Now that the Planning Commission voted 8-7 to reject the site plan for a mixed-use development proposal near Lexington and University, I'll share some of my thoughts. Stay tuned for a much longer post on this topic soon. in the meantime, this is a slightly longer version of what I said at last Friday's Planning Commission meeting.
for a bit o context, the City Attorney has repeatedly made it clear that Comprehensive Plan as a basis for decisions on a site plan was not a legally. That was the motion on the table.
I agree with many of the comments from the community expressing concerns about affordability in this area and with this project. We have a huge need for deeply affordable housing in Saint Paul, and this would be a great place for it. But whether we like it or not, the owner of this property wants to develop this land as market-rate housing and that’s the application before us.
But I also have to say that almost none of the arguments raised in opposition to this application are relevant. Once an applicant decides what they want to do, the Planning Commission has a clear role: we use the requirements in the zoning code to evaluate the site plan. And we treat every applicant in Saint Paul equally, no matter who they are or what block it is or who runs the nonprofit.
Unfortunately for us today, there is nothing about affordability in the Saint Paul zoning code. We don’t have any regulations about rents. Even if we might want to, we can’t legally create rules about rents by pointing to the Comprehensive Plan because the Comprehensive Plan is not a legal document.
Because we don’t have any rules about rents or affordability in the zoning code, if we deny this application and the City Council does not overturn our decision it, I think it will end in a lawsuit and Saint Paul will lose.
I also think that if we pretend we can vote yes or no on developments in Saint Paul because of affordability concerns, we will be misleading people, because we can’t. We should not give the impression to activists working for equity and social justice that we have that kind of power over development in Saint Paul when the zoning code that does not do that.
If we want to put rules on affordability into the Saint Paul zoning code, it will require a difficult conversation about how to best translate our values and goals into the legal details of regulation. If we want to make affordability policies, we could look at Minneapolis, where they have adopted inclusionary zoning and are now looking at passing rent stabilization with a ballot measure. Rules like that won’t be silver bullets that solve the problem, but they are the kinds of things we can do as a Planning Commission.
Today, though, this application meets every requirement in the Saint Paul Zoning Code and we should approve it for that reason. Rejecting this application would be to mislead people about our role, would likely lose in court, and will not move us toward solutions for the housing crisis.
I am voting for this project the zoning requirements, whether I like it or not. I hope my colleagues do the same.
I have a lot more to say about this case, and stay tuned for more on this complex housing debate soon.