Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Two Steps Forward and One Step Back for the Central Corridor

Dateline: 10:45 am May 2, 2011 Filed under:

I have some good news and I have some bad news. The good news is the Central Corridor light rail line, connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul, received full funding last week. Trains will start running in 2014. The bad news is within one day of the funding announcement, the St. Paul City Council voted to reduce density along its route!

Two steps forward and one step back. The Twin Cities will see its second light rail line, serving downtown Minneapolis and the planned multimodal hub there, the University of Minnesota, an array of neighorhoods along University Avenue, the Minnesota state capitol and downtown St. Paul. This is all very good news for a metro area seeking to remain economically viable in the future.

The issue of reduced density is a height restriction of between three and five stories in many areas, depending on the exact location. It is an unfortunate step backwards in a metro area anticipated to grow by well over 100,000 households in the coming decade. Our housing and transportation policy should be in lock-step, and we should be encouraging tens of thousands of housing units to be developed near transit station areas, not reducing the number of units possible.

As well, I worked with the city of St. Paul starting in 2006 to determine demand for housing and commercial near station areas along the corridor and opportunities abound – indeed, recent projects provide examples of this demand. Furthermore, the 2010 Census revealed the city of St. Paul had nearly stagnant population growth in the past decade, couled with a growing tax burden; they should be allowing and encouraging growth in all areas of the city.

The reduced density applies to a diverse and economically challenged area around the Central Corridor between Lexington Avenue and Rice Street. The primary call to reduce density comes from a neighborhood coalition with lingering memories of Interstate 94 ripping through the Rondo neighborhood 50 years ago, which was mostly African American at the time. While the Central Corridor is a very different project that doesn’t involve removal of homes, the message from the coalition is a desire to maintain the character of the area and prevent gentrification. In other words, they don’t want another Rondo, and I fully understand where they are coming from; they have been burned by federal policy before, and don’t want it to happen again. Unfortunately, the solution is a somewhat arbitrary restriction on the height of buildings (and corresponding density) to prevent gentrification.

It must be noted that there are bustling local businesses and recent affordable housing developments in the area, so there are success stories if not growing wealth. The challenge, of course, is to allow and encourage future housing and commercial improvements while not stretching developers too thin. The ability to build to a significant density and height is improtant aspect of this – three stories doesn’t always cut it.

For example, Kings Crossing Apartments at Frogtown Square is a creation of several community groups and Episcopal Homes, a senior housing developer in the Twin Cities. The project opened in March, has been a resounding success. It attracts households earning moderate incomes, up to $33,600 annually. Half of its 50 units are occupied by Asian Americans, and one third are African American, so arguably this is a successful way to provide new housing and keep existing residents in the neighborhood.

Another project, also at the intersection of Dale and University (a future station stop), which opened in 2006, includes the new Rondo Community Library on the ground floor with nearly 90 affordable housing units above. Yet another success, and yes, under the zoning amendments, at least these two recent mixed-use projects (at four stories) would still be legal at those locations.

Unfortunately, several other sites, including some right at station areas, will be restricted to three stories or less. Take for example the former Old Home building at the southeast corner of Western and University. This is one of the prime TOD corners on the corridor, and the Old Home building sits vacant and was listed for sale for a period of time before being pulled from the market recently. A developer could come in and propose a mixed-use project, perhaps one that would save all or a portion of the existing building in a creative mix of new constrction and preservation.

However, under the zoning amendment, the Old Home site is now restricted to three stories. This greatly inhibits the potential for that site to be redeveloped, particularly at a time when it is available and recent projects in the area are demonstrating healthy demand for affordable apartment units. So true, under present market conditions, any housing would likely involve some sort of public subsidy, but limiting height (i.e., density) will surely make the subsidy per unit greater, reducing the impact of our scarce public resources. This will most certainly reduce interest from developers, and perhaps public dollars would be put to better use elsewhere.

If affordable housing is important, a better solution than restricting height would instead encourage more height. I know this sounds odd, but a strategy to maintain a level of affordable housing in the neighborhood while allowing flexibility for developers to build more, not less, of it, is better for neighborhoods in the long run. That way, if gentrification occurs (ideally it would be existing residents adding to their income and wealth), affordable housing options would remain, likely in new developments like Kings Crossing and Rondo Library projects.

Make no mistake, the rezoning effort along University Avenue will broadly benefit future development through increased density and encouraging good deisgn. The city of St. Paul and all the professionals planning for development along the corridor should be applauded. It is just a shame that, because of the zoning amendment, development will be discouraged in a section of the corridor that arguably could benefit the most from more of it.

There is one rule of thumb all cities follow: cities are organisms and continually evolving. It is the job of policy makers to encourage positive change rather than discourage development from occurring.

Height and density aren’t the problem here; preserving affordable housing and community character are. Unfortunately, reducing height may prevent gentrification, but it also inhibits the opportunities for the community to create their own wealth through improvements to their properties, businesses and housing stock. Perversely, if gentrification does occur, lower density caused by the zoning amendment leaves even fewer options for existing low- and moderate-income residents to remain the neighorhood.

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