At one level, all you need to know about the proposed development on Lexington Parkway, just south of University Avenue, is that it meets every rule in the St. Paul Zoning Code. That’s the point I was trying to make during the intense Planning Commission meeting ten days ago. The vote was part of a longer conversation that’s been taking place in St. Paul about a development near University Avenue. Looked at differently, not using the city’s legal standards, the issue becomes more complicated and shows the difficulty of housing policy in cities struggling with growth, inequality, and a long legacy of racism.
Here are the very basics:
- 288 apartments and 3,000 square feet of commercial space
- 155 units at or below 60% area median income (AMI) (the metro-wide AMI is $100,000 a year per household, and 60% of that is $62,000 for a family of four)
- including 15 more affordable “shared kitchen” units
- 254 parking spaces, 2 blocks from a light-rail stop
- vacant lot zoned T4 (highest density non-downtown zoning)
- no variances or Conditional Use Permits
It’s also important to know that the land has been owned by the Wilder Foundation, located next door, an old St. Paul nonprofit focusing on alleviating poverty in the city.
I’d been thinking about this one a lot, even before it came again to the Planning Commission Zoning Committee. There, I read the latest site plan, public comments, and staff report, and spent about an hour discussing those things with my colleagues. It turned out that most of that work pondering housing policy was for naught because, at the legal level, there was little to debate about this case. This was not a rezoning, Conditional Use Permit application, or variance request, all of which have room to make more subjective decisions. Instead, it was a site plan review, with the strictest findings that can come before the City. The legal findings of a site plan concern things like underlying soil contamination, traffic impacts, stormwater runoff, and the like.
I even cracked open my copy of “The Complete Guide to Zoning,” which a lawyer friend once gave me, to see what it says about site plans. Here goes:
“The purpose of site plan review usually is to determine the plan’s compliance with the zoning ordinance. If your project complies, the government is duty-bound to approve your site plan and let you go forward to get your building permit and develop the property.”
Even when the case got to the Planning Commission and the site plan was denied on an 8-7 vote, most of the discussion seemed to have no legal basis. The commission proposed denying the application because it did not meet the “equity, sustainability, and affordability” goals in the Comprehensive Plan (aka Finding #1). However, as the St. Paul city attorney explained, that plan is not a legal document that can be used for regulation. (A cursory search of legal articles online support this.) I’d also recently reported on that distinction when dealing with Minneapolis’ efforts to implement its 2040 CP into code a few months ago.
As I said in my statement at the Planning Commission, St. Paul zoned this land T4. Anyone can buy it and build anything that meets those standards, which this application clearly does. At one level, it’s that simple.
Currently, the applicant is appealing the site plan decision to City Council, and if the Council does not overturn the denial, I believe they will have a straightforward lawsuit.
A Deeper Look
Focusing on the legality of the site plan based the city’s zoning code, as I did and as a lawyer would do, is dodging a larger conversation. This place in St. Paul has a long history, and thinking about its future opens a critical discussion about racism and housing. It’s that discussion, not the zoning specifics, that fueled the intense community advocacy in opposition to this development at this site. I believe many of my Planning Commission colleagues were also looking at this project through this larger lens.
Having just finished a book on the history of Saint Paul, and having taught for years about displacement and racism in housing, I can cite a lot of facts about this specific place. A short list:
- This specific property sits at the intersection of a bunch of different neighborhoods with distinct identities.
- Lexington Avenue was designed as a “parkway” in the first place as an effort to drive up property values.
- Since it stopped being the western border of the city, Lexington was a color line street, a dividing line of where BIPOC people could live or own property: to the east, in the older city, was the Rondo neighborhood; to the west, neighborhoods were off limits to people of color.
- From 1897 to 1956, this property lay just past the center field wall of the Lexington Ballpark, home of the St. Paul Saints. The parcel was a nightclub and event center connected to the stadium. Home runs must have landed here, and much of the other stadium periphery was used for car parking for much of the early 20th century.
- Every property east of Lexington was “redlined” by the federal government’s urban planners and housing inspectors in the 1930s, cutting off all the people living in this part of the neighborhood from federal housing insurance, and making it almost impossible to sell their homes or get banks to lend money to improve them.
- The state highway department’s decision to build the freeway through the Rondo neighborhood, three blocks away, deeply damaged St. Paul’s black community, demolishing hundreds of homes and businesses and causing ongoing harm to an entire neighborhood that destroyed the wealth of many of the city’s black people.
- The specific site has been vacant since the 1960s, after Lexington Ballpark was demolished.
- Over the decades since I-94 was built, the neighborhood in all directions has changed dramatically as the freeway became a new dividing line and affected the community.
Other people would tell these stories in a different way, and there are many valid perspectives about what this place means.
To be sure, looking at 1950s city plans or reading about freeway construction or the experience of people living in Rondo is quite different from having those stories as part of your own community. For many people in this part of St. Paul, and I think for many of my Planning Commission colleagues, focusing on the zoning specifics is to erase all of this history. And as a white guy, this history has benefited people like me, while other groups of people have been deeply hurt by these events.
