A Tale of Zoning Manipulation in Saint Paul’s Tangletown

The house on Princeton Avenue.

Our town is filled with gates and walls invisible to the eye. Regulars at streets.mn know how the physical reality around is affected by zoning policy and staid old traffic development manuals, and it’s not my intention to bore you by banging that drum again. But when examples of bad practice come up, it’s important to spotlight them, particularly given the wonky, boring, and exclusionary nature of the zoning realm.

This is the tale of another invisible wall being built in Saint Paul to protect the wealth of a small group of private homeowners cleverly using taxpayer dime with only one small caveat, this one hasn’t happened yet.

It starts where it always starts, with concerned neighbors. Save Our Saint Paul Neighborhoods (SOSPN) is an organization that conjured itself from the well heeled shadows of Tangletown in the Mac-Grove Saint Paul in 2014 to save a quaint single family home on a big lot from becoming two quaint single family homes on decently sized lots. The group uses phrases like “historical value”, “sustainability”, and “neighborhood character” without attaching any concrete values to their claims.

They earned their first victory in 2014 that saved the old Dutch Colonial by endlessly berating the Director of the Minnesota Historical Society, who had made the grave error of purchasing the home and trying to improve it. Since then they’ve spent time berating District Councils, City Council, and the Mayor. This year they hosted a Mayoral Candidate Forum where they scowled and growled until each candidate stood and obediently shouted the words “Property Value” with varying degrees of sincerity.

For this tale though, we’ll go to September 2016, when SOSPN took its first stab at writing its own protectionist zoning code for Saint Paul’s Tangletown neighborhood, entitled the ‘Tangletown Conservation District.” (Tangletown Conservation District Proposed Final Version – Oct 13 2016.) The document boils down to essentially this: Nothing taller than what already exists, don’t touch the trees, and everything has to fit into the subjective notion of the ‘character’ of the neighborhood.  It’s that last bit that’s the real kicker. The vagueness of it, if ever adopted, essentially gives the neighbors of Tangletown a veto on any new development or remodel based on nebulous aesthetics.

Forget that.

First SOSPN dragged their exclusionary proposal before the Mac-Groveland Community Council. MGCC’s tepid response was a resolution of vague neighborly support, the fine print of which expresses serious concerns about the actual implications of the SOSPN documents.  A particularly poignant line reads

“Concern about the proper balance of individual versus neighborhood property rights.”

That’s the whole point of the Tangletown Conservation District though, to give entrenched, well-to-do constituents power over property they don’t own, to exclude the kinds of people they do not approve of.  It’s the whole point of SOSPN. It’s the whole point of every nay-saying platoon across the country.  It was the whole point of every neighborhood organization that quickly coalesced in the aftermath of the Fair Housing Act in 1968. It’s the bloodline of the redline.

After SOSPN collected their vaguely supportive resolution from the MGCC they brought it to Ward 3 Council Member Tolbert who put a resolution onto the consent agenda of City Council asking the Planning Commission to study and report the merits of a Conservation District in Tangletown. It passed and now we’re dedicating city staff time and resources to the larval form of an exclusionary zoning ordinance that will be used to bludgeon some upcoming development near Macalester College to death.

What happens next is left to the Planning Commission.  We can only hope that they return with the obvious: Tangletown is not under assault, it does not possess historical significance above and beyond the neighborhood around it, it does not possess additional ‘character’ above and beyond the rest of the neighborhood (save for kinking up the street grid), and it certainly does not merit a ‘Conservation District’. I pray for an abrupt and uneventful ending to our tale.

For me, the lesson is thus: the soft power in the city lives in these quiet undercurrents of dry, boring, bureaucracy. This kind of power is the ability to dictate who can live where, and by its basic nature, this kind of control is only accessible to those who possess the combination of time and education to keep a finger on its faint pulse.  Don’t be surprised when people who possess that combination use it to protect and grow their own wealth at the expense and exclusion of others.

No good tale goes without a moral, and mine is this: keep your neighbors accountable, and serve each other genuinely.

Document dump:

Tangletown Conservation District Proposed Final Version – Oct 13 2016

Tom Basgen

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