Study targets St. Thomas housing

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 3, 2012 - 11:39 PM

School: Proposed off-campus rules should apply to other colleges, too.

A St. Paul study released Tuesday recommends new restrictions on off-campus student rental housing surrounding the University of St. Thomas on Summit Avenue.

The study, commissioned by the City Council in August, would grandfather in current student residences but require a distance of at least 150 feet between future student houses in a designated area near the university. The restriction would apply only to rentals and only to students.

The proposal has a ways to go. The university already has concerns, and extensive public discussion is expected, with input coming from neighborhood groups, businesses and students.

The student housing issue is among the stress points between the urban university and residents in one of St. Paul's most renowned neighborhoods. Residents have complained about noise, property upkeep and parking issues with student renters.

Council Member Russ Stark said the proposal would create a "density cap." Some blocks already are at the cap and could support no more housing. Others are not, Stark said.

"Obviously there will be a fair amount of public process, and I don't want to get in the way of that," Stark said. But, he added, "The proposal gets at what we asked them to get at it, and this is the concentration of student rentals."

Doug Hennes, St. Thomas' vice president for university and government relations, said the university doesn't "support the density ordinance in its current form because it singles out St. Thomas. We asked the city to consider districts of some sort around each campus."

Hennes acknowledged that St. Thomas is bigger, but he said if the restrictions are good public policy, then they should be good for other colleges, even on smaller scales.

Nearly 6,000 undergraduate students enroll at St. Thomas every year. Of those, 43 percent live on campus. Of the 3,300 living off campus, roughly half live in housing near the school, according to Hennes.

Pending the completion of the study, the City Council in August imposed a moratorium on the conversion of owner-occupied homes near campus into off-campus housing for multiple students.

Stark's predecessor on the council, Jay Benanav, tried unsuccessfully to pass citywide zoning restrictions in 2003 to ease tensions between residents and students.

Since 1999, neighbors of St. Thomas have been riled by the university's demolitions and expansions. Some filed lawsuits, and others denounced "campus sprawl."

The Planning Commission set a public hearing on the study for May 4. Eventually, the commission will decide whether to recommend the changes to the City Council. The council's moratorium on new student housing expires in August.

The study recommended defining a student dwelling as a one- or two-family dwelling in which at least one unit is occupied by three or more students.

Rochelle Olson • 651-925-5035 Twitter: @rochelleolson

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