S. St. Anthony Park development sparks debate

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A development proposal to put 500 college students in three buildings in an industrial area in St. Anthony Park could generate debate well beyond that neighborhood. At its Feb. 22 meeting, the St. Paul City Council voted to overrule a December 2005 judgment by the St. Paul Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) that would have designated a 150-unit student housing development at 2669 Territorial Rd. as an apartment building rather than a rooming house.

The BZA decision was itself the result of an appeal by JPI Development of a decision by St. Paul’s zoning administrator that the project should be classified as a rooming house.

The distinction between rooming houses and apartment buildings is somewhat arcane. Both types of dwellings require code compliance inspections, but rooming houses face more regulations, including licensing, that apartments do not have to follow.

Last year the city’s zoning administrator decided that the proposed student housing development is a rooming house. That designation was applied because each bedroom in a 2- to 4-bedroom unit would be leased separately. Each bedroom occupant would share a kitchen, bathroom and living room space with 1–3 other residents in a suite arrangement. Each person leasing a bedroom would have his or her own key for that room. Each bedroom would also be equipped with a telephone with an exclusive phone number.

JPI disagreed with the zoning administrator’s decision, arguing that the building they want to put up is an apartment house.

Attorney Eric Galatz noted that St. Paul has 33 rooming houses, including fraternities and sororities. The key difference between the JPI proposal and rooming houses, he said, is that in rooming houses, landlords — not tenants — control kitchen, bathroom and living room space. In JPI’s buildings the tenants would control those spaces, just as any other apartment dwellers would.

JPI appealed the zoning administrator’s decision to the BZA, which voted 4-3 in December 2005 to uphold the appeal and redesignate the property as an apartment building.

The District 12 Community Council in turn appealed the BZA decision, which sent the matter to the City Council, which ruled that the development has characteristics of both a rooming house and an apartment building.

The council directed JPI to apply for a conditional use permit, and it set certain conditions under which the project would be allowed to proceed. Those conditions are still subject to revision.

However, the Feb. 22 decision by no means marks the end of the wrangling, according to Jay Benanav, Ward 4 City Council member. A bigger question than the rooming house/apartment building distinction is zoning.

Currently the property where JPI wants to build is zoned I-1 (Light Industrial). According to Amy Sparks, executive director of the District 12 Council, to construct multiunit housing there, either the property would have to be rezoned, probably to TN-3 (Traditional Neighborhood).

The larger issue the St. Paul Planning Commission and City Council may face in the weeks ahead, then, is how multiunit buildings meant to house students should be regulated. The buildings are growing in popularity for students who want to live off campus without the burden of traditional leasing.

But the current standards for apartment buildings and rooming houses, according to Benanav, may not be adequate for what is a fairly new land use.

The immediate issue is a 4.2-acre site at the northwest corner of Territorial Rd. and Berry St., north of the KSTP broadcast studios near the Minneapolis-St. Paul border. The site is between University Ave. and the U of M Transitway, and is surrounded by industrial uses.

Both the Prospect Park East River Road Improvement Association, a Minneapolis community group, and the District 12 Community Council are against rezoning the JPI site. Ray Bryan, District 12 board member, said that the proposed development, regardless of whether it is classified as an apartment or a rooming house, would conflict with the neighborhood’s recently updated district plan.

Bryan said the council wants to see the land remain zoned for industrial use. “We feel that’s a more appropriate land use than housing,” he said.

Sparks noted that while considerable energy has been expended on arguing whether the JPI project is an apartment or a rooming house, “the important thing is that this proposal would put 500 college students in what is largely an industrial area. The District Council is asking, ‘Does that make sense?’”