St. Paul City Council opens door for 5-story redevelopment of Dixie's on Grand, rejects appeal from neighbors

Sep. 16—A coalition of neighbors opposed to replacing Dixie's on Grand with a five-story mixed-use building lost their appeal before the St. Paul City Council on Wednesday, effectively opening the door to a major commercial-residential redevelopment led by restaurateur Peter Kenefick and west metro developer Reuter Walton.

Neighbors who rallied together under the title "Friends of A Better Way St. Paul" had said the St. Paul Planning Commission had mishandled a series of zoning variances related to the height and density of the proposed structure, which would span 80 residential apartments and four restaurant-ready commercial spaces at ground level.

The city council voted 5-2 to reject their appeal, with council members Rebecca Noecker and Jane Prince opposed to the denial.

"I cannot see a reason why this building needs to be this tall," said Noecker, who represents the neighborhood and spoke at length about her zoning concerns. "That is not an economic difficulty (caused by the layout of the lot)."

The Planning Commission had previously approved a conditional-use permit for building height, as well as variances for front setback, building footprint, total building size above ground and building height.

"What we're tasked with today is deciding one very straightforward question: Did the Planning Commission err when it granted variances and a conditional-use permit?" Noecker said. "We need to follow the law. What is relevant here is not whether or not we want the project to move forward."

Noecker said the Planning Commission did not err in granting variances for an overall building footprint and front setback. It did err when it granted a height variance, a variance for total building size above ground and a conditional-use permit related to height, she said. "There's nothing unique about (a very large lot) itself that requires a tall building," she said.

The Dixie's lot size is four times larger, on average, than the lot sizes on Grand Avenue, so variances for lot coverage are appropriate, Noecker said. But the height of the buildings immediately surrounding 695 Grand are approximately 20 feet shorter than the proposed project, which is the appropriate way to determine compatibility, she said.

In addition, an overlay district for the eastern end of Grand Avenue would ordinarily restrict new buildings to three stories. "If the overlay district restricts growth to too great a degree, and I believe it does, the remedy is to amend or abolish the overlay district," Noecker said, "not to grant substantial variances."

Council member Mitra Jalali said she opposed the appeal, whose impact would be to stop the project cold, she said. Since the overlay district was adopted in 2006, the only new buildings on the east end of Grand have been a three-story, six-unit condo building at 1174 Grand Ave. and a one-story restaurant at 720 Grand Ave.

"I would agree with the Planning Commission ... who found that this project fosters local ownership (instead of) big-box stores," Jalali said. "Smaller lots are actually allowed to build much more dense projects. ... This is a transit corridor with a mix of uses. The building design is very much within scale of the surrounding neighborhood."

Council member Nelsie Yang, who has been critical of the lack of housing affordability in the proposed structure and in August voted against rezoning for the site for mixed-use zoning, said the building height was appropriate for a business corridor.

Following the vote, Marilyn Bach, a project opponent who lives on St. Albans Street, said she was unsure about next steps. "I think it has to sink in. I think a lot of people are thinking of legal action. It's just early," she said.