Earlier this month, the Saint Paul Planning Commission engaged in a fascinating debate over a proposal on West 7th Street to build a self-storage facility next to the remodeled Schmidt brewery site. The issue was a discussion about whether or not to approve a non-conforming use reestablishment, and there were split votes in both the Zoning Committee (4 in favor, 2 against) and at the full Commission (9 in favor, 8 against; I was one of the ‘no’ votes). To me, the permit discussion revealed how zoning decisions can revolve around subjective considerations. In this case, a lot weighed on considerations of economic potential and predictions about the future of neighborhoods.
The building in question is a 78,000 foot warehouse directly behind the massive Schmidt Brewery arts lofts project, which just opened this year. It sits on an abandoned set of rail tracks (the beginning of the spur that leads to the Ford plant) and was most recently used as storage for NSP and a logistics company. It has been abandoned for five years, and the owners are trying to sell it; the current proposal is from a self-storage company that would transform the site into an enclosed storage locker facility.
Back in 2008, the site was re-zoned from I2 (general industrial zoning) to TN3, which is relatively dense “traditional neighborhood.” In Saint Paul, TN3 does not allow the kinds of use that the self-storage facility requires. Having skated through the Planning Commission (barely), the permit approval now sits in the hands of the City Council. There is a fair amount of neighborhood opposition about the development proposal, and its future seems uncertain.
Non-Conforming Uses and Grey Areas
Despite the best intentions of zoning codes, cities are full of non-conforming uses. Granting them is hardly unusual, but is usually done with some thought from staff and officials about the specific circumstances. Often these discussions are relatively lenient, particularly when a non-conforming use permit (NCUP…I just made that up) already exists and needs to be modified for some reason.
However, when a non-conforming use permit needs to be re-established after it expires, the approval process is more of a judgement call.
If you’ll pardon the legalese, here is what the Saint Paul City code has to say about granting a NCUP: section 61.109(e):
Reestablishment of nonconforming use. When a legal nonconforming use of a structure, or structure and land in combination, is discontinued or ceases to exist for a continuous period of more than one (1) year, the planning commission may permit the reestablishment of a nonconforming use if the commission makes the following findings:
(1) The structure, or structure and land in combination, cannot reasonably or economically be used for a conforming purpose;
(2) The proposed use is equally appropriate or more appropriate to the district than the previous legal nonconforming use;
(3) The proposed use will not be detrimental to the existing character of development in the immediate neighborhood or endanger the public health, safety, or general welfare;
(4) The proposed use is consistent with the comprehensive plan; and
(5) A notarized petition of at least two-thirds of the owners of the described parcels of real estate within one hundred (100) feet of the subject property has been submitted stating their support for the use.
The application for the permit shall include the petition, a site plan meeting the requirements of section 61.401, floor plans, and other information as required to substantiate the permit.
As you can see, the code suggests a bunch of things that decision makers should consider. As with most site plans, city staff goes over these one-by-one and makes a recommendation about whether a specific proposal checks all the boxes. For example, uses are required to be the “consistent with the comp plan,” however comp plans are usually so elaborate and multi-dimensional that almost anything can be deemed consistent or inconsistent.
(In that way, comp plan consistency is similar to biblical exigesis, though there are some exceptions, like Saint Paul’s well-written transportation chapter.)
The Economic Potential of the Schmidt Site
To me, the key part of the Commission discussion revolved around point (1), where the staff and Commissioners debated “whether or not the structure or land “cannot reasonably or economically be used for a conforming purpose.”
This is a very difficult question for anyone to answer! What does the building look like? How much might it cost to demolish or remodel? What is the market for the land? What are the development economics of the neighborhood?
It seems foolhardy to claim to know these things, but this is precisely what staff and officials are called on to do. Cities can change quickly, even in relatively sleepy places like Saint Paul. If I could definitively answer what is or is not economically possible in neighborhoods like West 7th Street, I’d have made millions of dollars in real estate by now.
No matter what happens, this site offers an interesting test case for how planners view change in neighborhoods. Looking at its recent history, a good case can be made that this building and site lacks much potential. It’s a huge industrial low-value building with high ceilings sitting in an area that’s been economically marginal for decades. It been vacant for five years, and in that light, any re-use of the site would be beneficial.
On the other hand, if we focus on the recent activity around the Schmidt Brewery, the site sits right on the Mississippi River bluff. (Randolph is one of rare streets that actually connects the river to the neighborhood.) And the site is located directly adjacent to a brand-new 600-unit mixed-use development. From this perspective, this is a prime piece of land that could have any number of (conforming) uses.
As this development proposal came up in front of the public, neighbors weighed in quite a bit in favor of denial because they saw this property as having more potential than a (largely uninhabited) self-storage facility. In one way, that’s how these debates between neighborhood groups and developers often proceed. Neighborhood groups often want a specific kind of development with lots of amenities; for example, brand-new environmentally efficient reproductions of historic buildings with mixed-use space used for high-end local business retail seems to be popular. Developers, on the other hand, will usually argue that their development proposal is the only realistic one.
To me, this case where Planning Commissioners like myself have to make a judgement call about the economic potential of an specific site. Often we do this without much detailed knowledge of market forces or development economics. But here, I personally felt that the recent development of the Schmidt site combined with the unique siting of this parcel and the potential transportation investments along the “Riverview corridor” meant that the city be assertive about projecting economic potential. I don’t think Saint Paul should settle for a development proposal that doesn’t even come close to fitting with existing zoning in one of the few places where investment has changed the neighborhood dynamics.
It’ll be interesting to see what the City Council decides to do, but in any case, this example shows how difficult these questions can become.