Ways to add housing density throughout St. Paul, without dramatically changing community character, are goals for zoning amendments going to the St. Paul City Council for a public hearing on Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023.
The Planning Commission Aug. 18 unanimously passed a sweeping set of changes that could make it easier to add duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes throughout the city. In some cases, new buildings of up to six units could be added.
The study en route to the St. Paul City Council is the second phase of the one to four unit studies.
The first phase of the study focused on the ability to build smaller housing units, development on small parcels and making it easier to build accessory dwelling units. Those changes were adopted by the city council in January 2022 and took effect in March of that year. They were seen as the easiest to get reviewed and approved.
The second phase has been more complex, and focused on additional regulatory flexibility to support greater housing diversity.
A Planning Commission committee has debated the latest set of changes, following an April public hearing. Planning commissioners continued to discuss the issues Aug. 22 before agreeing to send the proposed changes on to the city council. Most of the discussion was over various building height standards, and the issues of density versus neighborhood character.
Dozens of proposed changes are detailed in more than 750 pages of zoning code amendments and public comments. The April public hearing drew sharply divided opinions, of people who oppose the measures and see them as destabilizing neighborhoods, and others who are in strong support and want more housing density.
About half of the city is currently zoned for single-family housing. The changes would allow smaller-scale multi-family buildings in those areas. Such housing is sometimes described as “missing middle” housing. This type of housing offers density, but not on the same scale as apartment buildings.
Planning Commission Chairman Luis Rangel Morales said the proposed amendments could make a major change in the city’s housing stock. He also noted the competing interests in retaining neighborhood character and the need to add more housing.
The many technical zoning code changes include renaming residential zoning district; allowing increased density along planned transit lines including the future Randolph Avenue/East Seventh Street line (H Line); and making numerous changes to dimensional and design standards for buildings and lots. The amendments would allow more than one accessory dwelling unit on a single lot, and would allow more density in cluster developments. Other changes would make it easier to convert larger single-family homes into multi-unit buildings.
One aspect of the changes could allow buildings with up to six units, if various city-set density bonuses are used. An example of a density bonus is when a developer adds dwelling units for low-income residents.
Planning staff has emphasized that if the changes are adopted, single-family housing would remain. The intent is to allow a greater diversity of neighborhood-scale and missing middle housing options in districts currently zoned exclusively for single-family homes, and in other residential districts.
Staff has also noted that costs, market conditions and developer interest would actually dictate what is and isn’t built. The city has seen relatively new accessory dwelling units since those were legalized several years ago, with high costs of such units cited as a deterrent.