On May 19, St. Paul planning staff released a 70-page summary of their early rounds of engagement on Phase 2 of the 1-4 Unit Housing Study. This study is a big deal: Planners are examining the possibility of ending single-family zoning in St. Paul, legalizing small-scale density such as fourplexes and row homes across the city.
City staff have been doing lots of public engagement on the issue. In summer 2021, they visited Safe Summer Nights programs across the city and virtually co-hosted public meetings alongside St. Paul’s 17 District Councils. They also put out an online survey that drew 561 respondents.
For champions of zoning reform, the responses from this early public engagement look pretty good. Respondents generally favored increasing small and medium-scale housing development in St. Paul. Hopefully, this will encourage planning staff to be bold with their proposals, knowing that there is public support for meaningful zoning changes.
Part of the city’s report is qualitative, where we see the content of responses that came from the public engagement meetings. Here, I saw lots of common arguments both for and against upzoning. Participants talked about the need for more housing types to help reduce the cost of living, and to offer a greater variety of options to residents. They mentioned that fourplexes can easily blend into single-family neighborhoods and townhomes already exist in some areas. Some expressed concerns about parking, disruptions to neighborhood character and too much height in developments.
However, there’s only so much to be gleaned from the qualitative comments; they just tell us that some residents like the idea of upzoning and some don’t.
The most valuable insights come from the quantitative survey results, where we can gauge the relative magnitudes of support and opposition. Here, many of the results seem promising. The majority of survey respondents consistently came out in favor of more housing.
Residents overwhelmingly think that additional neighborhood-scale housing (e.g., duplexes, townhomes, cottage houses) benefits everybody.
Majorities think all kinds of neighborhood-scale housing is needed in their neighborhoods. It’s remarkable that there was majority support even when the question specifically asked about new housing “in your neighborhood”; we’re not just seeing an effect where residents support housing in general but not in their own neighborhoods. Support for bigger apartments is much lower, which is unfortunate but also outside the scope of the current planning study and less relevant to policy proposals we’re likely to see in the near future.
Of seven proposed policies for increasing small-scale housing, every one had majority support. Allowing duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes in more areas was most strongly supported, with 81 percent of respondents in support.
And more than 50 percent of respondents want to see neighborhood-scale housing everywhere in the city — not just on arterial streets or next to transit stops.
All of this is promising going forward but no guarantee of success for upzoning in the city. There’s certainly some selection bias, as I’d expect people with strong opinions about land use — both for and against upzoning — to be attending these meetings. We’ll have to see how a wider sample of residents reacts to these potential changes as the study becomes a more high-visibility political topic, likely in the fall. Perhaps an organized anti-development group such as Neighbors for a Livable St. Paul, which became notorious for its opposition to density in the Highland Bridge redevelopment of the former Ford site, will pop up again.
So while it seems like zoning reformers are winning, we must continue to build coalitions, promote the benefits of ending single-family zoning and push the Planning Commission and City Council to make more inclusive zoning changes in St. Paul.