Does West St. Paul Need More Apartments?

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Several recently proposed developments in West St. Paul include apartment complexes—at Signal Hills and the former golf course. But if you pay attention to the chatter on the Neighbor’s Page, you might pick up on a clear animosity toward apartments.

You can take your pick of posts (though be wary of dipping a toe in any stream of hundreds of Facebook comments), but nearly all the comments feature at least some thread of negativity toward plans for new apartments—many saying West St. Paul doesn’t need more apartments. One post simply asked the question as a [non-scientific] poll, with a majority saying they don’t want apartments at the K-mart site.

So what’s going on? Does West St. Paul really need more apartments? And why the animosity toward apartments in a town where nearly half the residents are renters?

Let’s Look at the Research

Let’s start by looking at the planning studies for West St. Paul and the surrounding area.

Verdict? Every single study notes the need for more multi-family housing, especially affordable housing and senior housing:

  • The Met Council’s 2040 Housing Plan.
  • The 2013 Housing Needs Assessment for Dakota County.
  • West St. Paul’s 2040 Comprehensive Plan.
  • The Robert Street Renaissance Plan Update (my references come from the final, accepted plan, which is not online. The draft is available: Part 1 & Part 2).
  • West St. Paul’s Housing Plan (still being completed).
  • The Urban Land Institute issued a 2014 report on Signal Hills, recommending mixed use development, including “three- to four-story multi-family housing.” They noted what won’t work on the site (enclosed mall, community center, etc.) and recommended a transit center and pocket park, among other things.
  • While there are no specific development plans yet, even the Smith Ave./Dodd Rd. Small Area Plan talks of mixed-use development at the Doddway Center—including a four-story building.

That’s not to say these planning documents are sacred and must be followed to the letter. Things change and plans shift. But these general guidelines clearly show that West St. Paul needs higher density housing.

Why Do We Need More Multi-Family Housing?

So why are all these documents saying we need more multi-family housing?

  • Increased population: West St. Paul is expected to grow to 23,000 people by 2040.
  • Aging population: “Dakota County is expecting to see a 79 percent increase in the population age group of 65+ by 2040.” (WSP Housing Plan)
  • Vacancy rates: With low vacancy rates, the rental market is tight. Housing is needed at all income levels to help meet demand.
  • Increase density: Since West St. Paul is fully developed, we need to increase density, which takes better advantage of area amenities and transit and should also strengthen the commercial base (as noted in recent city documents).
  • Increase the tax base: One bonus of more multi-family housing? It will increase the tax base, bringing in more money to help maintain our roads, parks, police, and more.

The Housing Plan puts it bluntly: “In an effort to continue to attract a strong customer base, Robert Street must offer more than just retail.”

Looking at Specific Sites

Maybe it’s the specific location of some of the recently proposed projects that people object to. But the West St. Paul studies cited above specifically note Signal Hills and the former Thompson Oaks golf course property as areas for high-density residential development:

Signal Hills:

  • “Future redevelopment could consist of a mix of medium/high density residential and retail/commercial uses.” (2040 Comprehensive Plan)
  • “Housing should occupy the west half of the site and should help manage the transition between existing community and Robert Street.” (Robert Street Renaissance Plan Update)

Thompson Oaks:

  • “Create a redevelopment plan for the Thompson Oaks golf course which includes a mixture of high density residential, commercial, and open space uses.” (2040 Comprehensive Plan)
  • The Renaissance Plan Update even specifically intends for housing on the northwest portion of the former golf course, exactly where the apartment is proposed:

West St. Paul needs more housing and these areas have been identified as prime locations for said housing.

What About Actual Market Needs?

It’s one thing to look at studies and reports that predict what’s needed. But what’s the reality?

According to city documents, the newest apartment in West St. Paul, the market-rate Rooftop 252 (at 252 Marie Ave E), opened in July and “all of the studio and one-bedroom units rented quickly (no vacancy), and about half of the two-bedroom units are currently rented.” (Update: The Planning Commission report for the Oct. 15, 2019 meeting gives an update on the occupancy at Rooftop 252: “All the units are occupied or have signed leases.”)

That speaks to the demand for market-rate apartments—even studio units that go for $1,000/month.

Single Family Homes

Some people have pointed to a perceived need for single family homes in West St. Paul. That’s true. The Housing Plan points to recent neighborhood surveys that show a desire for more single family homes in West St. Paul.

However, that desire doesn’t square with the reality of a fully developed first-ring suburb. Where would we put new single family homes? There are rare undeveloped pockets or demolished homes that allow for new construction (like the southeast corner of Marie and Delaware or the newish Crowley Circle development). But that’s it. West St. Paul has added 44 new construction homes since 2010—but it’s only a handful per year.

The reality is there won’t be a major building boom of single family homes in West St. Paul.

Not In My Neighborhood

Let’s be honest: Some of this anti-apartment sentiment might come down to racism or classism. It’s certainly not everyone, but one comment literally said, “We have to keep out the riff-raff.”

But it’s not true that affordable housing will be a drain on the community. The Met Council Housing Plan addresses this specifically:

  • Property values: “Research has found that affordable housing has no long-term negative impact on surrounding property values.”
  • Crime: “Most available research finds no conclusive evidence that an increase in affordable housing leads to an increase in crime.”

The Met Council notes that affordable housing can “stabilize neighborhoods and improve property values.” and “is part of a well-balanced, economically resilient community and an economically competitive region.”

This report from the Minnesota Housing Partnership includes stories from people who live in affordable housing. Sometimes it helps to understand the people actually served and how they can benefit our community.

Bring on the Redevelopment

So does West St. Paul need more apartments? Yes.

We can debate the exact mix of multi-family housing the city needs, how much should serve seniors, whether or not it should be affordable, and whether or not it should include more mixed use—but don’t say we don’t need apartments in West St. Paul.

As most of these plans note, West St. Paul is quiet neighborhoods and half single family homes. That’s not going to change. None of these proposed plans are going to drastically change West St. Paul. But they are steps forward that will repurpose what’s here and help improve West St. Paul.

2 comments

  1. As always, thank you Kevin.
    The focus on single-family homes is silly. When landlords are held to their commitments, apartments are one good solution. How about condos & townhouses? Obvious advantages like less maintenance & lower costs. But also shared resources (I have a heated garage!), social & community engagement in a time when too many go without, and less strain on the environment. (Plus I know my neighbors’ pets have been vaccinated.)

    A need for housing is a need for housing! Time spent trying to convince fools who refuse to change is better spent on smart, creative solutions. I’m glad the city is moving forward.

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