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With broad-strokes approach, St. Paul sidesteps 2040 plan controversy

The lack of criticism of St. Paul’s plan is a dramatic departure from the long, heated debate among Minneapolis residents over its 2040 comprehensive plan. 

Downtown St. Paul
To further diversify people’s housing and building options, St. Paul is taking an “incremental” approach to density without getting too far into unit specifics in the 2040 plan.
MinnPost file photo by Rita Kovtun

Some St. Paul residents are applauding the city’s ideas to manage growth in its 2040 comprehensive plan, so much so that they want the city’s planners to up the ante: to allow for taller, bigger buildings in more parts of the city and fewer parking spaces.

“As planners who believe in density and growth, and land-use diversity, we love to hear that,” said principal city planner Lucy Thompson, who is leading St. Paul’s 2040 effort. “I always love it when people start out their comments saying, ‘You’ve done a really good job.’”

The lack of criticism of St. Paul’s plan —  which is currently in draft form, as mandated by state law and subject to oversight by the Met Council is a dramatic departure from the long, heated debate among Minneapolis residents and elected officials leading up to the December adoption of that city’s 2040 plan.

Just how much of a departure is clear in the number of comments the respective plans generated. In St. Paul, a little less than 1,300 individuals or organizations have formally commented on the city’s plan so far. In Minneapolis, more than 10,000 public comments were submitted.

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Perhaps that is because the capital city is taking a comparatively incremental approach to land-use changes compared to Minneapolis. In passing its 2040 plan, Minneapolis became one of the first U.S. cities to say it will entirely eliminate single-family zoning. That proposal, which allows for housing of up to three units (triplexes) everywhere and aims to diversify the city’s housing stock, led to screaming matches at city meetings and mobilization campaigns among both supporters and critics of the proposal.

So where does St. Paul’s 2040 plan stand? Staff within St. Paul’s department for Planning and Economic Development (PED) are currently reading public comments submitted over the past two months, after which they will make revisions to the draft and release a new version. Then, after the city’s planning commission reviews and votes on any recommendations to change the document, the City Council will host one last public hearing before making the plan final in June.

A different approach. And a different history

About a dozen people chimed in on St. Paul’s 2040 plan at a public hearing hosted by the city’s Planning Commission last week. The general consensus was complimentary toward the plan, and the tone of the meeting was polite. Even so, many speakers urged city planners to take some lessons from their sister city across the river, as St. Paul plans for some 29,100 new residents by 2040.

Among the testifiers at the public hearing was Rick Varco, a St. Paul resident who is political director at SEIU Healthcare Minnesota, a union for health-care workers. He thinks the city should consider Minneapolis’ idea to eliminate single-family zoning to help address racial disparities caused by the restrictive zoning of the past.

Principal city planner Lucy Thompson
Department of Planning and Economic Development
Principal city planner Lucy Thompson: “As planners who believe in density and growth, and land-use diversity, we love to hear that.”
“We are a prosperous city, but too much of that prosperity is confined to certain sections of the city and certain colors of people,” he told the planning commission, which is made up of 21 citizen volunteers. “[Zoning is] part of what got us into this problem and it’s part of what can get us out of this problem.”

But Thompson said a proposal for citywide upzoning is not part of St. Paul’s plan for a few reasons: One, the Twin Cities have different political systems and different goals when it comes to long-term planning: Minneapolis passed its 2040 document with many specifics items, while St. Paul has tried to take a broad approach — even more than the last time they did a comprehensive plan. And two, St. Paul’s zoning code actually allowed for duplexes in all residential areas before 1975, which means the housing patterns are “already very diverse” in many parts of the city.

“There’s just a different history that our cities have had that bring us where we are today with the comp plan,” she said.

To further diversify people’s housing and building options, St. Paul is taking an “incremental” approach to density without getting too far into unit specifics in the 2040 plan, Thompson said. Urban planners have identified certain areas at intersections along popular transit corridors — deemed “neighborhood nodes” — for future zoning changes or more public investments, essentially creating busier and denser areas in those sections of the city. They all are within a 20-minute walk of any home, Thompson said.

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Other areas of the city, too, would see more density under the current draft of the plan. For example, places with seven to 11 units of housing per acre will grow to allow different types of living options, including accessory-dwelling units, which can serve as apartments near homes on a single lot. Thompson said they are also looking at ways to stabilize the rental market unlike past plans that mostly prioritized home ownership as well as build more apartments that have four to 20 units (sometimes called “missing middle” housing) instead of big complexes.

A long time coming

Some of those who testified at the public hearing on St.Paul’s 2040 plan wanted the city to be more ambitious about its goals to cut  greenhouse gas emissions . “In 20 years, this will be a different place,” one testifier said.

To that end, Zack Mensinger, who lives in the city’s Hamline-Midway neighborhood, suggested St. Paul follow Minneapolis 2040 and eliminate parking requirements for new construction entirely. Right now, St. Paul’s comprehensive plan reduces them, which is a continuation of current city policy. “We have a glut of parking,” Mensinger said. “Parking is an extremely inefficient use of land in a city.”

Thompson, in the interview, said studies separate from the comprehensive plan are under way to address those environmental issues.  The city has already launched or plans to launch analyses to weigh the possibility of removing parking minimums; if St. Paul should allow triplexes and fourplexes everywhere; and other potential new policies aimed at mitigating the city’s impact on climate change. “From a comp plan policy standpoint, we just didn’t get that specific,” Thompson said.

2040 St. Paul land use proposal
City of St. Paul
2040 St. Paul land use proposal
The draft has been a long time coming. The process of writing the 225-page document began in 2015, and has included some 70 outreach efforts at locations across the city. (St. Paul is on a different timeline than other nearby cities to complete its comprehensive plan; it needed more time to complete a section governing land around the Mississippi River, which will have a seperate review process.)

At one of those outreach events last June, Mayor Melvin Carter joined city planners to share some remarks, Thompson said. It was at the Arlington Hills Community Center in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood, where a group of children were playing outside when Carter arrived. When they spotted him approaching in a big SUV and a suit, the children’s eyes grew, and Carter invited them inside for the 2040 plan presentation.

“They took pictures. They sat and listened. And at the end, when the mayor was done with his comments, they were all kind of hanging at the back of the room, and he went back and he said, ‘You know, now, you can be mayor some day. You tell me what you want — this city is for you,’ ” she said.  “It’s not about someone my age; it’s about the kids that he was talking to.”