St. Paul poised to redraw residential zoning rules near major public transit

7September 2020

The St. Paul City Council is poised to redraw residential zoning rules that have barely been touched since 1975. The goal is more housing density and fewer parking requirements near major public transit corridors.

In particular, changes would open the door to more triplexes and fourplexes in multi-family zoning areas, or within “RM” zoning, which is common along Grand and Selby avenues, and near the Green Line light rail area around University Avenue.

RM zoning also applies to campus-like settings such as the McDonough Homes in St. Paul’s North End.


The long-awaited RM Zoning study grew out of the 2030 Comprehensive Plan, adopted by the city council in 2010, and was a “very long outstanding checklist item,” said city planner Bill Dermody, addressing the St. Paul City Council on Wednesday.

“There’s also a need to provide transit-supported, pedestrian-oriented form in this district … and the rules and regulations that applied in 1975 are not very helpful to our needs today,” Dermody said. “The affordability crisis has put extra pressure on this study.”

The St. Paul Planning Commission held a public hearing on May 1, and planners with St. Paul Planning and Economic Development presented to 11 of the city’s 17 neighborhood district councils individually.

While generally supportive of the changes, the Payne-Phalen Community Council questioned their timing, noting that outreach to the community on complex technical zoning matters was limited as a result of the pandemic. Written comments from the general public span more than 50 pages of sometimes highly technical recommendations.


The major zoning changes presented to the city council on Wednesday include:

  • Housing density allowed in multi-family RM districts would increase to nearly match that of Traditional Neighborhood districts, which are districts that allow both commercial and residential construction in the same building.
  • Rules that limit triplexes, fourplexes and larger buildings to lots with 35 percent lot coverage and a minimum size of 9,000 square feet would be eliminated. Many lots near University Avenue span 6,000 square feet, which until now has effectively blocked triplex construction.
  • Buildings would be expected to be constructed closer to the street, with more windows than currently required, rather than set back behind parking areas.
  • Parking requirements would be waived along the Green Line and within 1/4 mile of University Avenue, similar to the existing rules in Traditional Neighborhood districts.
  • Added density would be awarded to developers who designate 10 or 20 percent of the units in their building as affordable housing targeted to renters earning no more than 60 percent of area median income. The units must be affordable for 15 years or more.

The density bonus would be based on floor area ratio, or floor area divided by the area of the lot. Currently, in RM2 or medium-density zones, the maximum floor area ratio is 2.25, which would increase to 3.25 if 20 percent of units are designated affordable.

“We think it might be attractive to developers,” Dermody said. “It’s a way to get affordable units without necessarily city subsidy being involved.”

There would be no change in base maximum building heights, though the Planning Commission could review conditional use permit applications for buildings of up to 75 feet in RM2, or medium density residential zones. The current height limit in RM2 zones is 50 feet.

The 75 feet height limit may be appropriate for some large lots and corner lots, Dermody said. “That would be a discretionary decision of the Planning Commission on an application by application basis,” he said.

In a written objection, the Summit Hill Association had asked that the maximum height with a conditional use permit be limited to 45 feet, effectively encouraging developers to build wider apartment buildings instead of taller ones.

Expressing interest in that possible change, City Council Members Jane Prince and Rebecca Noecker on Wednesday asked planning staff for more information.

Existing properties that do not conform to the rule changes would be “grandfathered in” in perpetuity as long as they do not undergo an expansion. “There is no proposal to rezone any property within the city because of this,” Dermody said.

Dermody said the city will soon undertake a parking study, and will consider whether to pursue an inclusionary zoning study looking at how potential affordable housing mandates might function.

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