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Zoning Constraints and Mixed-Use Corridors: A Conversation With Spencer Miller-Johnson

Spencer Miller-Johnson, Senior City Planner for the City of St. Paul, joins Sherry for a lively conversation about zoning and land use. Spencer helps us unpack a city report on its East Grand Avenue Overlay Study. He also shares about the city’s planning philosophies, why he’s passionate about form-based codes, and what keeps him up at night. Hear about how you can help guide potential zoning changes during the study’s public comment period through March 29.



Our theme song is Tanz den Dobberstein, and our interstitial song is Puck’s Blues. Both tracks used by permission of their creator, Erik Brandt. Find out more about his band The Urban Hillbilly Quartet on their website.

This episode was produced and transcribed by Sherry Johnson, and was edited and hosted by Ian R Buck. We’re always looking to feature new voices on the show, so if you have ideas for future episodes, drop us a line at podcast@streets.mn.


IAN: Welcome to the Streets.mn podcast, the show where we highlight how transportation and land use can make our communities better places. Coming to you from beautiful Seward, Minneapolis, Minnesota, I’m your host, Ian R Buck. Audience I have a little riddle for you today. What do Elton John Whoopi Goldberg and the intersection of Grand Avenue and Victoria in St. Paul have in common? They’re all EGOTs! 

SHERRY: Wait a minute I think you’ve got that wrong. It is the East Grand Avenue Overlay District, E-G-A-O-D. Actually, much less crisp and roll-off-the-tongue. No one really knows how to shorten it. Yeah, the struggle is real.

IAN: So, Sherry Johnson, you are here right now because you are producing an episode for us about the E Grant Overlay Districts. So, can you tell us a little bit about this? Why do we care about this right now, in particular? 

SHERRY: Yeah so, this district has been in place from about 2005ish way back when Summit Hill association was working with the business district there. And they put on this extra layer of land use protection. Now at the time there were a lot of good reasons for this. They were seeing a lot of different commercial corridors be overrun by national brands including things like McDonald’s. And I think a lot of folks just wanted to retain that small local business flavor as well.

IAN:  They didn’t want but they were probably seeing what was going on in Uptown and kind of trying to avoid that yeah.

SHERRY: Certainly yeah. So, there were just a lot of concerns and people trying to maintain a flavor and maybe doing some unintended consequences. But overtime there’s been kind of a difference in between the east part of Grand Avenue and the West part of Grand Avenue and the reason we want to care about this is right now of course everywhere we lo we’re looking at relaxing different land use policies and the impacts of doing that. Maybe they’ve gotten a little constricted overtime. And we’ve got a lot of folks too who are really worried about the future of our commercial corridors, our mixed-use corridors in cities like ours. So, it’s just one of those wonderfully nerdy land use things that maybe has an outsized impact than what we realize when we’re just walking up and down the street. And asking huh why does it look like this? Yeah.

IAN: Speaking of how nerdy it is you went and interviewed a city of St. Paul employee who works in which department is he in? 

SHERRY:  so, Spencer Miller Johnson is a newish (Senior) Planner to the city of St. Paul, and he works in the Planning and Economic Development Department.

IAN: So yeah, for listeners who enjoyed our pothole episode with a couple of Rd. Engineers this is going to be right up people’s alley.

SHERRY: Yeah, and I think my biggest regret with this interview is not asking the question well why just not remove the Overlay entirely fighting with why doesn’t even there?

IAN: So yeah, let’s jump right into that interview and folks will hear from us in the present a couple of times.

SHERRY: Hello Spencer.

SPENCER: Hi Sherry, good morning.

SHERRY: Thanks for joining us on the Streets.mn podcast. What’s your background? What brought you to St. Paul?

SPENCER: I’m really happy to be here, thanks for having me. My background is I grew up in the Twin Cities, so I had to come back as so many people do. I’m one of the Minnesotans that moved away and returned and I’m happy I’m happy that I did that. I think a lot of people think that they’re going to move away and never return but I think this place is a way of just bringing people back. And I think that’s a good thing. So, I went to California for about 10 years. I went to Cal Poly and then I stayed there working in a couple of different firms in the Bay Area and one on the Central Coast. And both were really rooted in long range planning transit-oriented development affordable housing urban design. And toward the end I did a lot of form-based code work and so I yeah.

SHERRY: And we’re going to talk about that.

SPENCER: I’m excited too, it’s my bread and butter so I yeah so that’s where I came from. And then just I don’t know 2-3 years ago moved back here. I really wanted to work at the city of St. Paul. So, I’m really glad that the timing worked. And now of course I’m back with my family and friends so that’s always a bonus too.

SHERRY: Nice all right so we actually brought you here to talk about the East Grand Avenue Overlay Study and it’s up for public comment through March. Before we get into the study though could you just give us a primer on St. Paul code? What are the existing zoning districts that impact all of Grand Avenue broadly speaking?

