People Inc.’s Diane Ahrens Crisis Residence will relocate from St. Paul’s Hamline-Midway area to the Hazel Park area on the city’s East Side. Months of debate at the neighborhood, St. Paul Planning Commission and City Council level ended September 10 with a 5-2 council vote of approval. The council approved a zoning change for 1784 Lacrosse Ave. that allows the facility to be converted into a crisis shelter for people with mental illness. The building was a convent for many years, for the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and Blessed Sacrament Church.
Council Members Dan Bostrom and William Finney voted against the change. They contended that the 16-bed facility’s parking needs would overwhelm the surrounding community. The facility has three off-street spaces and plan to add three more. People Inc. representatives said those who stay at the home, for up to 10 days, typically don’t bring their vehicles.
People Inc. has been serving the mentally ill since 1969 and works with about 9,500 clients per year. The nonprofit, which got its start in St. Paul, operates about 60 different programs throughout the Twin Cities.
People Inc. CEO Jill Wiedemann-West said the former convent would be an ideal location for the facility. It has an enclosed courtyard, which would provide privacy for clients. She told the City Council that clients are carefully screened before being allowed to stay at the facility. Wiedemann-West said it’s People Inc.’s intent to have good relations with its neighbors, and to have regular contact with them
The new location is in Bostrom’s Ward Six. Bostrom said he didn’t think the process worked in the case of the People Inc. rezoning, claiming it is an illegal spot zoning. Spot zoning is when a property is given a different type of zoning than surrounding properties have. “We’re saying because we like the organization, let’s disregard the facts,” he said.
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, Ramsey County Board Chairman Jim McDonough and many disability rights and mental advocacy groups spoke out for the zoning change. The Minnesota Department of Human Services, National Alliance for the mentally Ill Minnesota and other advocacy groups also sent letters or provided testimony.
“This is about individuals: individuals who want to live in our community, individuals who want to be treated with respect and dignity,” McDonough told the City Council
But nearby businesses, residential neighbors and the District Two Community Council, a city-sanctioned citizen participation group, were opposed. Many neighbors noted that the area has two elementary schools, a church and business district with spillover parking. One idea City Council members suggested was that People Inc. buy a nearby home, tear it down and create an off-street parking lot. But that was rejected due to costs and practicality.
The project has been undergoing review since May. It was awarded a needed conditional use permit during the summer.
The relocation debate was as complex as it was emotional. Opponents bristled at being labeled as NIMBY. They said the issue was about parking and density, and whether site zoning should change from single-family to multifamily residential use. Many said it had nothing to do with the use as a crisis residence, a claim that met with skepticism.
Attorney Brian Alton, who presented People Inc., was skeptical of the claims that the change was a case of illegal spot zoning. “We hear that this is about zoning and it isn’t about people. We hide behind that a lot. We use zoning to keep people out who don’t look like us, don’t believe like us, and don’t behave like us. Don’t fool yourself. This is about people. This is about individuals who want to live with dignity in our community, people who need transitional care to help them recover,” he said.
“I’ve talked to most of you about this.” Alton said to the council members. “You all say you get it. You’re supportive. But there’s always a ‘but’ that follows. There really can’t be a ‘but’ this time. We need to do better.”
District 2 Executive Director Chuck Repke said that People Inc. should have petitioned the neighbors for permission to rezone the property. “I want to be clear that this is a zoning matter. It’s about land and land use,” he said. “We don’t have any issues with People Incorporated or the clients they serve.” But People Inc. representatives said the process was skewed against them and at one neighborhood meeting, a vote was taken before the group could event make a presentation. City rules do allow the organization to seek the zoning change without a consent petition.
Neighbors and neighboring business owners spoke against the change. Cindie Neunfeldt, who owns a salon in the area, said, “We’ll have nowhere to park. It’s unbelievable.”
Other council members questioned the parking arguments. “We have parking problems all over the city,” said Council President Russ Stark also added, “Zoning questions don’t come down to ‘Do you like the people or do you not like the people?’
“Council Member Dave Thune also cast one of the votes for the zoning change. He said it’s a legal use and that allowing People Inc. to move meets a need. “Mental illness has such dire consequences,” he said. His Second Ward includes the St. Paul High Bridge, which has been the site of a number of suicides.
People Inc. has not announced a firm timeline for the move. The Hazel Park property will need some work before the program can move in.