood asked if the RiversEdge project would be “dead on arrival” with the proposed height restrictions. Olson said the entire project would have to be redone. The RiversEdge project would also have 9 acres of park space extending down to the river.

Colleen O’Connor Toberman of Friends of the Mississippi River spoke in support of the county’s request for more building height for RiversEdge. She said river views would still be preserved in the project’s open space and its planned park. Toberman also noted that Minneapolis’ downtown riverfront regulations do not include height limits. Developers there have to go through a conditional use process.

Need for such tall towers questioned

Planning Commission members quizzed county representatives about the extent of public engagement that has been done. They also questioned the need for such a tall building at RiversEdge when other downtown buildings are vacant. They raised the issue of potentially converting buildings from office to residential.

Commissioner Troy Hackney, who lives downtown, cited the “floors of empty space” in his neighborhood.

“Our downtown has a reputation as a sleepy place,” said Downtown Alliance president Joe Spencer. While new development has made downtown more vibrant, he said, “We need to grow our density.”

The goal is to triple downtown’s population from about 10,000-30,000, but that requires more housing, Spencer said. Increased building height will be part of that.

What about the birds?

Other concerns over the heights of buildings along the riverfront were raised by local members of the Audubon Society. They included a focus on birds and the Mississippi River’s status as a key bird migratory flyway.

“The Saint Paul Audubon Society believes that what is good for birds is good for people,” said Kiki Sonnen, vice president of the local group.

Society members support ordinance language calling for bird-safe glass, but want to see further measures included to protect birds. The proposed regulations for bird-safe glass are for windows of 50 square feet or larger. Proponents would like to also see smaller windows included.

HDC favors river regulations as presented

The Highland District Council is the only area community council to weigh in on the regulations. It agreed with its Community Development Committee on February 2 to recommend approval of the regulations as presented.

 MRCCA was designated in 1976 with the goal of providing regulations and land use planning for the 72 miles of riverfront in the seven-county metropolitan area. That includes 7,150 acres in Saint Paul, which is the most land area covered by the regulations of any city along the river.

The proposed MRCCA changes for Saint Paul are based on a 2019 Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) model ordinance with specific provisions, definitions and regulations necessary to comply with the MRCCA rules.

In 2020 the city adopted a new MRCCA chapter as part of its Comprehensive Plan in compliance with the proposed rules. Last summer, the DNR found Saint Paul’s draft to be in substantial compliance with what it has proposed, and gave it a conditional approval. That sent the rules back to the Planning Commission and eventually the City Council.

Read the rules and see the maps for the MRCCA at

— Jane McClure


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