SPENCER: Sure, absolutely so obviously in St. Paul we have our zoning code it’s uh has a variety of zoning districts that apply throughout the city there are probably I think 5 main categories that we organize the zoning districts into. So, we’ve got residential. We have business which is essentially commercial zoning. We’ve got traditional neighborhood which is kind of  mixed-use zoning. And we have others um we on Grand Avenue there are there are several zoning districts that apply on East Grand Avenue in particular. There are nine I believe and the most predominant are what’s called the M2 which is a medium density multifamily residential zone. And then we’ve got kind of a mixed bag of business districts so those commercial districts. One of the most unique of those is called BC community business and that was written I believe 4 Grand Avenue to do a good job of maintaining those house scale buildings for commercial uses so make it flexible for land use kind of variety in existing house skill form. And we see that in businesses on Grand the Irish on Grand or there’s the bookstore there’s mischief toys right.

SHERRY: So, our readers will be very familiar with Mr. Of toys and a good example of how to use that space.

SPENCER: Yeah so, I would say yeah those are the kind of main factors. And then of course in the zoning code we have a variety of general building design standards too. Got landscaping standards fencing the stuff. That just applies regardless of the development as well. So, we’ve got base zoning districts and then we’ve got general standards too.

 SHERRY: Got it got it and so what’s a zoning Overlay and how is it different from underlying zoning?

SPENCER: Yeah, an Overlay applies on top of all that. So, it’s an additional regulatory layer that usually is written into code for some sort of special reason. So, it might be you’re next to the river or you there’s some sort of Environmental Protection requirement or historic preservation. So usually, Overlays are there for specific geographic area because that geographic area warrants some special treatment.

SHERRY: Got it so the study you just went through this process of studying this East Grand Avenue Overlay District it was put in place in what 2006? And it was brought on by the neighborhood organization the District Council. So, what brought on this study of this Overlay and what was your process?

SPENCER: Yeah, I mean there are a number of factors that brought this on. They include some staff concerns and complain consistency. We are aware of the east Grand Avenue Overlay District so only Overlay in the city that kind of applies in this way that’s corridor specific and has development limitations placed. So, we’re aware that that doesn’t totally jive with the comp plan. Where that really came about from, I guess that was really shown to us through the 695 Grand project process, what is now Kenton House. It’s now built, and we’ve got a number of people living in there and we’ve got two businesses that are in there. But when that project first started there came to us as an application a few years ago it really showed PED that there was a mismatch between the code and the comp plan. Because we found ways to support it through comp plan policy, but our code didn’t directly allow for it and the project required a lot of variances conditional use permits from the code. For some of those reasons were valid it is a large project and it’s definitely necessitated an additional level of review. But it did show us that it is still a quality walkable pedestrian-oriented project that that makes sense on a place like Grand. So why is the code such a barrier? And that’s really what inspired us to want to take the zoning study on.

SHERRY: So, part of that process too was about the Grand Avenue advisory committee, so our very own Dan Marshall was on this thing Zack Farrell was on this thing sometimes some of our friends out there in Streets.mn land. What was that about? Tell us about how that contributed to the process.

SPENCER: Sure, yeah, I mean I think that advisory committee was incredibly kind of instrumental to getting to where we are today. They were really a group of 12 community members. They didn’t all live necessarily in Summit Hill but close to Summit Hill. And they some of them are business owners some of them lived residents homeowners printer is a variety of folks and a lot. And by design they had a variety of opinions and that was something that we wanted to do because we wanted to get these people in the room to have these hash out some of these more challenging conversations. What are the specific issues that get to you that really, we need to try to solve, in a way we can through zoning? I mean zoning can only go so far but what can we do to help find some level of consensus? And I think they met seven times it was really led by a consultant so we could have an objective third party person just figure it out. And they came up with these guiding principles documents that they gave over to us.

SHERRY: And that’s appended to the document.

SPENCER: That was yeah exactly Yep, it’s an appendix that we’ve carried forward into our staff reports. And it has seven major principles and a variety of little kinds of bullets underneath them. And it was hopefully somewhat healing for members of the community.

SHERRY: That’s what I was hoping it would be.

SPENCER: I hope so. I’m really proud of where it ended up. They came to some general agreement. I mean there’s still folks that really didn’t want the heights to change in particular. But generally, they were able to see that corners could facilitate higher intensity development. And maybe that higher intensity development shouldn’t happen on mid-block areas.

SHERRY: Yeah, that was a huge thing.

SPENCER: Yeah, so treating areas of Grand contextually I think was a key take away that I got from it. And it was helpful to even get there. And we tried to write that into our standards even though it’s kind of hidden. It’s not we say corners must do this and mid blocks must do this. If you lo at the standards and you’re zoning geek you can probably see how they’re treated differently. And so that was by design.

SHERRY: Got it got it and what did this study find and how might it change things?

SPENCER: Well, the study found that generally no shock to us the Overlay was inconsistent with many comprehensive plan policies. The limitations that it that it has as part of it we’re constraining development. And really there has been very little development on the eastern portion of grant since it was adopted in 2006. And so, there are a variety of factors to be blamed for that, but the Overlay is definitely one of them. And that’s the one that we have the most control over here. In D so we wanted to work on amending that and that’s where we started. That’s that was the kind of impetus for it.

SHERRY: And so, the study recommends specifically I think what three things four things can you go over those would you mind?

