To St. Paul city planners, a proposed 118-unit apartment building at St. Clair and Snelling avenues fits into their vision for the neighborhood. It’s high-density housing on a busy transit corridor within walking distance of shops, services, jobs and parks.
Yet, for many of its neighbors, the project is all wrong. They say it’s too big, too tall and too out-of-keeping with the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood. On Wednesday, the St. Paul City Council will hear from neighbors appealing a decision by the Planning Commission to allow higher buildings than what zoning allows.
While Wednesday’s hearing involves a conditional-use permit for a single project, it may wind up an early skirmish in a much wider debate between those who yearn to preserve their neighborhoods as they know them and those demanding exponentially more and higher density housing.
Those tensions have already emerged as development is proposed on the “superblock” surrounding the Allianz Field soccer stadium and the 100-plus acres of the former Ford site.
Senior City Planner Kady Dadlez said the TJL Development project in Mac-Groveland, which could have buildings as high as six stories, matches what the city is promoting for its busy transit corridors. “More housing, increased density, market rate. … This is where it makes the most sense.”
But Peg Flanagan, who has lived in her home near St. Clair and Snelling for 32 years and belongs to a group called Neighbors for Responsible Development, begs to differ.
“This is a neighborhood where people know each other, know their neighbors. Where people walk a great deal, where people bike a great deal,” she said. “It has a small-town flavor with an urban outlook. And the mass and scale of this project will change the flavor of this neighborhood for generations to come.”
According to Metropolitan Council projections, St. Paul has grown beyond 300,000 residents for the first time since the 1960s, and more people are coming. The city is expected to add 30,000 residents, 13,000 households and 20,000 jobs between 2020 and 2040. At the same time, St. Paul’s low housing vacancy rate — planning officials said it’s 1 percent — and lack of vacant land makes it hard to find places for all those folks to live.
According to St. Paul’s draft 2040 Comprehensive Plan, officials believe “the only way to grow” is redevelopment that builds upward, and by connecting that housing to enhanced public transit.
“The challenge is to use growth to our advantage and ensure that new development is sensitive to its urban context,” according to the plan.
To help do that, the city last fall rezoned south Snelling Avenue to allow taller buildings. Developer Jim LaValle is hoping to build the St. Clair-Snelling development taller still. He’s seeking conditional-use permits to exceed limits of 55 feet on one section, 45 feet on another, proposing heights of 68 feet and 47 feet.
The development, which would replace a parking lot and two one-story buildings, will have 70 underground parking spaces and 28 surface parking spaces. To encourage residents using the A Line bus rapid transit on Snelling, there will be a real-time monitor in the building lobby. To encourage bicycle commuters, there will be an on-site bike repair station.
Much of what St. Paul says it wants in new housing, LaValle said his project is trying to deliver.
“We’re following the rule book,” he said. “The city laid out the road map for us.”
To Flanagan and others, it’s not enough. Neighbors, she said, want development at the southeast corner of St. Clair and Snelling. They just don’t want it to dwarf their homes and block their views. “This appeal is all about the height,” she said.
But Mike Sonn and Brian Martinson, Mac-Groveland residents who also serve on the community council board, argued that the TJL development is not only what the city wants — it’s what a growing St. Paul needs.
“A lot of these expressions are emotion-based responses to a fear of change,” Martinson said of neighbors not wanting their vision of their neighborhood to change.
Said Sonn: “What is neighborhood character? Obviously, it’s very subjective. To me, Mac-Grove is bikeable, walkable. I can leave the car in the garage a week at a time. Ninety percent of what we need is a 10-minute walk away. This project fits with all that.”