Sometimes, building a house is simple: an opportunity arises, capital is borrowed, labor is contracted, and after a few months a new house pops up in our neighborhood. Other times, a house belies a months’-long slog through the city bureaucracy.
Such is the case for the lot on 1841 Lincoln Ave. in St. Paul, which contains a single house nestled in the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood just off of Grand Avenue.
The site at 1841 Lincoln was once two lots, each originally platted and sold with a 40-foot width – not too different than many houses in Macalester-Groveland. Sometime between 1908 and today, the two lots merged and became an 80-foot lot with just one house. Today, the owners wish to split the lots back to their original 40-foot sizes, which would allow them to build and then sell an additional house.
You might expect this process to be painless. After all, the lot owners are simply going to split the lot back to its original size. And shouldn’t our city be welcoming the addition of new housing to address our low rental vacancy rates in the face of rising demand? St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said there’s an “urgent need for more housing for Saint Paul residents of all incomes,” and our city’s comprehensive plan calls for us to “support the development of new housing,” especially near transit. This house is a block from the 63 bus and 0.6 miles from the A Line rapid bus.
Unfortunately, things aren’t quite so easy. Since the lots were originally platted, everything about how we plan our cities changed. Strict local zoning became the dominant mode of land use control. In St. Paul, as in many other American cities, this means extensive swathes of land zoned solely for single-family homes alongside a thicket of other regulations on things like lot sizes, building setbacks, and the ratio of floor-space to total lot area. 1841 Lincoln is a section of St. Paul zoned R3, which means that all lots must be 50 feet wide, and though these lots were once 40 feet wide, their narrower size would make them illegal today.
As a result, the landowners of 1841 Lincoln Avenue are currently embroiled in the long, painful process of obtaining a variance. Variances are intended to grant landowners with exceptions to existing zoning codes for special circumstances. Because the landowners are asking for a special exemption to the zoning code, they must meet a set of standards, some of which present no problem. For example, this project is in line with the city’s stated goals of adding more housing, and city staffers don’t believe it will “alter the essential character of the surrounding area.” But the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) believes they fail to meet other standards: the landowners’ request for a variance is not “due to circumstances unique to the property not created by the landowner,” and thus fails to meet two closely related requirements.
Based on this finding, the BZA recommended denial of the variance. The landowners appealed this decision, so they are now wrapped up in the same discussion at the city council, where council members appear to be interested in the housing opportunity this lot split would provide, but have their hands tied. Councilmember Chris Tolbert said that this is a “quasi-judicial decision,” and so they can only make a decision based on the predefined set of variance standards.
This arduous, bureaucratic process reveals the fact that our zoning codes are flawed, reflecting a series of arbitrary decisions that undermine our city’s best interests. It leads us to reject the built forms that once made up our neighborhoods; the landowners can’t create 40-foot lots despite the fact that the same block has six other lots that don’t meet the 50-foot minimum lot size. Furthermore, the zoning just a few blocks away is R4 instead of R3 and allows for 40-foot lot widths instead of 50-foot widths, highlighting the confusing and thinly-grounded choices that underlie our zoning regime.
The problem isn’t that we’re going to miss out on this single house. It’s that our planning environment contains a set of policies that leave us with consistent housing shortfalls. This is what Tom Basgen once described as the “wonky, boring, and exclusionary nature of the zoning realm.” We openly acknowledge that a new house would benefit our city, and then look to the zoning code and find that our hands are tied to historical decisions. Then, we build less housing and make competition for the existing housing stock increasingly cutthroat. In cutthroat housing markets, people lose.
Whatever the outcome of this specific variance, it’s not functional to require that simple projects like this one receive individual approval – and across our city, people are making efforts to change this. St. Paul’s 1-4 Unit Housing Study is one of the most promising measures to allow more housing by right. The study’s first phase led to meaningful reforms around accessory dwelling units in early 2022, and its upcoming second phase will consider legalizing all kinds of cottage clusters, townhomes and two/four plexes. This last summer, the city council also passed a reform to remove hyperlocal veto powers over certain conditional use permits.
So momentum is going in the right direction. Hopefully, city planners are also taking a hard look at the many other binding constraints in our zoning code and asking what purposes they serve, because our current set of rules doesn’t work.
Zak Yudhishthu is a student in St. Paul, and participates in the Macalester-Groveland District Council.