Envisioning a More Affordable Summit Avenue (and Rest of St. Paul)

Due to a prolonged, tedious debate over bike lanes for which there is not yet a concrete proposal, St. Paul’s Summit Avenue has been a frequent topic of discussion in the past few months.

In most of these discussions, it seems to be taken for granted that Summit is an expensive and exclusive street. Many of the houses essentially fit the bill for the term “mansion,” and there are plenty of 7-figure property values. The city’s registered student dwelling map shows only three student rental houses on the street in the area around the University of St. Thomas. Summit is not within reach for most people.

I recently spent the weekend in Chicago, staying with friends who live on Logan Boulevard. Like Summit, Logan is a beautiful, desirable street. It has grassy medians, historic homes and churches, and people constantly walking along the sidewalks or sitting in the grass. Though all of the lots are smaller, some of the buildings still have million-dollar property values.

But unlike Summit, living on Logan is an option open to a pretty large variety of people. My friends that are college students working summer service jobs can afford to live in a nice triplex there. Meanwhile, as a Macalester student, it is nearly impossible to imagine students renting on Summit.

From Logan, we can envision the future attainable by legalizing neighborhood-scale density, particularly in our least affordable areas. The smarter zoning and land use on Logan shows us that Summit Avenue doesn’t have to be a wealthy enclave carved through St. Paul’s western half. And while Summit is a particularly out-of-reach strip of the city, learning from Logan’s better land use policies could make the whole city more accessible.

Anatomy of a Chicago Boulevard

Chicago’s Logan Boulevard shares a lot of characteristics with St. Paul’s Summit Avenue. The street design is nearly identical to the stretch of Summit near Macalester College, with a main thoroughfare and two green medians:

The biggest difference between the two streets is in the type of housing that exists. It is much denser, as a representative picture below shows:

One of the most immediately apparent differences is the lot sizes and side setbacks. The buildings are on much smaller lots than most of the large lots along Summit, and they use a greater portion of the land on the lot. Many of the buildings are within a few feet of each other or fully touching, whereas housing on Summit tends to be spread out. 

In addition to the more efficient use of the available land, there are far more housing units. Even though the above buildings are smaller than many of the more mansion-like Summit homes, most of them are multifamily apartments. The friends of mine that lived on Logan Boulevard lived on a single floor of one such apartment, with other tenants both above and below them. Most of these quasi-townhomes appeared to have 2-4 units of housing.

There were a couple other noteworthy elements of the land use along Logan. Ostensibly single-family homes were still mixed in all over:

And on street corners, there were often larger apartment buildings that had a more built-out feel, with retail storefronts on the first floor.

All of these elements made for a vibrant street that was wonderful to walk down. As a matter of urbanism and pedestrian experience, the street was well designed. But more importantly, this kind of land use is good for housing affordability.

Good Land Use Policy Is Good for Housing

The denser and more efficient land use in Logan has two big benefits relative to large-lot single-family zoning: it increases the supply of housing while reducing the marginal cost of housing. 

A greater supply of housing can help change the bargaining power between renters and landlords. When many tenants are lining up to get a single unit (as in New York City), the landlord can charge higher rent or discriminate against potential tenants. When landlords are having a hard time filling their units, they have to lower rents or offer additional benefits to tenants. This boost to housing supply is especially important as the Twin Cities population grows, and fights against a persistently low rental vacancy rate.

While allowing more Chicago-style neighborhood density in St. Paul probably won’t massively shift the quantity of dwellings — see Alex Schieferdecker’s analysis of the Minneapolis 2040 plan — it’s an essential move in the right direction.

Denser housing will also tend to have lower marginal costs. For a landlord that owns a three-story building with a unit on each floor, each floor is relatively cheaper to maintain, both because the units are smaller and because the fixed costs (land, certain infrastructural needs) are shared across the whole property.

These smaller apartments do what mansions can’t: they meet a diverse group of people’s needs. Here’s a slide from a recent St. Paul planning presentation:

The city’s population is seeing a relative increase in households with seniors, and with multi-generational living arrangements. The dominance of single-family homes, which is mandated by zoning, leads to mismatches. These homes might work well for a nuclear family, but they’re less likely to work well for empty-nester parents, or multi-generational households that want a close-by but separate dwelling for the grandparents.