SPENCER: The Overlay it’s small but mighty. Today and our proposal to amend it is also small but mighty. It’s right now it imposes just a few limitations on development, building square footage limitations so you can only build a building of a certain size and height—a story limitation—so those really kind of tamped down what can be built on lots. And so, what we’re proposing to do is to kind of replace those limitations with design standards for walkable pedestrian-oriented development. We’re really just proposing three things and they are… stepbacks, which would require a building of a certain height to stepback a portion of the building facade further from the street. That helps to kind of decrease the perception of intensity as a pedestrian. We’re proposing what we call building line frontage though that would basically require and or allow flexibility for buildings to be built close to the street where it would make sense and buildings to match existing house skill form. That exists where that makes sense. And then we’re proposing to do a frontage element standard and that builds on other standards in the code. But it basically just means you need to have pedestrian-oriented frontages on the front of your building. So that could include additional windows. It could even be a porch. Could be a stoop. It could be a great, residential entrance to a larger building. There’s a variety of ways to meet that. But point is you need to have pedestrian-oriented elements in the front of your building.

SHERRY: Got it that human scale stuff we to talk about 

SPENCER: Right exactly 

SHERRY: So, if the Study’s recommendations are incorporated into the code, we’ll have the Overlay and the underlying T2 zoning in addition to the Overlay. How will these two things continue to complement one another?

SPENCER: Yeah, so there’s one clarification in that. Sure, so we’ve got we’ll have the Overlay and the Overlay. One thing I didn’t mention yet is that it subjects all development to T2 design standards.

SHERRY: Thanks yeah and that 

SPENCER: So that’s probably what you’re talking about.


SPENCER: The T2 design standards there that’s an abbreviation of traditional neighborhood the second level of intensity so T2. And we have this list of design standards in the traditional neighborhood zoning districts. And what we’re saying is those should all apply within the East Grand Avenue Overlay District and that’s there today. So those all apply already today. We’re just carrying that forward underneath that layer is still all the underlying zoning districts.  So, we’ve got those business districts RM2 there’s some T there’s some traditional neighborhood districts. But there’s I think 9 different so many districts and they all have their own requirements for height setbacks, FAR. They control intensity. And they control the development envelope that can be built under. So, our Overlay standards are just kind of adding on to that a little bit.

SHERRY: So, you just you said FAR. Can you define that for some of our listeners?

SPENCER: Floor Area Ratio. It’s basically a way of regulating development intensity that scales based off the size of a lot. So, it’s a ratio-based regulation. So, you might be able to build double the square footage of a lot if the FAR is maximum—maybe I’ll stop there… the point is it’s a way of regulating development intensity.

IAN:  so, Sherry, let’s take a pause here for a second because I’m looking at a map here of Grand Avenue and there’s a lot of different zoning categorizations across the whole thing. I kind of thought that that Grand Avenue would have one consistent zoning no that’s not the Case.

SHERRY: No that that would have been nice when I was looking at it and doing all the work on it. Yeah, no that’s it’s unkind my favorite is the BC zoning. Which are those little houses with big porches cute houses with big porches that have all the stuff in front of them. And you’ve seen mischief toys using that space really well. It it’s basically a conversion where it’s an old house converted into a business. BC zoning .and it’s so and it was essentially just designed probably so that folks weren’t tearing down these pretty beautiful 2 two- and three-story fun houses. And they were still able to run a business out of them. Seasoned is another one. There’s a whole bunch as you go up and down Grand that you notice. And you don’t really see those that zoning in a lot of other places. It’s pretty cool.

IAN: Yeah, no I’m zooming out on the map, and I do not see that same shade of Gray anywhere else in the city.

SHERRY: That’s to make East Grand Avenue more affordable for new business owners to come in.

IAN: I’m also seeing some B2 and B3.

SHERRY: So that’s just the non-mixed-use places where there’s a small business and it’s not necessarily an upstairs-downstairs thing like that as far as I know… I don’t have my resident zoning translator–shout out to Simon Taghioff–but I’m doing my best.

IAN: And then Spencer also talks about T2.

SHERRY: So, the T2 zoning is kind of that traditional use maximum of 45 feet with a conditional use permit and that’s the part that the Overlay was designed to kind of cut down a little bit. That’s the tallest most intensive development that was allowed on Grand and would be again. What the Overlay said is no you’re limited to three stories to 30 feet for commercial buildings. Three stories and 36 feet for commercial residential. And then three stories and 40 feet for residential or institutional. So, it just kind of hacked off that last few feet to prevent that sense of what they call massing. To bring in more light and sky and whatever and make sure that those buildings stayed at a human scale. But of course, right and you don’t have to go far just western and Selby, one of the taller buildings we have that are historic in a commercial corridor. This neighborhood corridor is right there the Blair favorite intersections in St. Paul. yeah, it feels so cozy it feels wonderful and you’re not really missing the sky, right? And then if you even that place if you’ve ever been it has one of the most beautiful views in St. Paul from the top and it has beautiful treatments on the outside. I think a lot of folks who really want to protect against massing and things like that… I want to give them a shout out. I think they’ve got some legitimate concerns that we don’t use the materials that we used to, right? If we’re going to build a brand-new building a lot of times developers really will cut corners or make it look cheaper or the brick won’t look as earthy or whatever.

IAN: Sure 

SHERRY: Legitimate things that I think folks who like that historic feel are afraid of. And they use I think at least in my view they use these height caps and massing caps as a way to control for that when you can’t really control what a developer use uses for materials.

