The much-debated Lexington Station mixed-use project likely can proceed, despite objections from some St. Paul City Council and community members. April ended with a 5-2 vote by council members asking that Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office issue an opinion.
The council majority wants to know if Mayor Melvin Carter was acting within his authority earlier this spring when he vetoed a 4-3 council vote to deny a site plan appeal by developer Alatus. The council needs at least five votes to override the veto, but that isn’t happening.
Ellison’s office could opt to issue a nonbinding opinion, or not act on the matter at all.
The request to Ellison wasn’t on the published council agenda. Council members and the City Attorney’s Office only had a few minutes in which to read and respond to the request. Ward 1 Council Member Dai Thao said the opinion is needed. He and other council members early tabled a request to clarify the mayor’s.
The request for Ellison to weigh in is just the latest salvo in the long debate over the project at 411-417 Lexington parkway. The site, which is owned by Wilder Foundation, has been vacant for more than a decade. Alatus wants to build 288 apartments and first-floor retail space in a six-story, $57 million building.
Plans call for 124 of the 288 units to be affordable to renters making 60 percent of the area median income, and another 20 units would be affordable to those making 50 percent of the area median income. The rest would be rented at market rate.
But critics said those units would be small, and not big enough for families. They also are upset with Mayor Carter.
Tian Williams, co-director of Frogtown Neighborhood Association, criticized Carter for touting his family ties to the historic Rondo neighborhood on one hand and then supporting Lexington Station on the other. She called the veto “an egregious power grab to protect his political aspirations and signal support for moneyed developers.”
Carter has argued that the site plan is legal and the city has no grounds under which to deny it. His office issued a statement, saying that, “Mayor Carter stands ready to partner with the concerned council members to add more affordable housing units to this project, as soon as they are ready to work together toward that goal.” He has also offered to seek public subsidy for affordable housing in the project, something Alatus didn’t do.
The project only needs city staff site plan review. It meets the underlying traditional neighborhoods four zoning. But it has become a lightning rod in debate over gentrification, displacement and affordable housing for the city’s poorest residents. Supporters contend it will provide needed market-rate and affordable housing during a city housing shortage. Foes argue that the proposed housing, even the lower-price units, aren’t affordable to residents of the surrounding neighborhoods.
The St. Paul Planning Commission rejected the site plan on an 8-7 vote, prompting Alatus to appeal to the City Council.
Carter’s veto angered project opponents, who held a news conference April 27 near the development site. They contend he has violated local and state regulations on zoning. They also threatened to sue.
Council members Dai Thao, Jane Prince and Nelsie Yang and community members called on Carter to reverse his veto. They also wanted a review of Carter’s action, but opted April 28 to lay over a motion demanding such scrutiny and clarifying the mayoral role in zoning cases.
Thao, Prince and Yang were joined by Mitra Jalali and Rebecca Noecker in asking for Ellison’s opinion. Council members Amy Brendmoen and Chris Tolbert cast the dissenting votes. They objected to a lack of time to look at the request.
The City Attorney’s Office also didn’t have time to review the council resolution before the city council meeting. Deputy City Attorney Rachel Tierney said she has been told that the issue is one the Attorney General’s Office isn’t likely to weigh in on. Nor would the city delay issuance of building permits for the project, based on an advisory opinion.