Q. What drew you to serve on the St. Paul Planning Commission?
NH: In 2016, I joined the Highland District Council neighborhood organization as a way to get involved in my local area. With my planning background, I felt I could add a new perspective to the neighborhood group, which often skewed toward saying “No” to changes. I enjoyed the advocacy and using my expertise in planning, and I wanted to expand the good work I was doing in the neighborhood to the city level and continue my interest in shaping the future of the city.
Q. St. Paul is on the second round of updates to its zoning code. What is driving this change and what are you most hopeful for?
NH: St. Paul is undergoing the most transformative zoning changes since the 1970s. The update is broken into two phases: the first focuses on small housing, accessory dwelling units and small parcels, and the second focuses on adding flexibility to support greater housing density in low-density residential areas.
The driving force behind these changes is to empower more property owners to add new housing supply – the “missing middle.” Most residential lots in the city’s core are small and rebuilding on them often doesn’t meet the existing zoning code. “Non-conforming use” cases are common, especially with existing small multifamily buildings that pre-date the 1970s. Zoning updates will hopefully eliminate these issues.
With current market conditions, I don’t see these changes adding a significant amount of new supply to the marketplace. However, I think they are the right move. Giving homeowners and developers more zoning flexibility will help drive down costs over the long term. I’m optimistic that we’ll see these changes slowly start to happen over the next decade if passed.
Q. A handful of cities in Minnesota have or are looking to modernize their zoning practices. How do these efforts look to impact the state-level zoning modernization discussion?
NH: We don’t have any local case studies on ‘what is working’ just yet – but we know what isn’t working: the status quo.
I am typically a proponent of local control; however, I am very supportive of zoning modernization efforts at the state level. Local zoning and other locally imposed housing-related regulatory frameworks have been excessive, hurt broader housing affordability and have resulted in less variety in housing types across the state of Minnesota. This needs to change.
We should always be learning from each other and continuously adapting. State-level regulations should look at what is working in cities and adapt accordingly.
Cities are often at the forefront of addressing housing challenges, as they are on the front lines of dealing with the effects of zoning regulations on the availability and affordability of housing. Cities have the advantage of being able to experiment with new zoning policies, such as mixed-use zoning, form-based codes and inclusionary zoning, which can help promote more diverse and affordable housing options.
Q. From your vantage point on a planning commission, what procedural changes can be made to improve the process for both project applicants and residents?
NH: The biggest procedural change is permitting more by-right development. This doesn’t mean eliminating zoning altogether, but it means creating a clear and consistent regulatory environment where people know what is – and what is not – permitted. Many cities currently operate in a complex grey area.
The biggest impact we’ve seen in the St. Paul Planning Commission’s workload is the removal of parking requirements. Prior to removing parking requirements, it was common to see a project that needed a few spaces variance each meeting. Those items are now removed from the political process and are being built by-right. That’s been a big win. It saves city staff and commissioners time, and it creates more certainty for people looking to improve land or existing structures.
Q. Planning commissions deal with a variety of topics, from large-scale developments to individual variance requests. What is your most memorable moment?
NH: What’s funny about being on a planning commission is that the size of a project doesn’t necessarily correspond to how much work it’ll be for the commission. You can have a large industrial project that gets approved within 15 minutes and then you’ll have an item that goes into three hours of debate over extending the hours of a pizza shop (true story).
My most memorable experience was a contentious issue with a 200-plus-unit, mixed-use apartment with 50% of the units being affordable. The item met all zoning and building codes, but activists were able to pull a discretionary site plan review and wanted to torpedo the project because it wasn’t affordable enough and didn’t fit the character of the neighborhood. I disagreed with those assertions, as did the city’s own attorney, but the commission as a whole ultimately ended up voting against the project. It was very heated.
I learned two lessons that I think apply broadly to zoning and regulatory frameworks.
First, allowing discretionary reviews of projects that meet codes creates uncertainty, increases the likelihood of projects becoming politicized and disincentivizes new construction projects.
Second, geography is very personal for most all people. Often people move to an area because they like it a certain way. New development changes that. I used to confront these people (NIMBYs) head-on. Now, I’ve learned that you need to approach these situations with empathy.