City council allows fewer windows for new United Villages restaurant

A future restaurant pavilion at United Village can be built with fewer exterior openings that typically allow. The St. Paul City Council May 15 upheld an appeal by United Village developer Snelling Midway Redevelopment LLC.
The council overturned an April Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) decision to deny part of a variances request for a restaurant building at the southwest corner of Simpson Street and Spruce Tree Drive. It is one of two buildings planned for the pavilion. The second building will be to the south.
Council member Anika Bowie, whose Ward 1 includes the United Village site, called for granting the appeal. She said the development provides the opportunity to bring more vibrancy to the Midway area. 
Bowie said the developer made a case that the BZA erred in its decision. She also acknowledged the conflicts between the zoning code and what the developers envision for the site. City leaders might consider looking at the zoning code and its requirements, to see what should be adjusted for larger-scale developments, Bowie said. 
The developer representative argued that the BZA erred in denying variances for percentage of window space on the north building’s north side and to omit a door there.
The pavilion will be south of a planned hotel along University Avenue. It is designed to face the great lawn public green space that is a central feature of  the superblock. The developer’s representatives argued that the restaurant interior layout, and the desire to have the entrances facing the great lawn, drove the design.
BZA staff recommended approval of the requests for window and door openings on both buildings’ eastern facades. Denial was recommended by staff for the northern building request for its north side along Spruce Tree Avenue, and to request to omit a primary pedestrian entrance along Spruce Tree. The BZA concurred with the staff recommendations.
Staff indicated that the 30 percent requirement could be met for the northern façade given the interior restaurant design.
Union Park District Council recommended denial of the window openings variance, raising concerns that the building would be turning its back on the surrounding neighborhood. 
The standard is for 30 percent of the wall to have window openings. One impetus for that change in the 1990s and early 200s was a spate of commercial buildings designed to have a small percentage of window openings. That led to designs like the one at the now-shuttered CVS at the northwest corner of Snelling and University avenues. Community members disliked the small percentage of windows and the fact that opaque spandrel glass was used there and in other buildings.
New buildings in St. Paul are required to have a set percentage of window and door openings along street frontages, and to place doors along primary streets. The intent is to have a pedestrian-friendly, walkable area.
The requirement for the United Village site is 30 percent. The developers requested 19.6 percent for the northern façade, for a variance of 10.4 percent.
What conflicts with that requirement is how United Village is laid out, with buildings facing the great lawn green space. The green space is north of the Allianz Field Major League Soccer stadium.
Mike Hahm, who represents Snelling Midway Redevelopment LLC, said the site and its design pose unique challenges. He pointed out that the pavilion is part of a larger master plan for United Village. Blocks east of the pavilion will be developed in the future.
Hahm spoke of the site’s high-quality design and planned finishes. Building renderings have shown murals on the walls.
Hahm also noted that the building will have two other entrances and that a third entrance on the northern façade would take away dining room space.
The Midway Chamber of Commerce and St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce also weighed in in support of the variances.  
The restaurant pavilion request is the third set of variances recently sought for United Village. That has caused frustration for some community members, who note the years of work on the Snelling-Midway master plan for the 34.5-acre block bounded by Pascal Steet and St. Anthony, Snelling and University avenues. That issue has also been raised by some members of the planning commission.
The variances are to current city zoning standards and to a master plan developed and approved seven years ago. The BZA in April approved other variances for the restaurant pavilion and for an interim parking lot.
Earlier this year, the planning commission approved a conditional use permit and most variances sought for the United Village hotel, which will be located on University between Asbury and Simpson streets. The developers appealed and the city council also upheld that appeal.


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