Peter Stalland / Tyr Development has proposed building a 140 unit apartment complex in the midst of low density residential in Vadnais Heights. I believe it will have 140 parking spaces below ground and 140 parking spaces above ground so two per unit.
This is the second plan submitted by the developer. This 3-story plan is scaled down from the original 5-story plan. This 3-story proposal still requires the city to grant a variance from the 36’ building height allowed in zone R3 to allow this building height of 41’.
According to Stalland in the Vadnais Heights Press: “We believe this roofline and height is compatible with the other pitched roofs in the immediate neighborhood reflecting a more residential look as opposed to a flat, commercial-type roof,”
If built, this property would be isolated high density. It is surrounded by low density on all sides; Interstate 35E (wall) to the east, 1.5 story townhomes to the north, a small park, wetland and single family homes to the west and single story duplex to the south. It is a considerable distance from eating, shopping and other amenities.
Density Is Good
Housing density can be a significant benefit to communities. It increases the numbers of people patronizing local merchants which helps them to stay in business. Density done right can do this with few if any negatives. Without density businesses go out of business resulting in empty storefronts. Density is critical to a livable and vibrant community.
Density In The Wrong Place Is Bad
Density that brings more auto traffic and encourages increased local driving is bad density.
The issue with this development in Vadnais Heights, this density, is its location. This is the wrong place for density.
This development is far, over 1 mile, from everything. How many people who live here will walk or bicycle to the grocery or to dinner or the bus? Everywhere that these new residents want to go they will likely drive. That’s a lot of extra cars on Vadnais Heights’ roads – about a 10% increase according to a traffic analysis conducted by Spack Consulting.
This traffic analysis looked only at road congestion and determined that while this project would increase congestion, it would not increase congestion beyond standards for these types of roads.
This traffic analysis neglected to consider other impacts such as the impact this increased local traffic would have on walking and bicycling in this area, the impact of this traffic on nearby Vadnais Heights Elementary School, or the impact it would have on current residents in the form of increased noise, pollution and safety.
This project will significantly increase motor traffic, noise, pollution and the risk of crashes directly in front of Vadnais Heights Elementary School as much of the traffic from this development will be along Centerville Rd and County E – directly in front of the school. Good idea?
Children who walk or bicycle to school do better socially and academically than those who come by car or bus. Vadnais Heights should be doing what it can to make walking and bicycling to school safer and more appealing, not discouraging it by making it less appealing and more dangerous.
It goes beyond just children walking or riding to school but also to anyone in the community who might want to walk or ride to the grocery or to dinner. Increased motor traffic makes the already poor and dangerous roads in Vadnais Heights even more dangerous and less appealing.
This is bad for current residents but then layered on top is that people looking to purchase a house, particularly young couples and families, who do not want to have a lot of local traffic and who want to live where walking and bicycling for local transportation are safe and comfortable will not want to live here which will have an impact on home values and on the level of upkeep of existing homes.
Where Should Density Be?
Outside of the U.S. you will not see high density like this placed where it is effectively in the middle of nowhere. High density will be in or directly adjacent to local retail and transportation centers so residents will be encouraged to walk or bicycle to local destinations rather than add to traffic congestion and to reduce disparities between levels of density.
Rather than generating a lot of extra car traffic that makes surrounding areas increasingly unpleasant, an apartment building located in or directly adjacent to a retail center will not generate as much undesirable local car traffic but the people who live there will still add to the vibrancy and economy of the village. Rather than more cars and congestion, there will be more people walking or riding bicycles to Fresh Thyme grocery or Panera. These people walking and bicycling add to vibrancy and make places feel more human. Just as people don’t want to build their houses on on major high traffic roads, they don’t want to walk or spend time along high traffic roads.
People will also be more likely to regularly patronize local businesses like Mad Jacks. Once in a car it’s easy to drive farther away but if you live close enough and the walking route is safe and enjoyable then walking is preferable. This is doubly good for local businesses as these will also be more stable customers than people who drive.
All together this makes a place that is more enjoyable and more appealing to live. It creates a more vibrant city center. It creates a lower stress environment and one that allows an active lifestyle that is critical to good health.
Vadnais Heights Town Center
Vadnais Heights Town Center is today a giant empty parking lot surrounded by some big-box stores and intersected by unappealing and dangerous to cross multi-lane roads.
It can be better though and properly placed density would help. These giant parking lots are never at capacity. And rarely more than 1/4 used. They are not needed. Residential density in or directly adjacent to the town center that encourages people to walk or bicycle instead of drive their cars can allow some additional retail buildings in some of these areas. With integrated or adjacent density a couple or three additional restaurant options can easily be absorbed with no negative consequences to existing eateries and provide more options for residents.
This single property (Red circle above) was changed from R2 (single family / townhome) like surrounding properties to R3 (high density) in 2011 at the request of the property owner Gerald Urban who was at the time also the Vadnais Heights city manager.
The zoning here is backwards. Residential should be the most dense in the city center and get progressively less dense as it gets farther away. Little pockets of density like this create more motor traffic than city or village center focused density and create more density disparities where lower density meets higher density. Neither of these are good.
Proper predictable zoning with center focused density also protects homeowner’s investments. Those who prefer to live closer to the city center can choose to do so while knowing that they will be nearer to high density while others who value lower density can live farther away and know that they will have lower density and be protected from higher density and changes like this.
Approval of this project sends a message to potential home buyers that Vadnais Heights will allow large projects like this anywhere in the city and that no neighborhood or home buyer can expect to be free from a development such as this.
Vadnais Heights Comprehensive Plan
In its comprehensive plan Vadnais Heights states:
This development goes directly against Vadnais Heights own Comprehensive Plan.
It is not near transit. Few of the people living here will walk or bicycle to transit. They will drive instead.
It does not decrease reliance on single-occupancy vehicles. It does the exact opposite and increases this reliance and the traffic that this reliance creates.
It does not improve the user experience, circulation and access for bicyclists and pedestrians. It does the opposite and makes the user experience and safety worse, decreases circulation for these modes by increasing the motor traffic that people walking and bicycling must deal with.
Allowing this development in this location in Vadnais Heights would be a bad move for Vadnais Heights. It would be bad for the city’s future and bad for current residents who will have to deal with increased motor traffic, inability to rely on their local government to protect their housing investments and follow their own comprehensive plan, and lower property values.
By encouraging higher density within or directly adjacent to the town center Vadnais Heights can gain the benefits of density with few or any of the negatives.