The Potluck

St. Paul mayor clears path for new apartment building after city council voted to block it

By: - April 15, 2021 10:34 am

A rendering of the proposed Lexington Station development from Alatus.

Arguing St. Paul needs to add more housing of all kinds to meet growing demand, Mayor Melvin Carter vetoed a city council resolution that would have blocked construction of a 288-unit apartment building on an empty lot near Lexington Parkway and University Avenue.

Neighborhood activists have organized to fight the proposed $57-million Lexington Station development, saying it did not include enough affordable units and would thereby lead to gentrification and displacement of current residents in the historically diverse and working class neighborhood. They were able to convince a majority of the city council, which voted 4-3 to deny a site plan last week.

But Carter on Wednesday pushed back in a lengthy letter to the City Council.

“As my own family inheritance was gutted when our Rondo neighborhood was uprooted to build I-94, the work of preventing displacement as our city grows could not be more sacred to me,” Carter wrote.

“While I do believe we share a common vision for shared prosperity and affordable housing in our city, your April 7, 2021 vote to deny the development application for this project runs contrary to these goals, and stands to create significant challenges to future housing and economic development in our city.”

The denial of a site plan by the council was unusual and could have invited legal challenges, given that the development doesn’t need any zoning variances and would be built without any public subsidy.

Council Member Rebecca Noecker, who voted in favor of the project along with Amy Brendmoen and Chris Tolbert, was sympathetic to the argument that more investment could lead to rising rents and taxes, but she said the city could not block the $60 million development.

She said that to deny a developer’s application “because it conflicts with the future policy that we haven’t yet enacted is unfair and illegal and, frankly, it gives those who want to develop in St. Paul zero confidence that they can do so before the rules are changed on them in the middle of the game.”

The developer, Alatus, pledged to make 124 studio units affordable to residents making 60% of the area median income, or a little over $1,000 a month for people making less than about $44,000 a year. Atlatus also said it would make another 20 units affordable for people earning 50% of the area median income.

But that wasn’t enough for neighborhood activists, who also sharply criticized the non-profit Wilder Foundation, which owns the 2-acre lot. They said Wilder was corrupting its mission by not demanding the developer make units even more deeply affordable.

In his letter Carter listed the various initiatives the city has led to increase housing affordability, including a $300 monthly rental subsidy to help some low-income families with school-aged children, as well as a slew of new ordinances to protect renters.

“While the enormity of our vision for affordable and inclusive housing in Saint Paul may make it difficult for  any single development proposal to advance all of our goals, we are responsible for advancing housing  and economic development opportunities,” Carter wrote.

Messages to the Wilder Foundation and Alatus were not immediately returned.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.