Zoning for neighborhood-scale density offers people the flexibility to make housing decisions that work for them, both in terms of location and dwelling type. 

Some people might choose to live with less space or a shared wall in exchange for cheaper rent or a better location. But as Logan shows us, many people are happy to make that trade. Plenty of college students will take a triplex with less living space in exchange for an affordable spot close to campus; zoning should allow people to make these types of decisions.

The Future We Could (and Should) Have

This style of development already exists on a sizable stretch of Summit Avenue, where the zoning level is RT-2, or “townhouse residential,” meaning that 4-unit buildings are legal. There are apartments, and they don’t disrupt the street’s look or user experience — if anything, they make the street more vibrant by adding inhabitants to the street. See the apartment below, on Summit and St. Albans Street:

Photo Courtesy Google Maps

Single-family zoning regulates this type of housing out of existence for no good reason. This is a bad thing for Summit, and it’s bad for the large swaths of the rest of St. Paul that are zoned for single-family — all of the yellow in the below map.

It’s not just the headline “single-family” restrictions that hurt us all. One lesson to take from Logan Boulevard is that good zoning includes a suite of policies across the zoning code. Allowing two-to four-unit development should also come with adequate changes to setback requirements, floor-area ratios, height limits and so forth.

This future is about to be gifted to us by the staff at St. Paul Planning and Economic Development. One of their current projects is the 1-4 Unit Housing Study, in which they will offer options to allow for more Logan Boulevard-style development in our city. Duplexes to fourplexes, townhomes and carriage homes could abound.

Of course, regulatory changes can’t solve all of our housing problems. Tenants need to be protected in other ways, and neighborhood-scale density won’t provide housing for many of the poorest people. As we fight to end single-family zoning, we should also fight for policies to support these related goals.

The first round of public engagement on the 1-4 Unit Housing Study showed some positive responses from St. Paulites, but expect the issue to become more prominent and polarized when it comes to the City Council around the end of 2022.

As coalitions coalesce around this issue, don’t forget that this kind of rezoning would be a win-win in our city — a boost for renters and property owners alike, increasing housing supply and choice while making our city a more vibrant place.

About Zak Yudhishthu

Zak is a student at Macalester College studying economics and music. He's interested in all kinds of urban politics and policy, and is the student representative for the Macalester-Groveland Neighborhood Council.

18 thoughts on “Envisioning a More Affordable Summit Avenue (and Rest of St. Paul)

  1. Sam

    The majority of Summit Avenue is apartments and multi family housing, more than 70%. You may think they are giant mansions, but that’s just not the case. 25% of the units are rented.

    Please fact check this sort of thing.

    1. Zak Yudhishthu Moderator   Post author

      Perhaps many of the units are rented, but that’s pretty clearly not what I’m getting at. Most of Summit is zoned for single family, and all of Summit (including the multifamily parts) clearly is less dense than Logan. I don’t think that your comment at all changes the thrust of this article: if we built more housing of different types across St. Paul, more people would be able to live in more places, including very nice places like Summit Avenue.

      1. Kel Liston

        Until this latest generation realizes that they are not entitled things are not going to change. Why should decades and generations of family owned properties have to change to support housing for others with financial difficulties. Maybe you should be talking with city officials on possibly having them give up some of their properties throughout the cities and build some 4 plexes etc.

        1. Zak Yudhishthu Moderator   Post author

          Kel, it seems there’s been a misunderstanding here. I don’t think people need to give up the properties they own. Neither families nor city officials have to give up their property; I’m not calling for urban renewal here. I’m saying that people should be allowed to do what they want with the properties that they do own. If you own some land and want to build an ADU, triplex, or apartment building, then you should feel free to do so! As you can see from my description of Logan Boulevard, some people opt to just keep single-family homes and that is okay with me.

      2. Stuart J Barron

        I hear panic in the replies to Zak’s compelling and provacative article. The ‘Leave It To Beaver’ world that many of us grew up aspiring to is a fantasy and the realities of the actual modern world require the kind of perspective and vision that Zak’s analysis displays.

