NIMBYville: Highland Park says “No” to PPL

Project for Pride in Living (PPL) has hit a road block in their attempt to build 44 units of low income housing in St. Paul’s Highland Park at the intersection of West 7th and Springfield Ave. The Highland District Council (HDC) disapproves of their project and has filed a lawsuit against the City of St. Paul …

It should be noted that the HDC is not a government agency. It’s a community group consisting mostly of locals with more affluent backgrounds (51 % have 4-year college degrees / 20 % have graduate or professional degrees) and the median household income (circa 2000 census) was approximately $47,000; about $10,000 more than the typical St. Paul household. Furthermore, I feel its fair to say that Highland Park has two district areas; 1) the majority who live on top of the hill, and 2) those who live at the bottom of the hill. This development is being built at the bottom of the hill.

What are they opposed to?

The neighborhood group is opposing 44 units of affordable and lower income housing.

The construction will occur on top of a former gas station turned questionable movie rental joint turned abandoned eyesore. The site has been empty for over 2 years [Check it out on Google Maps]. Construction will also take-out 3 single-family homes on the rear of the site.

Why are they opposed to it?

Highland Park residents believe that the City of St. Paul violated the law by not abiding by the zoning restrictions set in the governing planning document [“Shepard Davern Overlay Plan – Summary / Full Plan]. They believe the enforcement of the existing code would not have created an “undue hardship” upon the developer.

What variances were necessary?

Variance #1) A minimum of two (2) acres is required for any development in this area, 1.23 acres is proposed (variance of .77 acres)

Variance #2)  A minimum 25 foot setback is required for the parking lot along Benson Avenue, 4 feet is proposed (variance of 21 feet)

I’m baffled why a municipality would require such a large lot size for redevelopment? Two acres is a lot of land within St. Paul city limits; and this zoning ordinance seems like a good excuse to keep things as is. The problem is that things “as is” along West 7th aren’t exactly that great.

The second variance is slightly less confusing, but still arcane. It’s understandable that neighbors want to avoid larger surface lots along street frontage, but what about small, hidden parking lots?

PPL’s parking lot is modest (10 spaces); and as suggested by the Shepard Davern Plan, it is set in the rear of the building and will have a “hedge screen” and planted trees. Regardless, it violates “the code”.

What is troubling about the issue is that the members of the HDC probably don’t care about “the code”. It’s hard for me to accept that it actually bothers residents that this building isn’t on a 2-acre lot or the parking lot on a rarely-traversed side-street has a 4 feet setback versus 25 feet.

I find this especially true considering the currently state of the land currently looks like this, and the street is void of sidewalks and curbs – both of which PPL will be installing on the block with no cost to its neighbors. This also goes without mentioning that their have been four nearby developments along the same street that have violated the 25 feet parking setback rule: Highgrove Bank, Innovative Realty/Dentist Office, Mississippi Market Co-op and the Sholom East Campus. All four new developments have a) placed surface lots in the rear of the building, and b) added shrubs and/or trees – both of which PPL is proposing.

Which leads me to only one conclusion …

Highland Park residents aren’t comfortable living within proximity of poor people. The lawsuit may concentrate on conditional use permits, but all signs point in another direction. For example; a letter of questions from the HDC was sent to PPL in 2009; most all questions revolve around the effects of “lower income housing”, possible crime and the possible need for on-site supervision. The minutes from meetings also point to this conclusion.

A local St. Paul neighbor, who supports the development and attended the meetings, wrote the City a thoughtful letter in favor of the PPL project. I thought I would share his point of view.

I think he does a great job of summarizing the opposition to the lawsuit;

“I understand the fears of the objectors, but those are objections to the very notion of low and moderate cost housing, not to lot size … The moral imperatives for providing decent housing to disadvantaged families are far more compelling.”


  1. Alex · June 2, 2011

    Outrageous. I’d like to start a community group called “Neighbors Against Neighbors Against Affordable Housing.”

  2. Anders · June 2, 2011

    While this case doesn’t fit the traditional meaning of exclusionary zoning, the subtext certainly is the same: the use of arbitrary land use controls as a means to keep “those people” out. How depressing.

  3. Pingback: Highland Park (St. Paul MN area) says “No” to Affordable Housing | Fair Housing For Developers
  4. Alex · June 2, 2011

    Did you see that the neighbors won?

    At least the city has a chance to find more reasons for variances.

  5. Nathaniel M Hood · June 2, 2011

    Thanks for the update.

    It’s really sad that a group of wealthy residents would file a suit, and prevent, a good organization from developing a good project that will get 44 people (and a dozen families) off the streets and into a shelter over a small zoning technicality regarding setbacks and minor a lot size redevelopment variance.

    I just moved to Highland Park about 2 weeks ago – and was going to see if I could join the neighborhood group. There’s a meeting Thursday I’m going to attend. And there is an opening for a neighborhood volunteer in “community development”. I’m going to jump all over that.

  6. Pingback: The Highland Park Affordable Housing Variance Debacle « Thoughts on the Urban Environment
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