| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter Youtube RSS Feed


A Good Thing for St. Paul: A Pilot ADU Project Along the Green Line Invites Creative Possibilities

Proposed ADU in St. Paul by Greta Vick

Proposed ADU in St. Paul by TFA

Proposed St. Paul ADU by CityDeskStudio

Proposed St. Paul ADU by Paul Ormseth

ADU above garage by Christopher Strom

For decades, accessory dwelling units (ADUs)—more colloquially known as mother-in-law apartments, granny flats or, harkening back to the TV show “Happy Days,” Fonzie suites—have been a popular option across the country for homeowners wanting to create an additional, separate living space for a relative or close friend. More recently, ADUs have been lauded for their capacity to add density to urban neighborhoods and provide options for affordable housing.

In December 2014, the Minneapolis City Council passed a zoning code text amendment allowing ADUs on lots with single or two-family homes. “ADUs were conceived to expand housing choices on multiple fronts, including multigenerational housing, a legalization path for duplexes and triplexes with previously unrecognized units, and the provision of affordable rentals within stable homesteaded neighborhoods,” wrote Kjersti Monson, director of long-range planning for the City of Minneapolis, in an article reprinted in The Line.

“Their facilitation of easily absorbable density in existing neighborhoods has positive side effects,” Monson continued, including “increased demographic diversity in neighborhoods and increased efficiency of roads and public infrastructure through the simple math of greater population density within a service area.”

Now, St. Paul also can have ADUs in neighborhoods along part of the Central Corridor or Green Line. More specifically, in September, the St. Paul City Council voted to allow homeowners from Emerald Avenue (along the Minneapolis border) to Lexington Avenue to construct ADUs on properties within one-half mile of University Avenue. The area most excited and affected, to date, is South St. Anthony Park (home to the Creative Enterprise Zone), which actively advocated for the ordinance.

“ADUs are a good thing for St. Paul,” says Russ Stark, Council President for Ward 4 in St. Paul, which includes the St. Anthony Park, Merriam Park, Hamline-Midway, and parts of Mac-Groveland and Como neighborhoods. “It’s a housing option that has worked in other places in the U.S., providing opportunities for different kinds of housing units and lifestyles, from multi-generational families to people wanting to live in small spaces on their own."

“ADUs are one way to accomplish and accommodate these changes,” he adds, “while adding a modest amount of density in what are relatively low-density, single-family neighborhoods bordering the Green Line in particular.”

Advocating for ADUs in St. Paul

While St. Paul Zoning was working on a new ordinance specific to the Green Line light-rail corridor, the St. Anthony Park neighborhood’s Land Use Efficiency action group, also known as Housing Options, was also busy. The Housing Options committee researched ADUs, and during a 2013 community meeting invited experts to discuss issues associated with the dwelling units. Shortly thereafter, the committee paired residents with local architecture firms (which worked pro bono) to develop ADU designs for their properties, both inside and outside of their existing homes. At 2014 meeting, neighbors were invited to look over the designs.

The Housing Options group also kept the neighborhood (which is divided by a railroad corridor into North and South St. Anthony Park) informed about ADUs and the status of the ordinance: Only South, because of its proximity to the University Avenue, is affected. South St. Anthony Park homeowners who are considering adding a second living unit to their property can apply to the City of St. Paul’s safety and inspections department starting in mid-November.

“ADUs are a new way to downsize without leaving your property, but they also offer a friendly approach to increasing population density, provide living space for relatives, and reducing our carbon footprint, if they are built with energy conservation in mind,” wrote St. Anthony Park resident Michael Russelle in Transition Times ASAP, a news publication for St. Anthony Park. Russelle was part of the Housing Options group.

The City of St. Paul and the new ordinance recognize several types of ADUs, and only on lots that are at least 5,000 square feet in size. Internal ADUs are areas inside of a house remodeled into a “home within a home.” Attached ADUs are separate dwelling units attached to the main house, in which the homeowner lives. A detached ADU is either a completely separate building or an addition to another structure, such as an ADU constructed on top of a garage.

In addition, ADUs can be no larger than 800 square feet (unless the unit occupies one floor of a multi-level house). Detached ADUs must be less than 15 feet in height, unless they’re constructed above a garage; if so, the maximum height is 25 feet or the height of the main house. To avoid issues with absentee landlords, the primary house must be owner-occupied. On lots zoned for single-family use, only one lineally related family plus up to two unrelated people (or a total of four unrelated people) may inhabit the home(s). Moreover, if the property goes up for sale, all of the structures must be sold together.

New and creative housing opportunities 

“I’ve had a longstanding interest in ADUs,” says Stark. “Historically ADUs have been a controversial subject in St. Paul and proposals 25 years ago were shot down, primarily over concerns about parking, adding rental property in single-family neighborhoods, and quick and shabby buildings going up in back of people’s lots.”

The ordinance, however, addresses all of these concerns. Moreover, Stark adds, “It’s a rather expensive proposition to build and construct an ADU on your property.” But the benefits of ADUs are many. “They allow for more creative use of space, increase density and affordability along the light-rail corridor, and allow more residents to potentially age in place because they accommodate multi-generational living.”

Liam Magistad, who grew up in St. Anthony Park and is now a student at Macalester College, wrote his high school senior thesis, The Return of the Multigenerational Family on ADUs. “Multigenerational living is becoming more popular as many Americans no longer view independence as the most important factor in measuring success,” Magistad asserted. “This shift is partly because of the rising immigrant population, such as Asian and Hispanic immigrants, who place a higher value on close knit families. Over time their attitudes are influencing the American psyche as a whole. In fact, some families are choosing to try multigenerational living before they have to and many are finding that they actually like the arrangement, and may even elect to make it permanent.”

For whatever reason homeowners decide to invest in ADUs, the new St. Paul ordinance is a “pilot project” that provides “a new zoning opportunity within the neighborhoods it affects along the Green Line,” Stark says. The City Council will monitor construction of the units before deciding whether to expand to other neighborhoods. “Hopefully, as a few ADUs come on line and we get a better sense of their potential, we can expand to other parts of the city.”

Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts