Plans to squeeze a three-unit townhouse behind an existing triplex in St. Paul’s Summit Hill neighborhood have pitted neighbors against the city — and each other.
Building a second building at 542 Portland Av. requires six variances waiving requirements around minimum lot size, setbacks and parking. Earlier this fall, St. Paul’s Board of Zoning Appeals approved all six, citing, in part, the need for more housing in the city. The decision has created a rift between neighbors who applaud the additional housing and investment, and those who say the project breaks all the carefully cultivated rules they’re required to follow to preserve one of the city’s most iconic neighborhoods.
The St. Paul City Council will weigh in Wednesday on an appeal neighbors filed Oct. 15 challenging the zoning appeals board’s decision in favor of property owner Sullivan Property Investments II.
“The project will drastically contradict the established rhythm of historic buildings on Portland Avenue, on Summit Avenue, and throughout the District. The project will not blend in but forever be an odd duck,” according to the appeal filed with the city.
The new townhouse building would have a Portland Avenue address — 540 Portland Av. — but would be more visible from Summit Avenue.
The Summit Avenue Residential Preservation Association opposes Sullivan’s plan, which would place six residential units on a 12,500-square-foot lot, calling it “extremely oversized.” The association argues it prioritizes the developer’s desires to maximize “economic return” at the expense of the rest of the neighborhood.
William Garman Hargens and Mary Staples Thompson filed the appeal with the City Council, arguing that the variances are not warranted and that the zoning appeals board violated open meeting laws when rendering its unanimous decision at a virtual meeting in October. The two are also challenging the St. Paul Heritage Preservation Commission’s Oct. 5 approval of the construction of a three-unit residential structure.
Thompson, who is chairwoman of the St. Paul Public Housing Agency’s Board of Commissioners, declined to discuss the specifics, citing her leadership role.
“It’s been pretty sensitive,” Thompson said. “The paper record spells out our concerns.”
According to the appeal, the technology used for the meeting of the zoning appeals board was faulty, making it impossible to hear all comments and deliberations. Two city hearings for Sullivan’s development also overlapped, making it impossible for neighbors to fully listen in.
In a letter to the city, the Ramsey Hill Association said the public hearing processes lacked transparency. It wants the City Council to reverse the zoning appeals board’s decision, which would send Sullivan’s development application back through the hearing and approval process.
“We all work very hard to work with the historical preservation commission and the city to abide by the rules of development when working on our homes. We think developers should do the same,” said Association President Cathy Maes.
Sullivan did not respond to an e-mail request for comment. But in documents filed with the city, the company argues the new building will be a “significant improvement” to the back lot, which is now a gravel parking lot surrounded by a chain-link fence. Sullivan’s team said the new building will blend into the neighborhood, with architecture inspired by the Dutch Colonial roof profile of the existing building.
The Summit-University Planning Council supports the variances.
“Increasing density is a need across all of St. Paul,” Jens Werner, executive director of the planning council, wrote in a letter to the city. Other neighbors have also written letters in support of adding housing in the area and improving the lot.
City planning staff recommended approval of all six variances, writing that “the plight of the landowner is due to circumstances unique to property not created by the landowner.”
Staff said the variances are “in harmony” with the purpose and intent of the city’s zoning code and won’t alter the essential character of the area. They also noted that the new building will create more housing in the city.
Council Member Rebecca Noecker, who represents the neighborhood, declined to comment, saying she could not take a position before Wednesday’s hearing in this “quasi-judicial case.”