East Yard tiny home project put on hold


file photo • The East Yard, a tiny home community that would have been located on an odd strip of land just south of the Payne-Phalen neighborhood at 627 Bush Ave., has been put on hold due to a variety of issues, including pollution remediation and site configuration, among other things.

courtesy of Loren Schirber • The East Yard tiny home community was the idea of Minneapolis resident and developer Loren Schirber. He planned to build 69 tiny homes, each between 280 to 680 square feet in size, creating a community on a small plot of land just more than 2 acres in size.

Costs and configuration make it a challenge

 

After more than a year of studying and collecting feedback, work on a planned tiny home community, the East Yard, has stalled.

The project’s creator, Loren Schirber, announced via email on May 11 that after “serious consideration,” he has put the project “on hold” and is currently searching for a new site.

“Ultimately, the active rail line and pollution at the site make it too risky to continue with development planning at this site,” Schirber said.

The community would have been located on the southern edge of the Payne-Phalen neighborhood at 627 Bush Ave., just south of a set of railroad tracks that follow Phalen Boulevard on a just more than 2-acre strip of land.

Schirber said that while the site is zoned for residential use, the City of St. Paul Planning and Economic Development Department told him the size and configuration of the site, as well as how close it is to the rail line, is not “conducive to the type of development envisioned on this site.”

 

A vision

What Schirber had envisioned was some 69 tiny homes ranging from 280 to 680 square feet in size, set up in clusters. The plan also included a community center, parking, gardening and recreation areas. 

The plan was first announced in April of 2017 and had been revised as Schirber collected community feedback through a series of open houses in the neighborhood.

Pollution in the soil at the site had been one of the main issues facing Schirber due to the high costs to remediate it. The ground at the site is contaminated with heavy metals, which are toxic to humans. Schirber said he applied multiple times for a variety of grants to help cover cleanup costs, but hasn’t had any luck. 

He said ultimately what he needed for more successful applications were more extensive site plans and surveys, which could cost more than $40,000. He said that was too much of a financial risk to take on.

Hannah Burchill, spokesperson for the St. Paul Planning and Economic Development department, said that Schirber had submitted a pre-application to the city for a grant from the Metropolitan Council to study what kind of environmental remediation would need to take place. 

She said the city applies for the grant and then passes the funds on to developers and that the grants are very competitive, usually awarded to projects that have more concrete plans in place. 

“PED staff conducted a preliminary assessment of the project for the purposes of this grant application and did not believe it demonstrated readiness necessary for this grant program at this time,” Burchill said. 

 

Other options

Schirber hasn’t given up on developing the unique plot, which he owns. His new plan is to split the lot into four plots and create an industrial and business park, which will require it to be rezoned. 

The rezoning process may take a while, he said, but the development costs won’t be as high.

“We hope this alternative development will attract new businesses to the area that creates well-paying jobs for local residents,” Schirber said. 

While the tiny home plan didn’t pan out, Schirber said he doesn’t think of any of this as a waste of time or disappointing. 

“I have had the pleasure of meeting so many interesting people in real estate development, tiny homes, urban gardening, high performance homes, cooperatives, and those interested in the same subjects. Thank you to everyone who helped, had positive feedback, and worked to further my vision,” he said.

Despite the project being put on hold, Schirber said he still has more than 300 people on a list who are interested in either living in his envisioned community or are curious to learn more about unconventional homes and communities. 

In his particular experience, Schirber said, he sees a demand for co-housing and for cooperative-based living and sees the city making progress to create city code and ordinances to catch up to the demand.  

Burchill said St. Paul has been taking a number of steps to “support a broader array of housing types to meet market demand and affordability and density.”

For example, for the past few months, the city has been studying the expansion of allowing the use of accessory dwelling units — commonly referred to as “granny flats” or “mother-in-law apartments,” which are small living spaces added to a property where the property owner lives.

Currently, accessory dwelling units can only be created in a small area near the Metro Green Line off University Avenue. Residents and city council members are hoping to expand their use across the city, especially on the East Side, to be able to create more affordable housing and increase housing density.

Burchill said the city has also supported a report funded by the Metropolitan Council in partnership with the East Side Neighborhood Development Company that studied small and tiny home models and compiled sample zoning and ordinance language for such projects. 

She also mentioned a Fair Housing policy report created for the city that mentioned the use of tiny homes as a way to increase affordable housing stock. 

 

Still trying

Schirber said that in his experience so far, while city code is slowly making adjustments to catch up to housing trends, he said the biggest challenge he faced was financial institutions when it came to trying to finance his project. 

He said the banks were very hesitant to help finance cooperative-based housing and added that it seems the system is built around owning land and building big.

Schirber said in the email announcement that he hasn’t given up on his idea and will continue to look for ways to work on his “unique” housing developments. 

He said he will be searching for properties in St. Paul that are a half to 1.25 acres, zoned for residential use with no pollution and near public transportation. He said he’d like to find a place on the East Side because he has enjoyed the area and sees it as an up-and-coming neighborhood

He said he will continue to seek help with his housing ideas and can be reached via email at loren@theeastyard.com.

 

– Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow her on Twitter at @EastSideM_Otto

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