St. Paul continues to dodge new riverfront development rules

The downtown St. Paul skyline stretches across the top of the frame, with the river and residential housing in the foreground.

St. Paul's promising ordinance has been stalled for months with no explanation from city leaders. (Photo by FMR)

In January of 2023, FMR called the City of St. Paul's draft Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area (MRCCA) ordinance the best we'd seen to date, with two specific elements that made it stand out above others: bird-safe building standards and clear building height requirements in scenic areas.

We expected this promising draft to quickly move toward adoption. Instead it has stalled out, with little explanation from city leaders. We're already seeing the consequences caused by months of inaction and delays.

We recently spoke with the Pioneer Press about this delay, and even sent a two-page letter to Mayor Melvin Carter seeking an explanation.

So how did we get here, and what can St. Paul community members do to help?

From out front to falling behind

St. Paul is one of 25 metro-area cities and townships that is required to adopt an updated MRCCA ordinance. The ordinances include standards meant to ensure the Mississippi River is developed and managed as a resource for all of us, whether or not we're fortunate enough to live directly on its shores.

In cooperation with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, St. Paul agreed to complete this ordinance adoption process by January 2021 — but the city missed that deadline by years, and is the only city to fall this far behind.

There were signs of real progress in January of 2023, when St. Paul finally held its first public hearing on its draft ordinance (the one FMR praised as the best MRCCA ordinance we'd seen yet). Public comments were also largely positive.

While some stakeholders did raise concerns about the ordinance's height limits being too low for the proposed RiversEdge site in downtown St. Paul, we believed these concerns could be addressed through a fairly simple wording change. From there, we anticipated the feedback would be incorporated into an updated draft ordinance and returned for public review within weeks.

Eight months later, however, the MRCCA ordinance still hasn't advanced through the rest of the city's adoption process: additional public hearings, a city council vote and mayoral approval.

It seems completely stalled, and as of late September, city leaders aren't responding to our questions about why.

City's river values being violated

The delay in the MRCCA ordinance adoption has already had consequences. The city is allowing projects within MRCCA to move forward without the improved river protections the new ordinance will provide.

For instance, an apartment building recently approved for 706 Mississippi River Blvd. is 50 feet high. While that height is currently allowed, the new MRCCA ordinance will have a height limit of 35 feet in that area due to the need to protect river gorge views. Unfortunately, the new standard wasn't in place in time for this project.

We'd also like to see bird-safe glass incorporated in the proposed new University of St. Thomas athletics arena near the river, but the city has no way to require that unless it adopts the proposed new MRCCA ordinance.

As this delay drags on, additional new projects that are harmful to the river and riverfront will almost certainly come forward.

Take action: Ask the city to resume its process

It goes against St. Paul’s ethos of transparent public processes, stewardship of its riverfront and care for the environment to delay its MRCCA ordinance with no explanation.

You can join us in asking the city to resume its public process and finalize its ordinance immediately.

St. Paul is a river city. Without the Mississippi River, the city wouldn’t exist where it does. And St. Paul’s riverfront is uniquely special, with the river’s only gorge, scenic and sacred bluffs, and world-class parks. It’s disappointing the city would delay in adopting new, science-based standards for protecting these rare resources.

Questions? Contact FMR Land Use & Planning Program Director Colleen O'Connor Toberman, ctoberman@fmr.org, 651-477-0923.

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