Ramsey County raises concern about proposed downtown St. Paul riverfront height limits

In downtown St. Paul, the tallest tower in Ramsey County’s RiversEdge project could stretch 40 stories above Kellogg Boulevard, putting it on a collision course with City Hall. The city’s newly proposed height limits would restrict river bluff development downtown to fewer than 10 stories.

Ramsey County leaders, business officials and even some environmental advocates sounded an alarm on Friday over the proposed riverfront zoning restrictions, which they said could derail plans for badly-needed rental housing at the long-awaited RiversEdge development overlooking the Mississippi River.

“I am asking the Planning Commission to reconsider the staff recommendation for height requirements in the downtown urban core,” said Ramsey County Board Chair Trista MatasCastillo, addressing the St. Paul Planning Commission during a public hearing Friday.

Zoning along the river

For years, the city of St. Paul has worked toward crafting elaborate new zoning and development rules for the 17 miles of Mississippi River riverfront and river bluff corridor that stretch through the capital city.

Minnesota has called for 30 Mississippi River cities within the seven-county metro to bring their riverfront zoning in line with “critical area” standards adopted in 2017, which specify six different types of zoning categories that cities can adopt along their riverfronts.

Overall, officials with Ramsey County, the Friends of the Mississippi River and others have praised St. Paul’s “Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area Program” draft rules — with one significant exception. Proposed height limits for new buildings on the downtown river bluff are too restrictive, according to county leaders, and could possibly derail plans by developer AECOM to build a 40-story tower of rental housing atop the bluff.

The draft rules recommended by city staff would limit future development along a broad swathe of downtown stretching as far as West Seventh Street to a height restriction of 200 feet, as measured from just above river level, or less than 100 feet above Kellogg Boulevard, which sits atop the river bluff.

That standard, which also requires a conditional use permit, would allow AECOM to build less than 10 stories of housing on top of Kellogg.

Concept plans unveiled by AECOM and Ramsey County call for some 40 stories of rental housing in the tallest of four proposed towers, as well as some housing in a second, shorter tower, followed by two mixed-use buildings that would mostly contain high-end office space and other commercial uses.

AECOM project off the table?

Planning Commissioner Nate Hood asked if the proposed restrictions would leave the entire four-tower RiversEdge project “DOA” — dead on arrival.

The answer? Quite possibly yes.

“We’d really have to re-envision both the phasing, the scale and the relationship we have with AECOM,” responded Josh Olson, deputy director of Community and Economic Development with Ramsey County, addressing the St. Paul Planning Commission on Friday.

Olson noted that under the proposed draft rules, even existing structures such as the Lumen Technologies building next to downtown City Hall — previously known as the Qwest Building, CenturyLink and the Northwestern Bell Telephone Building — could not be constructed today.

MatasCastillo said studies have shown that Ramsey County is short some 35,000 housing units, creating intense housing pressure in St. Paul in particular. She noted that preserving river access is critical, and the RiversEdge project would include nine acres of parkland. “What also is critical is building our tax base and making sure we have enough housing,” she said.

Rather than oppose AECOM’s development plans, some environmental advocates have noted that tall, narrow buildings can allow better river access and improved river views compared to short, squat buildings that stretch across more than a city block.

‘Urban core’

Colleen O’Connor Toberman, Land Use and Planning Program Director with the Friends of the Mississippi River, noted that Minneapolis did not include any height limits in its downtown “urban core” river corridor rules adopted two years ago, though it does require developers to apply for conditional use permits.

That said, downtown Minneapolis isn’t situated on a dramatic river bluff in the same way downtown St. Paul is.

“We’ve known about the RiversEdge project for many years,” said Toberman, in an interview. “Overall, I agree with the county. It has the potential to enhance river access and river views. We need to write an ordinance that makes creative projects possible.”

Joe Spencer, president of the St. Paul Downtown Alliance, a business advocacy organization, told the Planning Commission that downtown St. Paul’s population has doubled over the past decade to 10,000 residents. The Downtown Alliance would like to see that number triple to 30,000 residents, which would span just under 10% of the city population.

And even those goals are modest, he said. Healthy downtowns, said Spencer, are even more population-dense, in the vicinity of 15% of a city’s population.

“We need to grow our density,” Spencer told the Planning Commission. “But in order to do that, we’re going to have to build. We’re going to have to add housing.”

Bird-safe glass, St. Thomas arena

Beyond concerns about height limits downtown, several speakers praised the draft rules for including bird-safe glass among building requirements. Toberman and others noted, however, that those requirements could be even stronger. As written, the bird-safe glass requirement is limited to window panels measuring 50 square feet or larger.

Otherwise, Toberman said, “St. Paul is the most thoughtful and comprehensive ordinance that we have seen.”

Kathryn McGuire, who sits on the Mac-Groveland Community Council, said the draft rules need to be vetted by the neighborhood district councils. At times fighting tears, she said real estate development was pushing her peers out of the city, and pointed to plans unveiled by the University of St. Thomas to build a 5,000-seat hockey and basketball arena on its south campus as an example.

“This push for expanding and constant development makes no sense to me,” McGuire said.

Written comments on the draft rules will be accepted by the Planning Commission through 4:30 p.m. Monday, and then forwarded to the Planning Commission’s Comprehensive and Neighborhood Planning Committee for further review.

The St. Paul City Council is likely to vote upon the final rules later this season.