SHERRY: Has the city considered a zoning study of Grand or other commercial districts?

SPENCER: Good question. We do mention that as it relates to, I think it’s the study of potentially materials colors designed. That was one thing that the advisory committee sure talked about. We currently in our work plan don’t have a plan to do an additional study on Grand Avenue we’re really focusing on more transit-oriented studies going forward. So, nothing on Grand specifically on the work plan at least for 2024.

SHERRY: Got it got it so the 2040 plan you talked about the this Overlay Study bringing this Overlay in line with that 2040 plan. It refers to neighborhood nodes as well. So, Victoria and Grand, where I just caught the bus, is one example. Can you share more about what those are? And how does that interact with these other designations?

SPENCER: Sure, neighborhood nodes are defined in the comprehensive plan. They’re basically areas of the city or intersections of the city that we expect to have additional development intensity. And that might be because they’re extra transit oriented.  Victoria and Grand is a transit intersection they might be extra pedestrian oriented. Or they might be both. So, they have additional levels of activity. And we kind of mapped them out in the comprehensive plan to help us visualize where additional development intensity could go in the future. And it’s really more of a visioning exercise. They’re not regulatory but they do help us if a zoning application comes through and it’s oh it’s within neighborhood node. And they want to build slightly taller buildings, it’s just another reason we have to support a project.

SHERRY: Got it I know that when I when I originally saw kind of looked at the code and I was looking at it with the neighborhood planning committee at District 16 or it was the East Grand Avenue task force we were looking noticing this neighborhood node really what is that ?And then some of the fears I heard around that and or excitements let’s be frank was… is it possible that could ever be up on to T3?

SPENCER: Sure, yeah valid for your valid excitement on both ends. On the city side generally know we generally aren’t proposing to proactively rezone neighborhood node areas to a more intense zoning district. But if a property owner owned property and they came to us with the zoning application for a rezoning and it was a higher intensity zoning district because it’s in within a neighborhood node that would be another reason for us to support that effort to rezone it to something higher. But we don’t have any plans to go in and rezone those.

SHERRY:  got it a lot of folks are sensing a shift in language around Grand Avenue the language a few years ago with some area elders is that it’s a residential street with commercial amenities. And a lot of people are really passionate about that. But increasingly I’m hearing it referred to as a mixed-use street. Is this shift in language or is it just in my head?

SPENCER: No, I don’t think it’s just in your head. I think it’s maybe just come into a normalcy at least on the city side to think of it as a mixed-use area. And that’s probably directly in response to the fact that the 2040 comprehensive plan defines the area as mixed-use. So, one of the things the comprehensive plan does is groups areas of the city into different land use categories. And again, those help us kind of visualize where development should go and what type of development should be where. And Grand Avenue is categorized mixed-use. A lot of Summit Hill is categorized urban neighborhood. So that’s and that’s a very common development pattern in St. Paul as to how these urban neighborhoods in proximity to a mixed-use corridor. So Grand is one of those things. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that all new development on each parcel in Grand should be vertical mixed-use. It just means that it should continue to be a corridor, an area where you can live and work or shop or get a coffee all within walking distance of one another. So new development might just be residential. New development on Grand might just be retail. But it’s in proximity and walkable proximity to a variety of uses.

SHERRY: Is there any possibility that there might be a mixed-use designation brought forward in the zoning code?

 Well, we have one and it’s hiding underneath the name traditional neighborhood.

SHERRY:  say more.

SPENCER: So, our traditional neighborhood zoning districts are essentially mixed-use zoning districts. They allow a variety of uses in T1 through T4. They’re not grouped based off of a predominant land use category. And that’s definitely by design. I mean they are form-forward mixed-use zoning districts. They have design standards for walkability. And they are yeah not specific in what land uses necessarily can be where. Now there are different levels of intensity and T1 to T4 that only have differences in what land uses are allowed. But they but they vary, and the point is they kind of jumble them up and allow flexibility on land use.

IAN:  so, Sherry this this next section of the interview is about stepbacks. So, I wanted to introduce this a little bit because most people have heard of setbacks, right? But not met not as many people know about stepbacks. So, a setback is a zoning regulation that dictates how close to the property line the edge of a building can be right?

SHERRY: Yeah, setbacks allow us to do things like sidewalks and walkable amenities and bike racks and all of that.

IAN: And it is interesting to note that a setback doesn’t have to just be the minimum right? It can also be the maximum. So, we typically we think of it as, “Oh the city is not going to let me build my building right up to the property line. I have to be 5 feet 10 feet 20 feet back,” whatever it may be. But the city can also say you can’t be more than 10 feet away from the property line.

SHERRY: Because yeah, we all know that on a walkable street someplace you want to be a walking corridor you don’t want the buildings 100 feet away from the sidewalk, right? This no man’s land, right?

IAN: Yeah, so that’s a fun little tidbit and now let’s get into yeah what a stepback is.

SPENCER: In the East Grand Avenue Overlay District proposal here, we are proposing to write a stepback that would apply after 30 feet of height. So, we’re saying a building can be 30 feet high along the sidewalk but after 30 feet it needs to be stepped back. So, the building facade or the building the rest of the building mass can go higher, but it needs to be stepped back after 10 feet.

