Hoping to ease the region’s critical housing shortage, the St. Paul City Council is poised to vote Wednesday to adopt sweeping new rules that would let developers pack more units of housing into every residential neighborhood in the city.
Among the changes, duplexes or triplexes would be allowed on almost any lot in St. Paul. Fourplexes would be permitted on any lot that is large enough. In major transit corridors, the city would give blanket permission for even more housing density.
It’s the Capital City’s own version of Minneapolis’ groundbreaking “2040 Plan,” a loosening of housing rules meant to legalize so-called “missing middle” housing: two-to-six unit multifamily buildings that advocates see as key to easing upward pressure on rents and home prices.
But while Minneapolis’ plan was controversial from the start – and is now stuck in legal limbo – St. Paul’s new zoning ordinance has sailed ahead for months with little public opposition. All but a handful of respondents to MinnPost’s City Council candidate survey supported the changes.
“I haven’t heard a peep from anybody complaining about it,” said St. Anthony Park neighborhood resident Pat Thompson after speaking favorably about the changes at a St. Paul City Council hearing last week. Only a handful of speakers at the meeting opposed the changes.
Critics worry that the zoning changes will allow developers to tear down naturally occurring affordable housing and replace them with more expensive units. Gaius Nelson, an architect and former city planning commissioner, also worries about the “significant unintended consequences” of plopping denser multifamily properties into neighborhoods dominated by single-family homes.
“The proposed density is simply too much, and will negatively impact adjoining properties and the natural environment,” Nelson said.
How to read St. Paul’s new proposed zoning map
St. Paul’s proposed zoning map would create two zoning districts that would cover the vast majority of the city:
- H1 residential (Light yellow on the map above): For the most part, these areas are currently zoned for single-family homes. The proposed changes would open most lots in these areas for development of duplexes and triplexes. Four units would be allowed on lots that meet a minimum size requirement, and around half of the lots in the proposed H1 area would be big enough for a fourplex.
- H2 residential (Dark yellow): Within one-eighth of a mile of a major transit corridor, the new rules would permit developers to build up to five units, depending on the lot size. City officials calculate that 93% of these lots are large enough for four units of housing and 65% are large enough for five.
- Plus up to two “bonus” units: Developers who promise to build affordable units, include three or more bedrooms in each unit, or convert an existing residential structure would be eligible for a “density bonus.” If they obtain this bonus, they could construct one or two extra units on a single lot – for up to six units total. A little more than half of H1 lots and 65% of H2 lots have enough square footage to include those additional units.
St. Paul officials have also long made special rules to cover the suburban Highwood neighborhood in the southeastern corner of the city, and the new proposal updates those rules to allow duplexes.
Why so little drama?
Minneapolis’ adoption of a multifamily housing ordinance caused a heated public debate. Public hearings drew overflow crowds to Minneapolis City Council meetings leading up to the plan’s 2018 passage. Hundreds of anti-2040 Plan yard signs popped up around Minneapolis.
St. Paul has seen no such rancor leading up to Wednesday’s final City Council vote. The only possible point of contention appears to be over whether to expand the size of the proposed H2 zones. Advocates of the policy would like to permit denser housing within a wider radius of transit corridors: a quarter of a mile, rather than one-eighth of a mile.
The lack of backlash has puzzled Thompson, too. She theorizes that, at this point, her neighbors have grown familiar with “missing middle” housing options. Her neighbors in St. Anthony Park debated the issue before St. Paul legalized “accessory dwelling units” in 2016 – often called mother-in-law apartments or granny flats. More recently, a developer won a variance to erect a triplex unit in the neighborhood.
“People were like, ‘Eh, well, that’s not so bad,’” Thompson said.
Minneapolis’ example may have also cooled the debate: Despite all the heat surrounding the 2040 Plan’s passage, duplex and triplex construction in Minneapolis grew only modestly after it took effect nearly four years ago, according to federal building permit data. (A separate set of data from the Metropolitan Council, which accounts for building tear-downs, suggests that Minneapolis saw a net loss in two-to-four unit housing in 2022.)
Another possible reason? Nelson suggested that city officials kept discussions of the changes quiet.
“Please ask yourself, if you can explain why it’s reasonable that this 538-page technical document was passed without significant public outreach,” Nelson asked City Council members at last week’s public hearing.
City officials unveiled the proposal and held virtual information sessions in March. The city’s Planning Commission held hearings on the changes starting in April and approved them in August.
Weighing the pros and cons
Nelson worries the changes could backfire, painting grim scenarios in his city council testimony, like that of a first-time homebuyer who loses the bid on a starter home to a developer bent on tearing it down to build missing middle housing.
“The proposed zoning ordinance is not a reasonable method to increase the affordability of housing in the city and will likely make things worse,” he said.
But Thompson countered that greater housing density is a strategy to combat climate change. Housing density boosts transit systems, and better transit systems in turn allow residents to give up their fossil fuel-guzzling vehicles.
“It’s like a virtuous circle, right?” Thompson said, who said density also makes streets more walkable and helps foster small businesses. “They all go together. Then you have public spaces, safe streets, and people being out in the street; all these things together make a community.”