I Find Your Appeal Most Unappealing

A local Saint Paul group calling itself Neighbors for Responsible Development recently appealed a decision of the Saint Paul Planning Commission to approve a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) for building height for construction being proposed for 246 Snelling Ave S. by TJL Development, LLC. This group has repeatedly claimed that their voice is not being heard by the City, and that they are only doing this because they care so much about their neighborhood. I’m inclined to judge the veracity of such claims on the basis of what sorts of arguments a group brings to the table to express their concerns. In this case, the specific concerns are all largely specious, which makes their claims of concern appear disingenuous. Here are their concerns verbatim from the appeal, and my own responses.

  • Claim: Heights of 68’4 and 47’ will impact the sunlight and privacy of adjacent single story neighborhood homes, immediately to the east. This will radically interfere with residents’ quality of life.

Response: There are three single-family houses to the EAST of the proposed construction. The sun-angle being from the East and South of the proposed building, it’s shadow will fall to the North and West, meaning it is physically impossible for it to interfere with sunlight falling on these houses. Moreover, shade study information the developer shared at a meeting of the Macalaster-Groveland Community Council’s Housing and Land Use Committee showed that at no point during an annual cycle would shadow from the most recently proposed version of their building fall in a way that would “radically interfere” with any residents lives nor the businesses to the North or West of the proposed construction.

The claim of a privacy issue for the three single-family homes is also unsupported. First of all, the developer has already made changes to the SE corner of the proposed development to address the (as yet unsupported) concerns about privacy. Second, I’m also fairly certain that this issue was raised about The Finn (also a TJL project) before it was constructed. I happen to be friends with the folks who live in the single-story, single-family home immediately behind The Finn, and had the pleasure of celebrating a birthday party with them in their backyard recently. Based on this first-hand observation of an existing multi-level property immediately adjacent to a single-level home, I can attest that there were no concerns about the privacy of this backyard party, and multiple people in attendance commented on how pleasantly surprised they were about that fact.

  • Claim: Construction of these properties at CUP heights proposed will result in additional floors and tenants adding to unsustainable traffic levels at the St. Clair | Snelling intersection. No traffic study has been done nor has one been proposed.

Response: The CUP pertains only to the highest floor of the proposed building. How many additional units does that represent, relative to a building with one less floor? Due to set-backs, and other “de-massing” compromises the developer has already built in to their plan, it’s clearly fewer than the lower floors, but let’s be generous and say that it represents a full 1/3 of the total 118 residential units in the building. That’s an additional 39 units. Let’s further assume that tenants in each of those units makes 3 trips a day, and that all of those trips are taken by single-occupancy motor-vehicle. That’s 117 additional single-occupancy motor-vehicle trips at the Snelling and Saint Clair intersection daily. The ADT on Saint Clair there has been estimated at around 7600, and the ADT on Snelling there has been estimated in excess of 20,000. So those putative additional 117 car-trips would represent an addition of roughly 1.5% to ADT on Saint Clair, and less than an additional ½ of 1% (0.006) to ADT on Snelling. These are not the radical traffic increases the appeal is claiming will occur.

  • Claim: Over 100 additional cars at this intersection will cause traffic congestion and result in parking issues on adjacent streets, limiting parking options for current homeowners and neighboring businesses.

Response: See response above. Moreover, given added parking spaces in the building for residents and some for the commercial spaces, the claim about limiting parking options is not well supported.

  • Claim: Pedestrian safety, increased exhaust and noise due to 118 new apartments on this corner are public health concerns no one has yet addressed.

Response: Again, the CUP does not pertain to all 118 residential units, just those on the proposed top floor, so based on the estimates above, we’re really talking at most 39 additional cars. That’s roughly one A-Line bus worth of traffic if all those drivers of single-occupancy motor-vehicles were to opt to take the bus (which has a stop immediately adjacent to the proposed property) rather than electing to take their cars. If this neighborhood group is truly concerned about pedestrian safety, exhaust and noise due to added traffic at that intersection, it would seem their efforts would be better placed in advocating for safer streets, “Complete Streets,” pedestrian safety initiatives such as the Stop-For-Me campaign, and supporting greater use of the A-Line, rather than exercising themselves with this appeal to stymie construction of much needed housing in our neighborhood. This would also be completely consistent with the Saint Paul Comprehensive Plan for 2040 – “T-19. Shift mode share towards pedestrian, bike, public transit and carpooling.” And “T-23. Improve public transit mode share and support quality public transit in all parts of Saint Paul through strategic establishment of transit-supportive land use intensity and design.” (That “land use intensity and design” means increasing density, particularly along transit-corridors.)

  • Claim: The added height and massive design will be detrimental to the existing character of the immediate neighborhood and negatively affect property values.

Response: Again, the CUP pertains only to the top floor of the proposed building. The “massiveness” of the building is largely a subjective issue, and the developer has already made multiple compromises on the design to concretely address the expressed concerns that some still find it too massive. These include additional set-backs, smaller and fewer units on the top floor, cut-ins to break up the visual continuity of the street-facing surfaces, and others. No support or explanation is offered for the claim that the building will be detrimental to the existing character of the immediate neighborhood. The area is currently characterized by a flat-lot used for parking, and several dilapidated buildings to the South, giving this corner a vaguely blighted character, at least relative to the rest of the Macalaster-Groveland neighborhood. Other buildings at that intersection are not single-family homes, but multi-level commercial buildings, some with billboards atop them that reach almost the same height as the proposed building. I see no evidence offered that this new construction would have a negative effect on any property values in the area, and evidence from other locations indicates that such construction often increases surrounding property values. See also T-23 above from the Saint Paul Comprehensive Plan 2040 as well as “LU-1. Encourage transit-supportive density and direct the majority of growth to areas with the highest existing or planned transit capacity.”

  • Claim: Young professionals have already sold their homes on the 200 block of Brimhall rather than have their backyards face the height of the development proposed.

Response: There’s no reason to doubt that young professionals may have sold their houses on the 200 block of Brimhall. The houses on this block are relatively small, and are therefore some of the more affordable in the neighborhood, making them reasonable “starter homes,” for young professionals, who often buy such homes and intend to own them for relatively short periods, until they outgrow the spaces and feel need or desire to move to larger spaces. Often, as is the case in at least one instance here, new young professionals purchase the houses sold by other young professionals. So observing young professionals selling their houses on Brimhall is an expected part of the experience and character of this neighborhood, not some aberration. Moreover, as someone whose experience in this neighborhood reflects precisely the pattern just described, I can vouch that the decision to make such a move is influenced by far more salient and manifold factors than concerns about a new development across the alley from their backyards. The housing market is particularly “hot” at this time, and there appears to be some level of “pent up demand” for making residential moves. So when folks say they are moving for this or that reason, I always take it with a grain of salt, as I ponder how large the capital gain is likely to be on the property they are selling.

Brian C. Martinson

About Brian C. Martinson

I'm a resident of St. Paul, former Chair of the transportation committee of the Macalaster-Groveland Community Council and serve as the "non-motorized" representative on MetCouncil's Transportation Advisory Boar - TAB. A PhD in Sociology (Demography), and postdoctoral work in Epidemiology. I'm a year-round utility-cyclist. In other settings I think and write a lot about science policy, the biomedical research workforce, and the integrity of science.