For example, look at this email I received from a community member (Note: I got this email after the final vote took place).
$1000 for a 480 sq ft micro unit is exorbitant, unsustainable, and unethical. To build 278 apartments and have only 12 units be “affordable” housing is outrageous. We have a housing crisis in the Twin Cities. Building luxury housing in a low income area is fatuous and unprincipled. 1 in 13 children in the USA do not have a secure place to sleep every night – this impacts their ability to do their homework, participate in school, and graduate with skills necessary to navigate the adult world. Lexington Parkway is an ethnically diverse neighbourhood, with the majority of population being Black, Hispanic, Hmong, Somalian, Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian, among other nationalities, many of whom are working poor. That St Paul City Council is seriously considering giving permission to Alatus to build luxury housing is an insult to our neighbourhood attempts to support ourselves and our families. It is racist and classist, and divisive in its effect. I strongly urge St Paul City Council to refuse permission to Alatus.
I agree with a lot of things in this letter, and I disagree with other things that it says. Regardless, it’s clear this application has become a flashpoint for larger issues about housing affordability in St. Paul. People see this project and think about the ongoing housing crisis and its impacts on BIPOC people and those who are the most vulnerable to rising prices. For them, focusing only on site plan findings is to perform a historical erasure.
During the meeting, one of my Planning Commission colleagues called this seemingly neutral legal perspective “whiteness in planning”, and I think that’s as good a term as any. As an academic geographer, I would probably come up with language like “the spatialization of the private property regime” or “the racial hegemony of the planning perspective”, which are surely worse. The truth is that city planning has almost always been synonymous with erasing racial difference, reinscribing white privilege, suffocating meanings attached to place, and reinforcing land claims for private profit.
For example, American zoning was invented in the first place in early 20th century New York City because of fears that non-white people (mostly Chinese- and Jewish-Americans) were moving too close to the fancy shops along 5th Avenue. Once it was deemed legal by the US Supreme Court, US Zoning swept the country as a tool, among other things, to keep the poor and people of color out of developments intended for white people. Until very recently, much city planning was predicated on increasing property values and, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly, keeping immigrants and people of color from having access to housing and jobs.
Even deeper than that, settler colonialism in pursuit of profit is fundamental to the United States. The founding fathers revolted against England as much because they wanted to steal land in Ohio as anything else, and used tools like land surveys, real estate plats, and abstract geographic concepts in the service of those genocidal projects. Almost every “plan” for hundreds of years pretty much revolved around the central idea of using regulation to support real estate profit to the almost exclusive benefit of white people.
Heck, Amherst Wilder himself made his fortune by way of dishonest land schemes after passage of the Homestead Act. As peerless historian Mary Letherd Wingerd describes, he was known as a “shadowy prince of the prairies”, and used “covert agents” to acquire lucrative land claims. The very fortune that became the Wilder Foundation would not exist if not for dispossession and real estate speculation, and the only reason Wilder donated his riches to a foundation was that they only had one kid and it turns out that she cared about the poor.
Then, years later in 1917, by commissioning a report on housing in St. Paul, the Wilder Foundation itself laid the groundwork for the demolition of St. Paul’s working-class communities and communities of color by calling for the destruction of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. For example, I doubt that the West Side Flats would have been completely razed to the ground if the Wilder Foundation had never been created.
I’m sure the foundation has done a great deal of good over the years, and honestly, I don’t know much about them at all! But how ironic is it today that, 125 years after he died, Amherst Wilder’s foundation is at the heart of a land development deal that has incited a heated debate over social justice and real estate in St. Paul?
What is Another Way?
So how should we look at this project proposal? If we focus through the first lens of the zoning code and think of nothing else, we lose sight of the history of inequality.
Yet unless you spark a housing revolution, using the lens of historic racism to evaluate a zoning application does not change anything. Because the legal system sees the world through the eyes of private property law, ignoring the zoning on the ground only gets the city sued, screwing people out of some municipal service or another. And I’m too much of a skeptic to think that the federal government will soon declare “housing is a human right” and fund sweeping new legislation that makes the housing crisis disappear. Nor is there much help coming from state government for people struggling with housing costs in Frogtown or Rondo, at least not in the next two years.
The difficulty begins when we take seriously both viewpoints at the same time — existing real estate laws and the ongoing legacy of historical injustice — which means coming up with a bunch of messy policies.
And it gets worse, because the big reason that housing politics is so difficult is that obstruction does not work either. Stopping change and keeping this particular lot vacant has the perverse effect of making the affordability crisis in St. Paul even worse than it was before.
The real estate market is quietly changing the city all the time, and often in dramatic fashion. I’ve lived in a lot of poor neighborhoods in St. Paul, but I have never owned a house until my wife and I moved to Frogtown 18 months ago. Since then, home value has increased by 10%!
I took the liberty of crunching some numbers, diving into Ramsey County property value records going back five years, and looked up housing prices for my block (including my house) and four other blocks in the area.
