Rezoning? Let’s not fix something that isn’t broken

Think back to the time you discovered St. Anthony Park. It might have been 20 years ago or it might have been two months ago. Something drew you in, made you say to yourself, “Yes, I’d like to live here.”

You probably weren’t thinking, “Wow, what this neighborhood needs is some decent zoning!”

We have all seen neighborhoods that would be better served by better zoning. St. Anthony Park is not one of them. In fact, it is one of the most desirable urban neighborhoods in the Twin Cities.

There is a recent effort by some residents to rezone St. Anthony Park. This new zoning would allow residents to build additional houses (referred to as “granny flats” or “accessory dwelling units”) on lots where houses already exist, and to modify existing houses to accommodate more than one family. The single-family lot as we know it today would become a thing of the past.

When considering something as critical as rezoning a whole neighborhood, it’s important to look beyond the immediate wishes of individuals, and to think about the needs of the community so that St. Anthony Park can continue to be a desirable place to live, not only for current residents, but for new people and new families.

At a time when many apartments, townhouses and condominiums are being built in neighborhoods all across the metropolitan area, neighborhoods like ours must try harder than ever to attract new residents. That’s how healthy neighborhoods survive.

What will attract people to St. Anthony Park? What attracted you?

Is St. Anthony Park going to be able to retain and strengthen its unique small-town atmosphere? Will it continue to be an oasis in the middle of urban density? Or will it slowly erode into an anonymous, over-built and over-populated neighborhood, complete with all the accompanying issues of too much traffic, too many cars parked on the streets, smaller yards, less privacy and less open space?

Imagine that you are sitting out on your deck or patio, only now, instead of enjoying a view of a neighbor’s garden, you find yourself looking directly into the windows of a granny flat. That’s something you never imagined when you bought your house, and when the time comes to put your house on the market, that will not be a strong selling point.

Zoning exists not to obstruct change, but to protect and support the things that work in neighborhoods like ours and, when necessary, direct change so that it will serve in the best interests of the whole community.

Just as building codes protect the health, safety and welfare of building occupants, zoning laws can protect the health, safety and welfare of neighborhoods. The reason granny flats and accessory dwelling units require rezoning in St. Anthony Park is because they would increase population density in areas of the neighborhood that are planned and designed to accommodate the needs of fewer residents.

We have zoning in place today for multifamily and mixed-use housing in specific areas of our neighborhood. Unlike granny flats and accessory dwelling units, these types of housing could allow residents to locate in areas of St. Anthony Park with even better access to public transportation, shops and businesses.

This could be attractive to both individuals and families, and could be of benefit to older residents in particular.

It is an example of good zoning, not only in terms of the cost-efficiency of constructing housing for multiple occupants, but for the social and environmental benefits as well. It works especially well when combined with another example of good zoning in our neighborhood: the single-family lot.

From the perspective of an architect who has practiced for more than 25 years and has served as a planner in a regional planning office, this neighborhood is very fortunate to be zoned in a way that is sound, sensible and sustainable. Let’s not try to fix something that isn’t broken. Fred Foster St. Anthony Park

    5 Responses

    1. Regula & Michael Russelle

      We hope that the environmental issue is not getting lost from this discussion. We Americans are responsible for a quarter of the world’s energy use each year. About one third of a person’s energy use is due to housing. To permit accessory dwelling units is a step toward a more sustainable lifestyle.

      And so we feel heartened when people act and do something about it. It makes us hopeful and provides a pattern for action. We support the proposed zoning change. Consider this: the code at present permits us to expand our home to twice its size, but does not allow a kitchenette to be added in a part of our existing house. In the face of global climate change, this makes no sense.

      On a personal note, if the zoning changes are approved, we would like to explore sharing our home with a student or a visiting faculty. We are introverts and it may not be the right thing for us. But we would like to give it a try. We think we could adjust to a slightly smaller space. We think this could be fun. And this wouldn’t really change the character of the neighborhood very much. Not more than when our adult daughter and grand-daughter lived with us and our household had an extra car. We hope to have our neighbors’ support in this venture.

    2. Karen Lilley

      Fix something that is breaking — the neighborhood and the earth

      Jon Schumacher, in his What I Know 3-5-2014 blog post, presents the most thoughtful response I’ve seen on why we should consider Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs). He explains that St. Anthony Park has no where to grow, schools and businesses need younger families, and the population is aging in houses/lots that are too big for their needs. Our lifestyle in the US is not sustainable. ADUs can reduce our carbon footprint, and address these and more issues. He says it much better than I at: http://www.sapfoundation.org/blog/what-i-know-3-5-14

    3. Jack Sperbeck

      Thank you Fred. Your thoughtful, comprehensive letter reflected our concerns. Before we rush into perceived short-term “fixes” we need a more thoughtful assessment of where the rezoning proposal could lead us.

    4. Keith and Karen Hovland

      Thank you Fred for your thoughtful and well articulated comments. As 38 year residents of St Anthony Park we share your sentiments and appreciate your thoughtful concerns. We urge friends and neighbors to carefully consider the likelihood of significant consequences for our community if zoning laws are changed to allow residents to build additional houses on lots where houses already exist, and to modify existing houses to accommodate more than one family. The long term results of these zoning changes could result in the loss of the charm of St. Anthony Park and the creation of a high occupancy neighborhood and the problems which go with that type of high density housing.

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