SHERRY: Does it say by how much?

SPENCER: yeah, so that’s that 10-foot mark.

SHERRY: Oh, ay, yeah got it so yeah 10-foot stepback is how much you have to stepback and the 30 feet is at what height you have to start that 10 feet.

SPENCER: Exactly.

SHERRY: Thank you.

SPENCER: So, and that applies along Grand that applies to all sides of the building at least in our current proposal so we’re saying off of rear alleys too.

SHERRY: Oh, wow.

SPENCER: Yeah, so and that’s to offset development intensity for those houses that are often on the other side of the alley. Maybe they’re access off of Lincoln or something on the South side of Grand and we don’t want buildings towering over those houses. And that’s something that we heard in this advisory committee yeah that that we’re trying to implement through our standards and be responsive to.

SHERRY: Right, has anybody ever talked about that not being consistent all the way along the corridor? For example, on the north side of grand, along summit Avenue, some of those lots are very deep right? And so, a stepback at 30 feet where you’d have to do 10 foot back what for it, you’re just doing it for a yard versus a carriage house or a house that’s right near the back of a building. Has there been any consideration to modulating that a little bit?

SPENCER: I’ve heard some folks are a little concerned about that. That’s a that’s a great question. I think that’s something as we are now rolling this out publicly, we’re starting to hear a little bit more. Sure, maybe a generalized stepback provision isn’t necessarily the right proposal to proceed with. Maybe there’s opportunities to revise that for… that that’s a great point off of rear alleys that have different sort of treatments back. I mean there is a lot of variety. So, is there a way to calibrate that? And two we don’t want to preclude. There are some building types that could make sense to go above 30 without a stepback. And so, we don’t want to be onerous to that sort of thing so open to open to any feedback.

SHERRY: alright so the report on the study also argues that larger lots are treated unequally this is from the report, “larger lots are treated equally and in a way that can be challenging to develop.” So, some folks who advocate for localism, small businesses, historic flavor, kind of the idea of narrower frontages. They might be asking the question, “Why should we care about preserving or encouraging large lots?” What would you say to that?

SPENCER: the Overlay District uses an overly broad brush in its treatment of these limitations and applies it regardless of lot size. Which makes sense in some ways. But the fact that it writes into regulation specific limitations on building square footage that do not scale based off of lot size is perceived to be a challenge on the City side. As an example, we have the Overlay currently without our proposal being adopted the Overlay currently has a limitation on build building footprint square footage of 25,000 square feet. So, you can’t build a building with a footprint larger than 25,000 square feet, and that applies to a lot that’s 5000 square feet, that applies to a lot that’s 50,000 square feet. Our point is that all should be treated equally. We’re not trying to say large lot development is the way to go. We’re just trying to say the standards should be calibrated to the size of the lot. So, the right level of intensity is developed on a lot-by-lot basis. A broad-brush square footage kind of threshold is not generally the way to write zoning standards because they don’t account for the uniqueness of development considerations.

SHERRY: yeah, got it. So, I guess what comes to mind is if this were to go into effect, would there be any kind of rush to sort of consolidate smaller lots for example? Is there a danger of that?

SPENCER: I think there’s a danger of that now. I mean I don’t think that this Overlay would the amendments to this Overlay would trigger any sort of windfall of lock consolidation. There’s nothing that we’re writing that would motivate that any more than what’s out there now. And in fact, it could actually just thinking about it off the cuff it could actually mitigate some of that risk because we’re no longer having some, we’re no longer treating these the development thresholds in this broad-brush way. We’re releasing them from that. So, we’re saying now you defer down to the underlying zoning districts for a lot of these development controls and those are all scaled based off of lot size. And they’re just more calibrated anyway so we’re just kind of opening that flexibility up. 

SHERRY: thank you for answering that. It just came to mind. So, the first-floor activation is another thing I was thinking about when I was reading the report. It references first floor activation. The recent advisory committee for this study expressed a desire for “ transparent shop fronts” but let’s be frank: we’re seeing a lot of windows that are completely covered by opaque signage, drab paper., I mean when I walk over my Whole Foods on Snelling and Selby, it just feels kind of sad. Is there a mechanism for planners to regulate first floor activation that maybe actually enhances walkability?

SPENCER: yeah, it’s a great question. And this is kind of a tricky one that I think a lot of communities struggle with. A lot of communities have or think of windows as activation and don’t really know what to do when it comes to opacity. You’re can you actually see it and it’s kind of for good reason because that’s something that’s difficult to regulate especially at the zoning level. I don’t know if I would recommend writing in you can be whatever 50% opaque or you can’t. That just gets this level of challenge for enforcement or understanding of what that even means. And so that whole conversation is kind of a tricky one. I will say that the way in which we can encourage activated ground floor spaces is there’s a variety of answers to it. It’s not all about windows. It’s I think there are so many ways that ground floors can be activated. And it could be a residential lobby that has a has a really great awning or projection off of it with some benches and a great street tree. In my mind could be active or an office space that has people coming in and out and to go get coffee down the street. And even though it’s kind of a quiet use back there it’s an office it still is active and has a pedestrian walking by. It probably doesn’t matter whether or not they have their blinds closed for conference or not. You know what I mean? There are probably ways to activate that energy without thinking about it only as transparency. And I think it just boils down to the fact that in these sorts of walkable areas building form over land use is what we need to think about. It’s just that’s it’s not all about what’s going on inside.