Home prices are spiking across the board, across the whole range of diverse housing. Five years is a tiny amount of time in real estate, but housing prices have almost doubled. Meanwhile the availability of homes under $150K has almost disappeared, let alone homes selling at half that amount. This rapid change is exactly what people are worried about.
Meanwhile, according to the latest report on rents, even though there are more affordable apartments available in St. Paul than a year ago, there remain zero (!) apartments for people renting at 30% AMI anywhere in the city (see chart below).
None of this is happening because of new market-rate development in the area, because there hasn’t been any multi-family market-rate housing built in the central University Avenue corridor — from downtown to St. Anthony Park — in a half century. The projects currently going up at Snelling Avenue will be the first.
Displacement without Development
What’s happening in the neighborhood today is displacement without development. Skyrocketing home values price people out of the neighborhood, never to come back. At the same time, vacant lots sit empty – big parcels near the light rail or other key spots. To me, that’s pretty much the worst-case scenario.
This housing dilemma requires difficult policy decisions, and there are no easy answers. It’s not easy to say, for example, how this proposed project will affect home values and rents in a neighborhood. As I wrote about over a year ago, studies on this question are very complicated. A great deal depends on which level of affordability you are talking about, how many blocks away the property might be, and what time frame you use. There are studies and counter studies diving into topics like “buffering” and “filtering” and the difficulty of predicting exactly what will happen, which is why my Minnpost piece has 46 (!) comments on it.
I come back to the thought that, if it had been approved a year ago when it was first proposed, this plot of land could be providing homes for hundreds of people next to a light rail stop during a pandemic. Over half of the units in the building would be between 50 and 60% AMI, which is a significant amount of affordable housing. As a glance at the St. Paul rental housing market will reveal, getting those kinds of homes built in St. Paul is not a meaningless gesture.
Instead, it’s been empty. The only people helped by this place remaining vacant are folks who want to park and bus to the State Fair (which didn’t even happen) or city snow plow drivers looking for a spot to dump a pile.
If the Wilder Foundation is determined to develop this property as market-rate housing, they have the legal right to do it. Eventually, it’ll happen. How much longer should it sit empty in the meantime?
The Minneapolis Housing Approach
Housing policy is notorious because, since the beginning, there’s been a huge gap between the ideal world and the crappy reality on the ground. That unjust landscape means policy makers are often faced with nothing but compromised choices. I think the only solution is to come at the housing problem from many different angles at the same time. It seems to me that Minneapolis is doing this pretty well, and St. Paul should follow suit.
- Funded affordable housing in widespread and targeted ways.
- Given more power to renters in law.
- Are working on a rent stabilization ordinance.
- Deregulated the zoning code to allow more equitable housing alternatives.
- Built a lot (!) of market-rate housing; Minneapolis approved over 7,000 new homes last year alone.
- Used inclusionary zoning to require some market-rate development to build affordable units.
- Probably done other things too.
None of these are silver bullets that solve the problem. But if we don’t adopt a both/and housing approach, you end up like California, a horror show of high costs that profoundly harms economically vulnerable people.
I doubt most people watching Friday’s Planning Commission meeting stuck around for the conversation that took place at the end of the meeting, 45 minutes after the controversial vote. If they had, they would have heard the commission come together around the need for St. Paul to immediately complete its study on inclusionary zoning (it was abandoned in 2020 because of the pandemic). Every commissioner who spoke, on both sides of the vote, agreed this was critically important.
Inclusionary zoning is not a magic solution to the housing crisis, but it is the kind of policy that, along with some others, gives people legal tools to affect the supply of affordable housing in St. Paul. Minneapolis passed their inclusionary zoning ordinance in 2019, and the first development to fall under its guidelines is just being approved by a City Council committee. Thanks to that ordinance, as part of a large market-rate project downtown, rare 30% AMI homes will be built on Washington Avenue.
It’s not a game-changer, but every home matters. The Planning Commission will likely be moving forward to ask St. Paul to complete the work on inclusionary zoning that it began in 2019. Doing so would give people in St. Paul a measure to evaluate market-rate development. Without it, people will expect levels of affordability in development that sits far outside of what is possible given the high cost of housing construction. If we had affordable housing expectations written into code, it would give developers and advocates alike a sense of what to expect.
As I said in my testimony during the meeting:
If we pretend we can vote yes or no on developments in St. Paul because of affordability concerns, we will be misleading people, because we can’t. We should not give the impression to activists working for equity and social justice that we have that kind of power over development in St. Paul when the zoning code does not do that.
The tragedy of not having better affordability policies in place is that development proposals will increasingly become divisive and politicized. That is a dangerous road that can lead into a vicious cycle of obstruction, paralysis, and increasing inequality.
This month, a straightforward site plan case became the most divisive project I’ve seen in nine years at the Planning Commission, and that includes the Ford Site. If St. Paul doesn’t act to change its code, I fear it will only get worse.