“Gentle density” is key to sustainability

By Pat Thompson

In about half of St. Paul, a residential landowner can build only one thing: a single-family house. Under recent updates, that house can be accompanied by an accessory dwelling unit, or ADU.

But those limits may soon change with zoning rules proposed by city staff and heard by the Planning Commission in April. If approved by the City Council, the new rules will simplify residential zoning while allowing at least three housing units on any lot in the city.

Why does this matter?

As Sherman Eagles wrote for Transition Town in the January 2022 Bugle, allowing for more neighbors is a climate solution.

People living nearer to each other supports walkable neighborhoods. It lets us replace car trips with walking, shortens commutes, and strengthens the local market for goods and services.

It also makes transit systems financially viable. If you’ve been to any location where trams, buses or subways arrive every five minutes, it’s because lots of people live nearby and use the transit system.

And more density doesn’t have to mean towering buildings or 200-unit complexes.

There’s a happy medium, sometimes called “missing middle” housing or gentle density. St. Paul used to have more of these types of small multi-unit buildings, but they’ve been lost in the past few decades, and our current zoning too often prohibits their return.

What are the proposed changes?

While simpler than the current zoning, the proposed rules still vary by location: a residential lot could have up to three units, or four, or six.

  • The least-dense parts of the city would allow three units per lot for most of each block, and up to four units at corners.
  • Areas that now allow duplexes, triplexes or fourplexes could have four units anywhere on the block.
  • Six units would be allowed within an eighth of a mile of light rail or bus rapid transit routes (current or planned), and also in designated neighborhood nodes. In Bugleland, the nodes are the north SAP business district, Westgate, Raymond/University, Como/Snelling, Lexington/Larpenteur, and Lexington/Front.
  • These multiple-unit lots would also allow for cottage clusters and townhomes: good options for elders who want to downsize within the city or possibly anyone with accessibility needs.

The new zoning rules wouldn’t force anyone to do anything, but they’d allow people to do more things with their own property. Once rules change, people make choices and I think that over time Saint Paul will have more housing.

Small-business people… or maybe you

Some small-scale developers—people who own just a few buildings or lots—have been waiting for this kind of opening to build triplexes, fourplexes, or cottage clusters.

I heard several of them speak at the Planning Commission hearing. The current, more-complex zoning rules put them at a disadvantage relative to large developers who can pay for lawyers or staff experts.

Or maybe your house was built for a large single family, but these days there aren’t as many families who need that much space. The new zoning would let you convert it to a duplex “by right,” without having to seek variances.

I’m excited to see St. Paul consider more freedoms like these, greater housing stock flexibility and more room for neighbors we don’t know yet.

As a first-time homebuyer I wanted a duplex, but few were available. Today, I see a chance for more housing choices, for businesses to have more customers nearby, and for thriving neighborhoods to be connected by financially sustainable transit that will work for us all in this world of climate change. 

Photo caption: Three townhouses are nearing completion on a street in St. Anthony Park. Where previously one house may have stood, now there are three homes. This builder had to get a variance, which added time and probably cost to the project, while under the proposed new zoning these homes could be done by right. Photo by Pat Thompson.

Pat Thompson coordinates projects related to sustainable land use and transportation for Transition Town —ASAP.


Can you see your house from here?

Find your block’s current zoning and its proposed new zoning on the interactive map at tinyurl.com/NewSPZoning.

The city’s FAQ about the proposed changes is at tinyurl.com/SPZoningFAQ.

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