Looking up at apartment building in the winter

Support St. Paul’s Neighborhood Zoning Reform

Author’s note: On Wednesday, October 11, nine days after this article was published, the St. Paul City Council agreed to an amendment that would tweak one piece of the zoning rules. In the lowest density H1 districts, they changed height limits from 33 to 35 feet to ensure that a three-story development would be viable. However, amending the policy requires the council to wait one more week before taking a final vote. Six out of seven councilmembers signaled full support for the plan, with Ward 7 councilmember Jane Prince dissenting.

This Wednesday, October 4, the St. Paul City Council is holding a public hearing for significant, beneficial zoning changes in neighborhoods across the city. Your support, via written and in-person testimony, is needed.

The current proposal on the table would take sizable steps to legalize neighborhood-scale density. It would legalize at least four housing units on nearly every lot in the city. It would also allow a fifth unit along some transit stops and neighborhood nodes, and one more “bonus” housing unit if the housing is restricted to affordable rents. It would also change other regulatory details to gradually add more housing types in neighborhoods — increasing height limits a bit, while reducing minimum lot sizes and setback requirements.

Some model housing types that new zoning would allow, from the St. Paul Planning Commission’s memo on proposed changes

Allowing for more housing density ought to have positive benefits for St. Paul in a few key ways. The first is housing affordability. Adding new housing helps relieve our housing shortages and gets us toward abundance. It does so particularly in localities that have historically been exclusive and priced out residents. Allowing for more housing types, such as smaller multi-unit buildings or homes on small lots, also increases the kinds of housing that can be offered at lower cost.

Additionally, this type of infill can help us improve the vibrancy and environmental sustainability of our cities, in a self-reinforcing way. Utilizing low-carbon transportation is already much easier in St. Paul than many Twin Cities suburbs. Adding more housing offers more people the opportunity to live such a lifestyle, contributing to lower vehicle miles traveled. At the same time, having more people living in our neighborhoods increases the viability of neighborhood coffee shops and corner stores, and supports a more robust transit network

An example of a four-plex (left) and a duplex on Marshall Avenue in St. Paul (photo courtesy of Sustain Saint Paul)

Don’t expect this change to radically transform housing development in St. Paul. The fourplexes and cottage clusters legalized in this proposal are unlikely to be immediately produced en masse, as developers adjust to new zoning rules and housing typologies. But it may be more successful than Minneapolis’s famous duplex and triplex legalization in 2019. While the broad intentions of each policy are similar, St. Paul’s proposal goes a bit further on different important margins.

The other big change relative to Minneapolis’ 2019 zoning reform is that the politics have changed for the better. Many St. Paulites have come to appreciate the benefits of zoning reform (like many of our City Council candidates), and we’ve moved on from inflammatory debates about bulldozers to more thoughtful discussion about zoning reform. 

But nothing is certain — zoning reformers need you to help ensure the success of these zoning changes by providing written or in-person testimony. The St. Paul City Council is holding a public hearing on these changes this Wednesday, October 4, at 3:30 pm. They are also accepting written comments at the email address contact-council@ci.stpaul.mn.us

In addition to sending an email to the “contact” address, we urge you to write your own City Councilmember directly, copying the legislative aide and using the ward’s specific email address.

Try These Talking Points

Unsure of what to write? Review the template testimony below written by Luke Hanson, one of the co-chairs of Sustain Saint Paul, which has been leading advocacy for these zoning changes (and where I serve on the board).

You may want to shorten the letter or adapt it to your experience and specific areas of concern. Be sure to fill in your own name and the address where you live in St. Paul (or your comment will not be counted).

Here’s some sample language:

Dear [City Council] or [Councilmember First and Last Name],

I’m writing to urge you to vote “YES” for the proposed 1-4 Unit Housing Study amendments to the zoning code. Here are a few reasons why the proposed changes would be a big step forward for St. Paul:

  • Many St. Paul neighborhoods lack the variety of housing types that our residents need, because current rules only allow single-family houses with large yards. Our neighborhoods need more choices that mirror our residents’ diverse housing needs: townhouses, duplexes, small apartments and tiny homes.
  • Our city doesn’t have enough homes for the people who want to live here, and this drives up housing prices and rents, hurting prospective homebuyers and renters alike. If we want St. Paul to be an affordable place to own or rent a home, we should make it easier to build more homes.
  • St. Paul is struggling to maintain our streets and to fully fund our libraries, schools, parks and rec centers. At the same time, residential homeowners are struggling to afford the annual increases to their property taxes. By making it legal to house more people in the same amount of space, these proposed zoning changes can help increase the number of people sharing the cost of paying for the public infrastructure and services our city needs.

The proposed changes would enable progress toward the goals of our city’s Climate Action & Resilience Plan. Transportation is the top source of greenhouse gas emissions in St. Paul, and the best way for our city to reduce its collective carbon footprint is by making it easier for people to reduce their reliance on cars. We need more “walkable” neighborhoods, where residents enjoy access to grocery stores, pharmacies, gathering places, transit routes, and other important destinations and services within a short walk of their homes. Legalizing more homes in every neighborhood is the first step toward creating walkable places, since businesses and transit routes can’t succeed without a critical mass of customers.

I strongly support both the stated goal of the proposed amendments — enabling a wider variety of neighborhood-scale homes throughout St. Paul — and the carefully crafted technical details proposed by the Planning Department that will make that goal feasible, including: 

  • A 33-foot height limit in the proposed Zoning District H1 and a 39-foot limit in H2.
  • A 10-foot minimum to front-yard setbacks with thoughtful conditions regarding abutting lots.
  • Carefully calculated increases to the allowable lot coverage, with reasonable limits.

I recommend only one change to the proposal: Where the Planning Department has recommended applying the Zoning District H2 within an ⅛-mile radius around neighborhood nodes and high-frequency transit routes, increase the catchment area to ¼-mile. Doing so would be a modest change in keeping with the goals of St. Paul’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan — namely, to increase housing options within walking distance of neighborhood-oriented businesses and public transit. A quarter-mile is commonly considered the distance most people are willing to walk to a store or bus stop; it makes sense to legalize five homes per lot, instead of only four, within that radius.

Thanks for your attention to my comments!

That’s it! Sign your full name and, again, include your residential address — or the city will not count your comment.

If you’d like to attend the meeting in person or via livestream, click here to access detailed information on city meetings. Look for the link to the City Council meeting on October 4.

About Zak Yudhishthu

Pronouns: He/him

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. Tweet him @zyudhishthu or email him at zyudhishthu@yahoo[dot]com.