The St. Paul City Council on Wednesday ratcheted down its confrontation with Mayor Melvin Carter over a controversial housing development, asking for an opinion from the Minnesota attorney general on whether the mayor was acting within his authority.
For more than a year, Minneapolis-based Alatus' planned $57 million development near University Avenue has been criticized by residents of nearby neighborhoods who say it would speed gentrification and displacement of low-income residents.
Majorities of the St. Paul Planning Commission and the City Council agreed, with both authorities making split-vote decisions to reject the project's site plan. Then Carter vetoed the council's decision, effectively giving Alatus the go-ahead to move forward with the development — a move that sparked a threat of a lawsuit from opponents, who say the mayor violated state and local zoning laws.
The council on Wednesday voted 5-2 on a resolution requesting a nonbinding advisory opinion from the Attorney General's Office "in an attempt to avoid litigation of these issues." It was a change of tone from a day earlier, when Council Members Dai Thao, Jane Prince and Nelsie Yang publicly called on Carter to rescind his veto.
"I think we have to consider that this is a precedent and that it's just a wise move for us to seek some additional counsel," Prince said Wednesday, criticizing the mayor's decision to "unilaterally clear the way" for the developer.
Council Members Amy Brendmoen and Chris Tolbert voted against the resolution, which was a last-minute addition to the meeting agenda, saying they needed more time to consider the proposal.
Deputy City Attorney Rachel Tierney told council members that a peer who works for the Attorney General's Office warned her the issue "likely falls into a bucket of matters that the [office] is not likely to weigh in on."
She added that St. Paul would not delay applications for building permits based on the conclusions of an advisory opinion. Chris Osmundson, Alatus' director of development, said the company is hoping to break ground in mid- to late summer.
Alatus has said 124 of its 288 units would be affordable to renters making 60% of the area median income, and another 20 units would be affordable to those making 50% of the area median income. The rest would be rented at market rate.
At a news conference Tuesday, opponents said even the affordable units would be too expensive for those living in bordering Frogtown, where median income is less than $40,000. They also expressed concerns that the development would drive up the area's rents and taxes.
"Mayor Carter lifts up his Rondo lineage and says he leads with an unapologetic equity agenda," said Tia Williams, co-director of the Frogtown Neighborhood Association, in reference to the historically Black St. Paul neighborhood displaced when Interstate 94 was built. "But his illegal veto of the City Council vote is an egregious power grab to protect his political aspirations and signal support for moneyed developers."
Commissioners and council members who voted against the project said it does not comply with affordability goals laid out in the city's 2040 Comprehensive Plan. Some also argued that its design would not fit in with the surrounding neighborhood.
Other officials, however, said they did not think the city had the legal authority to reject the site plan, which does not seek city subsidies and asks for no zoning variances.
Osmundson said that were the project denied, Alatus would "have a pretty strong legal case" and consider challenging it in court.
"Mayor Carter stands ready to partner with the concerned council members to add more affordable housing units to this project, as soon as they are ready to work together toward that goal," said Peter Leggett, the mayor's communications director.
Opponents have also called on the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, the philanthropic organization poised to sell the vacant lot to Alatus, to back out of its purchase agreement and demand more affordable uses of the land.
Armando Camacho, Wilder's president and CEO, said in a statement that the nonprofit's board decided "to remain in our purchase agreement with Alatus for the immediate future so we can work with them, the Mayor, the City Council and others in the community to find ways to incorporate greater levels of affordability into the proposed development."
Katie Galioto • 612-673-4478