Lexington Station and its 288 apartments won’t be built near Lexington Parkway and University Avenue. On a 4-3 vote April 7, 2021, the St. Paul City Council rejected an appeal by developer Alatus and upheld the St. Paul Planning Commission denial of the project’s site plan.
Minneapolis-based Alatus hoped to build on a long-vacant property at 411-417 Lexington Parkway, near Green Line light rail. The land is owned by the nonprofit social services agency Wilder Foundation. After the council meeting, Wilder President and CEO Armando Camacho said the nonprofit won’t move ahead with the purchase agreement with Alatus. He added that the nonprofit looks forward to engaging with the community about the future of the site.
The project became a flash point in citywide debate. Affordable housing advocates contend the project doesn’t meet the needs of the adjacent Frogtown and Summit-University neighborhoods and would cause gentrification and displacement. Housing advocates counter that housing at all price points is needed, and that there is no legal reason to reject the site plan.
Alatus had appealed an 8-7 January Planning Commission vote denying the site plan. Chris Osmundson, Alatus’ director of development, expressed disappointment after the vote.
“The council absolutely erred in their affirmation of the previous erroneous findings and failed to approve a totally unsubsidized, as-right mixed-income housing project with 60 percent and 50 percent area median income (AMI) rental rates committed to in the public record, on a 10-year vacant parcel of land with no other development proposals,” Osmundson said. “There was a year of engagement with district councils which resulted in various letters of support from community stakeholders. It is tremendously disheartening and will certainly chill proposed development in the city of St. Paul going forward.”
Plans called for 288 residential units, 3,000 square feet of ground floor commercial space and 254 structured parking spaces. The development would have been 331,300 square feet in size.
The first floor was commercial space and parking, with apartments on the upper floors. Apartment choices were alcoves, studio, one and two-bedroom units, with a few four-bedroom units.
Ward 1 Council Member Dai Thao said the appeal should be denied, and that the Planning Commission didn’t err when it rejected the site plan. He said the site plan and project aren’t consistent with core city values reflected in the 2040 comprehensive plan that call for equity and opportunities for all residents, and reducing disparities. He also said the five-story project wouldn’t provide a transition between it and the surrounding, predominantly single-family neighborhood.
Thao represents the development site in the Lexington-Hamline neighborhood.
Council members Mitra Jalali, Jane Prince and Nelsie Yang joined Thao in voting to deny the appeal.
Council President Amy Brendmoen and council members Rebecca Noecker and Chris Tolbert voted against denial. All three council members said more affordable housing is needed, and that the city is overdue to adopt inclusionary zoning which would ensure that developments include affordable housing.
Noecker said that while she agrees with concerns about racist city development policy, the legal issues of the site plan need to be separated from the arguments about displacement and gentrification. Noecker said the city also needs anti-displacement policies, so that development anyway can go ahead without displacement. But she also said the city cannot deny a developer’s application based on policies the city hasn’t enacted yet, and that the rules shouldn’t be changed in the middle of the game.
She and Tolbert said denying the site plan sends the wrong message to developers.
“My fear in this case is that we’re sending a message to private developers that we don’t want to send,” said Tolbert
Frogtown Neighborhood Association, Summit-University Planning Council and a host of housing and anti-poverty advocacy groups opposed the project and celebrated the vote. “Buildings over people is not what we should be doing,” said Isabel Chanslor of the coalition Midway RiseUp. Midway RiseUp and other groups wants to see new plans for site development brought forward, with more community input.
Union Park District Council members, whose district the Wilder property is in, supported the site plan with calls for more affordable housing for very low-income residents.
Alatus had agreed to make half of the project’s apartments affordable for a decade. That would have included 124 efficiency units at 60 percent AMI. Ten one-bedroom units and 20 two-bedroom units were to be offered at 50 percent AMI. The developer proposed that as a condition of site plan approval.
St. Paul AMI is about $58,000 annually for a family of four.