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The St. Paul Planning Commission is recommending a set of major zoning amendments to the City Council, a big step for a years-in-the-making effort to make it easier to build townhouses, fourplexes and more "missing middle" housing throughout the city.

Under current laws, nearly half of St. Paul can be used only for single-family homes. The proposed changes aim to allow more types of housing that are compatible in size and appearance with single-family homes — a category dubbed "the missing middle" by policy experts because it falls between single-family homes and large apartment buildings in terms of density.

The Planning Commission on Friday unanimously voted to send proposed changes to the council, after months of debate and fine-tuning of the amendments drafted by Planning and Economic Development staff.

"This is an incredible study. It's going to make a big change, we hope," Planning Commission Chair Luis Rangel Morales said.

Advocates say they hope allowing more density will eventually lead to more housing units, in turn leading to more affordable housing options — particularly for low-income families and people of color, who were historically segregated as a result of zoning policies. They also want to give residents more housing choices to suit a variety of lifestyles.

The recommended changes would allow fourplexes throughout most of the city's residential neighborhoods — with the exception of a portion of the Highwood area, a hilly part of the Mississippi River bluff that does not have consistent city sewer or water services.

Developers would be allowed to build six-unit properties only if they are using city "density bonuses," which incentivize builders to add three-bedroom units, add units restricted for low-income residents or convert existing residential properties.

A suite of changes to dimensional requirements are being proposed to make it feasible to build this type of housing. Standards such as those for setbacks, building height and minimum lot size would be altered to give developers more flexibility.

Multiple commissioners said they hoped to remove red tape for developers, while others expressed a desire to maintain the character of neighborhoods.

Additional amendments would aim to make it easier to build accessory dwelling units — which are smaller, secondary housing units on the same lot as a single-family home — as well as cluster developments designed around a common courtyard.

City officials noted that just because this type of housing is allowed, it does not mean it will be built. Financing and building code requirements can create challenges for smaller projects, which may not be able to produce a standard market rate return.

Minneapolis may be evidence of the slow-moving nature of such reforms. The city was the first in the country to abolish single-family zoning as part of its 2040 Comprehensive Plan passed in 2018, but few duplexes and triplexes have been built since — partly because Minneapolis' dimensional standards were not simultaneously updated.

The fate of Minneapolis' policy is also up in the air due to a lawsuit filed by activists, who argue that the city failed to adequately study the environmental impacts of its plan. Luis Pereira, St. Paul's planning director, said he could not comment on the specifics of Minneapolis' legal challenges.

"The facts of that are completely different because theirs is about their comprehensive plan; this is about a zoning study," Pereira said. "We did look closely at both the city and regional and site-specific impacts of the development."

Public response to the changes has been markedly different between the two cities. In 2018, hundreds showed up to offer passionate testimony at a Minneapolis Planning Commission meeting, and lawn signs for and against the plan populated the city. At the St. Paul Planning Commission's public hearing in April, fewer than two dozen people spoke.

Others submitted comments via email, all of which can be found in a 759-page report on St. Paul's proposed changes posted on the city's website. Members of the public will also have a chance to weigh in on the proposal when it goes before the council, likely this fall.