        1. Michael W

          Hi Zak,
          Let’s make sure to incorporate those things that support more density such as green space, recreation opportunities, libraries, child care, schools, decent sidewalks, and small neighborhood businesses that are easy to walk to. The Eastside of St Paul will need significant infrastructure upgrades to build up density, but there’s plenty of need for affordable housing here.

    1. Zak Yudhishthu Moderator   Post author

      Summit bashing? I am not sure what you mean. I am hoping to advocate for policies that make a nice street more vibrant and within reach for people.

    1. Zak Yudhishthu Moderator   Post author

      Summit is a great street, I agree. But my simple proposal is: what if more people could afford to live there? I think that’d be quite nice.

  2. St Paul Lifer

    Go find the nicest, most expensive part of Chicago and repeat this exercise. Logan is not its own tax district like Summit is. Summit is an historic preservation area with special design and approval requirements. Apples to apples, please.

    Also, the rest of the city is rapidly being zoned for multi-unit construction without parking restrictions. There are new apartments being put up everywhere. Enough with worrying about where the poor Macalester students will find rest.

    1. Zak Yudhishthu Moderator   Post author

      If you think I’m just worried about Macalester students finding housing, you must have missed the part of my article where I talked about how this housing is good for “empty-nester parents, or multi-generational households that want a close-by but separate dwelling for the grandparent.”

      By the way, did you know that AARP basically supports everything I’ve described in this article? Check out this document: https://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/livable-communities/tool-kits-resources/2020/AARP-CNU-EnablingBetterPlaces121520-singles.pdf

      Good land use is a win for everyone, my friend!

  3. Matt G

    Hi Zak,

    You have interesting points in your piece. I agree we need to work towards increasing density and lowering restrictions on property use in Saint Paul. In my opinion, Marshal Ave should be your target, not Summit.

    I think a key problem with your proposal is that you are calling for the destruction of the historic homes that make Summit Ave special in the first place. If all the houses are torn down and large apartments are built, the street will greatly change in character. This is why you upset all of us who also like Summit ave.

    Second, I think you don’t fully understand the housing market. You call for more housing to lower the cost and increase the availability. Who is ever going to build it? Builders need to make money on the project which is driven by rent. As Saint Paul removes landlords abilities to raise rent and increases eviction protections, it is driving projects away. Advocate for the removal of restrictions on landlords and you will accomplish your goal.

    I think your statement is ironic “good land use is a win for everyone”. Summit ave right now is a great street that can be enjoyed by EVERYONE especially those on neighboring streets like YOU and ME. By changing it to cater to those who want an apartment on it, it may lessen the street for others.

    Lastly, why is Logan your standard? Chicago was built in a very different manner than the twin cities and there are some inefficiencies such as lot size that can not be fixed (unless there is fire like what happened in Chicago that destroys all of it tomorrow giving us a chance to plan it for smaller lots). Focus on things that can be easily fixed such as laws regarding property use, renter/landlord rights, and building requirements to promote more affordable housing. Don’t get distracted by turning Summit into something it’s not.

    Thanks,
    Matt

  4. P.

    Reading the comments to the post here really demonstrates the extent to which owners understand these houses as property investments first and foremost. Ensuring that their investments continue to maintain and accrue value is at the top of their priorities. Any threat to a future ability to reap a profit for themselves and their children will be fought tooth and nail. Almost makes abolishing private property seem like the only solution sometimes…

    1. Matt G

      P. I doubt anyone on this post owns a house on Summit Ave.
      Do you honestly think that the government running all housing is a good idea? I recommend you read about life in the Soviet Union. Read current news on housing prices in China. Clearly government ownership of property does not improve quality or cost of housing.

  5. Ian R BuckModerator  

    Yes! Building affordable housing in parts of the city that are currently financially exclusive should be a core goal of ours. I can think of nowhere more exclusive right now than Summit. Zoning is the start, and the city and county are going to have to follow up with other strategies like subsidizing the construction of affordable units and expanding public housing.

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