IAN: this hesitation is kind of funny to me because that is exactly what zoning is right? There’s a lot of things that we dictate using zoning rules that we don’t strictly have to dictate.

SHERRY: yeah right 

IAN: and so, I don’t see an inherent reason that that this whether or not windows are present on a particular part of the building I don’t see why that has to be off the table automatically.

SHERRY: I know I think in a perfect world I think we would tell all businesses, “Hey, you have to have windows that the ground level, and they have to have things in them, they have to lo nice, you have to be able to see them right? No brown paper or wrought iron or chain link to protect your assets, right? And I think I think I got the sense from Spencer and a lot of the business groups that I follow is  it there’s a real hesitation to tell a small business owner–who is sometimes really successful sometimes struggling–to keep products here’s what you absolutely have to do with your window. I think that there is more in this world carrots are more welcome than sticks, you know?

IAN: yeah, right very true 

SHERRY: right and I mean you think about places like Freewheel Bike on Grand that had–I think it was them–that had a bike stolen out of their very beautiful very clear window when they just opened. And I felt so bad for them. So, I feel, I do think a building should be a gift to the street. I do think business owners should really think about how they relate their business to the street. And honestly my little localist heart wishes that we could have different roles for the big players with millions and millions of dollars. The fact that Whole Foods has brown paper over their windows at Snelling and Selby is criminal. It’s criminal. And I wish I wish we could make it criminal, but the fact is that what are the follow-on impacts to other businesses who maybe want to do some different things with their windows? It’s a real conundrum.

IAN: and I do actually agree that I don’t think that we should be dictating whether or not a building has windows on the ground floor etcetera. But  thinking about it in these terms of  Oh, what is what should and should we not be dictating through zoning rules, you know?  It brings me swinging hard in the other direction of why are we dictating any of this right?

SHERRY: I think that’s really where Spencer is coming from. I get the sense that he’s part of that group that just wants to really relax. He wants us to build, right?

IAN: yeah, and we have safety regulations for buildings, right? There are particular materials that you can and cannot use to build a building because of fire codes. And how many egresses have to be exists for residents etcetera right?  Those things are all well and good. Why are we going beyond that and telling people who want to build something somewhere, no you can’t, it’s too tall, when we want to make it tall so that we can house a bunch of people in it right?

SHERRY: and I think folks who really want more business space, more housing, I think that that is where some of that hesitation comes from even regulating number of windows, what’s in those windows, what they look like. So, I think it’s for us walkability people and us affordable housing people, more housing people, there are just trade-offs and tensions around all of these things. And we want to create what we call enabling constraints so people can build but also safety constraints and keep it at that kind of that level you were talking about.

IAN: yeah, and I’m not arguing that we should just completely go lose fair and you can build whatever you want wherever you want.  I do think that it is good that we don’t allow heavy industrial use right next to people’s homes. But other than that, I think that we have gone way too far with not allowing commercial uses near people’s homes because hey commercial use is exactly what I need near my home.

SHERRY: and even things like small-scale manufacturing, which these days are done without a lot of industrial toxins involved, things like 3D printing and cutting and things that. I’d like to see more of that even in places like Grand.

IAN: Yeah absolutely.

SHERRY:  since you talked about building form, let’s go. So, one of the things that kept coming up at my work around Grand and neighborhood planning was this idea about form-based codes as an alternative to conventional zoning. Could you talk about the difference?

SPENCER: sure, I would be happy to. Yeah, conventional zoning codes are based off of the separation of land use. So that’s just that’s the predominant way that our country has developed over the past several decades. It’s based off of zoning codes that put residential in one spot commercial in another and industrial somewhere else. And that was really in response to the industrial revolution and pollution. And the fact that houses were being built next to manufacturing polluters. 


SPENCER: And fair we need to change that obviously, for public health, that needs to change. But the overcorrection is off the charts. And we found that now and especially in the past few decades we’re up that’s led to auto oriented sprawl.  You have to get your car to go everywhere in many places in this country unfortunately. The Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, are two places where you don’t you can buy can bus and get around fairly easily but there’s still room for improvement. Point is, form-based codes were a correction to that. So, they really popped up in the 80s & 90s, as saying, “Well hold on.  A lot of the great walkable places in the world, you don’t really think about the land use. You’re enjoying your experience on an activated, walkable area because of what you’re walking by because of the building form. And so, form-based codes were put in place. They regulate building massing in a more predictable way–building intensity–and they use some different tools in that department. And a lot of them have very specific menus of building types you can build and different types of frontages with even measurements for how big or small should the porch be. And some people perceive that as way off the deep end, a porch is a porch. But at the same time there are developers building balconies that you can’t sit on; you can just barely lean off of. So, there is a way to achieve the right level of regulation to encourage the right level of development. I think over the decades as form-based codes are being tested, there are opportunities for improvement.

SHERRY: is there a city that you’d recommend we lo at to see an example of that I know some of our listeners are into this right?

