St. Paul curbs off-campus housing near University of St. Thomas

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 27, 2012 - 9:53 PM

University officials unhappy over council action but cooperative.

Brushing aside objections from the University of St. Thomas, the St. Paul City Council approved a new ordinance Wednesday that clamps down on growth in off-campus student housing near the Summit Avenue school.

The restrictions bubbled out of ongoing skirmishes between the university and the surrounding neighborhoods that are filled with stately, historic homes.

"The colleges are an important part of our community and have been for a long time. It's just that in this neighborhood, things have gotten really out of whack; they're starting to feel like more a part of the campus," said Council Member Russ Stark, who represents a majority of the affected area.

The council adopted the change on a 5-2 vote with council members Chris Tolbert and Dan Bostrom voting no.

The ordinance requires that any new student rentals within a certain area be at least 150 feet from other rentals. Rentals are defined as one- and two-unit homes in which there are three to four students renting in each unit. Existing rentals are grandfathered in and won't be affected. Current landlords can register with the city.

The affected area generally is bounded by St. Clair, Snelling, Marshall and Fairview Avenues.

Tolbert said he represents about a quarter of the area that is in the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood. "I feel for the neighbors; nobody should get their lawn urinated on or vomited on," Tolbert said but added, "We live in a city and when you live next to a university, you will see students."

Tensions between St. Thomas and the neighbors were felt at City Hall. Council members say they received hundreds of e-mails about the ordinance change in recent days.

Doug Hennes, St. Thomas vice president for university and governmental relations, repeatedly has said St. Thomas was singled out and the city should have looked at density around other city universities. But the school won't sue.

"We will live with it and move on," he said.

Density issues around St. Thomas stretch back to 1999 when neighbors cranked up complaints about "campus sprawl." Their concerns included demolitions and expansions near the campus.

Stark has now succeeded in addressing the issue where his predecessor, Jay Benanav, failed. Benanav tried unsuccessfully to pass citywide zoning restrictions in 2003 to address neighborhood concerns.

Tolbert, who grew up half a block from St. Catherine University, said he didn't like the message the ordinance sent to students and was concerned the new limits would drive up rents. He also is concerned about enforceability.

Stark said he has "realistic expectations" for the change. The Merriam Park area has been struggling for stability and striking the right balance of occupancy levels. He believes the ordinance will stabilize those areas, but said the city will have to "take a thoughtful look over time" at what happens.

Bostrom was troubled that the change would remove competition from the rental market, but also said he understands the neighborhood concerns.

"I'd sure like to see these St. Thomas kids living on the east side. We've got a lot of rental property," he said.

Council President Kathy Lantry voted for the ordinance. "I don't know that this is going to solve it, but I know that the 1,500 things we have tried before haven't," she said.

Nearly 6,000 undergraduates 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.

"It's a strong university and a beautiful campus in a great neighborhood," Hennes said. "We're fortunate."

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

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