Preserving St. Paul’s remaining industrially zoned properties is the focus of a study launched in August by the St. Paul Planning Commission. The study could have major impacts on the West Midway area, where many industrial uses have been converted for housing or mixed-use development over the past 20 years.
The goal is to have a recommendation to the St. Paul City Council in 2022.
The study will determine how much industrial land has been lost to other uses in recent years, and what the city’s current industrial uses are. It will also look at ways to preserve and maintain the employment and property tax bases that industrially zoned land provides, and how industrial properties are compatible with adjacent properties.
Several factors are driving the study, said Senior City Planner Mike Richardson. One is a 2040 comprehensive plan section calling for the city to protect current industrially zoned land from conversion to residential or institutional uses.
What has also spurred the look at industrially zoned properties is the growing of charter schools that have located at industrial sites, issues the city’s Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) has been looking at. Faith-based institutions have also relocated to industrially zoned sites.
Scrutiny of industrially zoned land is nothing new, said Richardson. In early 2013, the city council adopted several technical amendments to industrial zoning. These included changes to the separation requirements between more intensive industrial uses and residential and mixed-use properties, Notably, the planning commission had considered removing uses like churches and schools entirely from industrial districts, before dropping such an amendment. Some of those institutions protested and got the amendment dropped.
The most recent, detailed look at industrial zoning wrapped up in 2014. The West Midway plan included properties in an area bounded by Snelling Avenue, Interstate 94, and the west and north city limits. It was meant to foster reinvestment and redevelopment in the West Midway industrial properties. The study was timed for the opening of Green Line light rail that same year.
But the need for another study came up in 2018 with debate over 2103 Wabash St. A developer proposed turning the former Superior meat packing plant into housing. That project sparked a high-profile debate between the developer and planning commission members who wanted to see industrial land preserved. The St. Paul Port Authority and Midway Chamber of Commerce came out in favor of the rezoning, citing the building’s age and condition, but made it clear that there is a need to preserve other industrial sites.
The project won a needed change in zoning from industrial to traditional neighborhoods use from the planning commission and city council, but the redevelopment never moved forward.
The debate over 2103 Wabash led to another request from planning staff for another industrial zoning study. The discussion resulting from that memo and the zoning case centered on the changing nature of industrial uses and appropriateness of other uses on industrially-zoned land.
What also comes into play now with industrial uses is the volatility in industrial trends (exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic) combined with demand for institutional and residential uses on industrial land. That has resulted in continued tension regarding use of industrial land, said Richardson.
The study will be broken into three phases: inventory and analysis, a look at solutions and adoption of changes by the planning commission and city council.
The study will consider three categories of property: industrial uses on industrial land, land rezoned from industrial to allow non-industrial uses, and non-industrial uses on industrially-zoned land. One question to be asked is, should there be a no net loss of industrial land policy, as once suggested by the Port Authority?
One factor to be looked at is, how has the industrial market changed in Saint Paul since 2000? How much land devoted to industrial use then isn’t used for that purpose now? This could look at everything from charter schools to brew pubs to self-storage facilities that have opened on industrial properties in the past two decades.
As it progress the industrial zoning study will be posted at https://www.stpaul.gov/departments/planning-and-economic-development/planning/current-activities