SPENCER: absolutely. One of the most recent award-winning form-based codes is in South Bend, Indiana, and it’s obviously much smaller scale than St. Paul, but it’s not a bad model. And sometimes I mental-note that and be like, What does South Bend do? When I’m looking at stuff. I mean it’s a very it’s a good example of a well-illustrated Midwestern form-based code with the generally right level of standards. Now it’s fairly new, so I think the testing is being done now, like how is development going? I don’t know. I haven’t checked on it, but it’s not a bad example to lo at. 

SHERRY: I’m spelling out What Does South Bend Do, WDSBD, because that could be a bracelet right? 

SPENCER:  I’ll work on that yeah. 

SHERRY: it’s also reminded me. Loci Consulting did a market and retail node study when I was on the Neighborhood Planning Committee, and in their analysis and recommendations they said “Instead of the Overlay requirement we recommend developing realistic design guidelines that reflect the neighborhood’s desire to maintain the qualities of Grand Avenue while promoting the development of sustainable mixed-use space along the corridor.” So, first of all is that form-based code? Is it the same?

SPENCER: no that’s I would say that’s different. And that recommendation–the words “design guidelines are the take-away for me from that, design guidelines along the corridor. And to me that is very different than a form-based code.  A form-based code is adopted as zoning, it’s regulatory, you have to do it. Conventional zoning design guidelines usually float above a code and are a reference document that are just guidelines, right? So, you should do them, you’re supposed to, but—

SHERRY: There’s no enforcement 

SPENCER: yeah, there’s very little enforcement, if any. And I personally don’t love them because what… how do they help me? It could be subjective. You should do XY and Z, you should do this color or this. Let the architect design the building man. I’m just trying to, I’ll help you with the building envelope. What you can do to get it right. As a representative from the city. But I don’t need the subjectivity of guidelines. 

SHERRY cool that’s really helpful. Then just for another level of nerdiness… so Grand Avenue has this underlying zoning. And all these other zones and the Overlay. It also has a Special Sign District. How does the Sign District potentially relate to the 2040 plan and this study? Is it likely to be revised?

 Signs… yeah, we’ve heard that this Sign District is a development constraint. Yeah, I guess fortunately but likely more unfortunately, not unique to Grand. There are many other corridors in the cities with these Special Sign Districts that are all treated differently. And we do need to figure out how to make this easier, but it is not part of the scope for this study. we’re not looking at signage. We’re just looking at the development envelope and the Overlay particularly in the zoning code.

 But it’s what you talk about on your coffee breaks for fun 

Oh, yeah for any community members or business owners out there if you want to look at the sign district and let us know what you think, are the problems with it? And I mean that could help us either figure out what to do with it or inspire a study for signs that we just haven’t scoped out yet.

IAN:  so, Sherry we’re talking about a Grand Avenue sign district here.


IAN: I have never heard of this before, and I don’t know what this is about.

SHERRY: well Ian, you’re in luck because the link to that will be in the show notes. It is a special Easter egg for the nerdiest of our nerds. Yes, since 2009, Grand Avenue has had a Special Sign District, and it was basically just designed so that business size–the signs that commercial folks use to promote themselves–have to focus on the business and not any particular product; and that they have to have kind of a particular lo and feel. It’s largely design guidelines. Now it does get a little annoying for some of our businesses to be able to file for permissions and things like that, but that is still in place. And this Overlay Study does not even touch the Sign District. We don’t know what’s going to happen with it, but it is it’s a whole other level of stuff you have to do as a business owner.

IAN: this is about the signs that you put on the facade of your building, yes?

SHERRY: yeah.

IAN: Okay.

SHERRY: there’s a lot of evidence that we need more housing of all types. So, let’s talk about that. Cities need a more robust tax base, particularly cities like ours with lots of non-taxable property. We know denser housing enables climate-friendly transportation, small business foot traffic. How might we achieve greater density on corridors like Grand without sacrificing that early 20th century aesthetic that so many people love?

SPENCER: yeah, that is the classic dilemma. I mean with so many zoning code amendments, how do we… the planners who wrote the East Grand Avenue Overlay District thought they were doing it right and shout out to them for implementing at the time what was the right tool to do what needed to be done in response to the community at the time. But clearly, it’s had impacts that we’re trying to correct. That goes for housing too it’s the Overlay is limited housing but elsewhere in the city too we were we were really at the citywide level trying to unpack the zoning barriers to any level of housing density, especially related to the neighborhood scale housing. And you’ll see that in the recent passage of the one to four housing zoning study and the amendments associated with that opening up in neighborhood scale housing across the city and yeah it’s just about limiting the zoning barriers but balancing that with design standards in my mind and that’s what we’re trying to do for the Overlay District here we’re trying to find the right balance for limited zoning restrictions but still enough to hold developers to a high level of walkable design that grant deserves and has yeah that is a great bridge to this question um so at a recent impact conference I got to hear Karen Parolek of Opticos Design so she’s a well-known advocate for missing middle design and that’s been that those words are repeated a lot in these conversations and she talked about how every building should be a gift to the street and suggested that form-based codes pre-approved designs might be able to pave the way for smaller developers to reinvigorate places  Grand with these Overlay changes plus existing zoning enable that kind of missing middle development or buildings are gifts to the street yeah well I’m glad you brought up Karen Parolek because um yeah she’s awesome Opticos does great work, I never worked for Opticos, but the firm I did work for worked with them all the time.

