Stretching from the Cathedral of St. Paul to the Mississippi River, St. Paul’s Summit Avenue is one of the premier stretches of Victorian homes in the United States. Throughout the last four decades, the neighborhood has been the target of investment and restoration that has solidified Summit Avenue as an iconic part of Minnesota’s Capitol City. However, just blocks south of Summit Avenue, in a neighborhood colloquially known as “Tangletown,” residents continue to struggle with how to balance investment and preservation.
With meandering side-streets that deviate farther from the traditional grid than even the most infamous of St. Paul avenues, Tangletown exists as something of a micro-community within the Mac-Groveland neighborhood. In recent years, the broader neighborhood has repeatedly expressed concern with a series of “tear downs” which made way for the construction of larger homes. In response to neighborhood pressure, the St. Paul City Council adopted new residential design standards in 2015. A large number of the new requirements only applied to Planning Districts 14 and 15 (largely the Mac-Groveland and Highland Park neighborhoods). The new design standards regulate building heights at the side-yard setback, sidewall articulation, and maximum lot coverage.
However, in recent months, the residents of Tangletown have again expressed concern that existing zoning and design standards are insufficient and that the St. Paul Board of Zoning Appeals grants too many variances. As a result, last month St. Paul City Councilmember Chris Tolbert introduced and the council passed, a resolution asking the St. Paul Planning Commission to study the creation of a new overlay or conservation district just for the Tangletown area. While there is no timeline for the St. Paul Planning Commission study, the ongoing burdens placed on the city’s Planning and Economic Development Department by the Ford Plant redevelopment mean any recommendation is unlikely to reach the Planning Commission before mid-2018 at the earliest.
While consideration of specialized residential design standards is not unique to St. Paul and historic or preservation districts are a common tool used by municipalities to protect the identity of a neighborhood, a Tangletown-specific overlay district raises a number of interesting issues. First of all, Minnesota statutes section 462.357 – which provides municipalities their statutory authority to promulgate zoning restrictions – ties said authority to “the purpose of promoting the public health, safety, morals, and general welfare.” Open questions remain as to how design standards for a neighborhood, only marginally distinguishable from its surrounding area, would promote the public health, safety, morals, and general welfare.
Additionally, the statute requires that “regulations shall be uniform for each class or kind of buildings, structures, or land and for each class or kind of use throughout such district.” While the 2015 standards encompassed all of Planning Districts 14 and 15, a Tangletown-overlay likely would cover a much smaller area. Going forward, the St. Paul Planning Commission and City Council will have to weigh the value of responding to the neighborhood’s desire with the possibility of creating a cumbersome patchwork of building regulations.
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