After weighing a wide expansion of places to locate auto body shops, the St. Paul City Council opted Wednesday to let them in only along the University Avenue light-rail corridor in addition to the industrial zones where they've been allowed for years.
The council's decision permits ABRA Auto Body, at University near Lexington Parkway, to remain where it is while continuing St. Paul's 30-year policy of keeping auto body shops mostly out of residential neighborhoods.
Key to the council's decision was vigorous opposition from several district council officials, who wrote letters and testified that auto body shops — as opposed to auto service shops allowed in some commercial areas — often are unsightly, noisy and generally undesirable neighbors.
"Auto body shops historically contribute to neighborhood complaints and concerns including but not limited to noise, fumes, site conditions," wrote Jeff Martens of the District 6 Planning Council in the North End.
The conditions built into the new ordinance, they said, point to the problems of having an auto body shop next door: repairs must be done inside the shop, damaged vehicles must be kept out of sight and a fence must block sight of the shop from nearby homes.
For years, St. Paul has permitted auto body shops in industrial zones and commercial zones only near car dealers. The City Council last winter asked for a review of its auto body shop regulations after ABRA sought more latitude in locating its shops.
The Planning Commission, noting that auto body service had become harder to find in the city as car dealers left for the suburbs, recommended that they be permitted not only in industrial zones but also in commercial zones along major traffic routes and in the downtown business perimeter.
After listening to the concerns of the district councils, however, City Council Member Nathaniel Khaliq persuaded his colleagues to leave auto body shops out of commercial districts and instead permit them in the "traditional neighborhood" districts adjacent to the light-rail transit stations along University Avenue — including ABRA's current location. St. Paul defines that type of traditional neighborhood as "high-density, transit-supportive, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use development."