SHERRY: Oh, wow.

SPENCER: yeah, I know it’s small nerdy urban planning zoning world. but yeah, it’s great and what they’ve done to make missing middle housing mainstream is fantastic. and that again really inspired us in St. Paul, and the wonderful housing study so has direct correlation. but what we’re proposing here in the Overlay definitely doesn’t do anything to preclude missing middle housing. I think the biggest indicator of missing middle housing opportunity and potential on Grand Avenue in particular just has to do with the underlying zoning districts. just so many parts of our city and the Overlay on top of that wouldn’t make it more difficult in my mind to build missing middle housing. The underlying zoning districts, again some of them are a little more commercial based, so you likely wouldn’t see missing middle there unless there is rezoning but we have the RM2 zone, and we have some T zoning so missing middle could go there. I will be I’m happy to be transparent about one of my concerns that keeps me up at night though about this 

SHERRY: really yeah? Do share. 

SPENCER: this stepback requirement. we kind of talked about it earlier and talked about should it be a little more calibrated? I was thinking about that in the context of missing middle housing and there are several missing middle housing types that typically go taller than 30 feet with no stepbacks and only up to 40. I’m talking triplexes, what’s called a multiplex so 6-8 units or whatever.

SHERRY: is there one that over by Kowalski’s?

SPENCER: yeah, there is. And then of course there’s some right on the South corner (of Dale) that are pretty tall, but they’re an existing precedent that I think people are used to, and they house people in a really kind of beautiful way. And so, I’ve been thinking about the stepback requirement a little bit more, and I’m glad it’s out for public review and starting to hear the feedback because I still support it. I think it makes a lot of sense especially for larger scale development to offset the perception of intensity for vertical mixed-use that’s more of the block scale, but what keeps me up at night a little bit is Hey is this going to preclude anything like missing middle housing because I don’t want that.

SHERRY: so, it sounds like you might want some more feedback 

SPENCER: I would love feedback on that think about it folks what’s the deal and we have an opportunity to revise this I mean so this is exactly the type of conversation we should be having 

SHERRY: great so we’ve had this big discussion you’ve talked about a million things thank you so much for getting nerdy with us. What are the next steps in determining what happens with the recommended changes? 

SPENCER: yeah well, we are in the public review period I think we’ve mentioned that so that started when the Planning Commission supported issuing this for public hearing on March 29th and that triggered this public review period of about six weeks. So currently people are more than welcome please reach out to me with any written testimony. You can e-mail me directly to submit written testimony on this project.

SHERRY: I’ll put your e-mail in the show notes. 

SPENCER: fantastic, good because it’s long so last name and then the St. Paul dot MN dot gov. It’s a long one, so copy it into your browser. Feel free to reach out to me to provide written testimony or verbal testimony. If you want to come and talk you can do that at the public hearing with Planning Commission on March 29th, that’s Friday, we usually meet at 8:30 AM so get your coffee. Both ways to provide testimony are fine. One’s not treated more valid than the other. They’re equal to provide written or verbal or both. So, I encourage all folks to do that but after that whole process then we will go back and have the opportunity to revise our proposal.

SHERRY: so, March 29th isn’t the deadline, that’s not when the vote happens. So, what happens after that?

SPENCER: what happens after that is that we take a look at all the public feedback we get through March 29th, so all the written testimony and then the verbal testimony that’s given on the on the date. And we decipher that and determine where do we need to make changes to the proposal based off of what the community said. So, we’ll do that. Hopefully that just takes a few weeks and then we’ll be back at Planning Commission to present our revised proposal. If they’re cool with that, we’ll move forward on the City Council. And for City Council, they will also have a public hearing, so there are a variety of ways to provide feedback if you want to. And if everything goes to plan, we’re marching toward adoption in June, hopefully. So, we’ll see. But just depends how many comments we get and what we want to change.

SHERRY: Spencer Miller-Johnson, thank you so much for your time.

SPENCER: Thank you, Sherry. Johnson.

Sherry: Johnson’s unite! [laughter]. Alright, take care.

IAN: Oh, those Minnesota Johnsons. There’s so many of you guys. Thanks everybody for joining us for this episode of the Streets.mn Podcast. The show is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Nonderivative license. So, feel free to republish the episode as long as you are not altering it and you’re not profiting from it. The music in this episode is by Eric Brandt and the Urban Hillbilly Quartet. This episode was produced and transcribed by Sherry Johnson and was hosted and edited by me, Ian R. Buck. We’re always looking to feature new voices on the Streets.mn Podcast, so if you have ideas for future episodes drop us a line at [podcast@streets.mn]. Find other listeners and discuss this episode on your favorite social media platform using the hashtag #StreetsMNPodcast. Until next time, take care.

About Sherry Johnson

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Sherry Johnson gets feisty about sustainability and localism. A complexity coach, adaptive strategist, and amplifier of counter-narratives, Sherry supports civic and nonprofit leaders as Principal Guide at Cultivate Strategy.

About Ian R Buck

Pronouns: he/him

Podcaster and teacher. Ian gets around via bike and public transportation. "You don't need a parachute to skydive; you just need a parachute to skydive twice!"

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