St. Louis Park City Council members want pedestrians to be able to see inside businesses that they pass and customers to be able to see out.

The council voted 6-0 to require businesses in numerous zoning districts to have a minimum amount of window space along street-facing facades. Specifically, city ordinance would require half of each front facade for affected businesses to be transparent. Twenty percent of all other ground floor, street-facing facades would have to be transparent.

The rules would apply to new buildings and existing buildings that expand by more than 50%. Businesses in commercial and mixed-use zoning districts would be affected, as would retail, service and restaurant uses in the office and business park districts.

The council, which voted initially Nov. 4 and was set to finalize the rules during a Nov. 18 meeting, originally raised the concept last year.

The St. Louis Park Planning Commission voted 6-0 in January to recommend denial of an ordinance that would have required more transparency. Members expressed concerns about the ability for city staff members to administer the ordinance consistently and fairly, among other concerns, according to a city staff report. After further city council discussion in March, the planning commission revisited the proposal. After reducing the transparency requirement to 50% instead of 60% for main facades, the commission then voted 6-0 to recommend approval.

“The planning commission voiced support for a transparency ordinance in all commercial areas, but they wanted to make sure that the ordinance was flexible, especially for existing uses and small businesses,” Planner Jennifer Monson said. “The commission wanted to keep nonconforming buildings to a minimum and wanted to ensure the requirements didn’t infringe upon the usable space within the buildings.”

The ordinance would require “highly transparent, low reflectance windows at the pedestrian level.” Window paintings and signs could not cover more than 10% of the total window and door area. People outside would have to be able to see at least 3 feet inside the space. While merchandise could be displayed within the area, interior storage areas, utility closets and trash areas would not be allowed to be visible from the exterior of the building.

Exceptions could be possible.

The planned ordinance states, “The city acknowledges a degree of flexibility may be necessary to adjust to unique situations. Alternatives that provide an increase in pedestrian vibrancy and street safety including but not limited to public art and pedestrian scale amenities may be considered.”

While most of the ordinance would only apply when buildings expand or for new buildings, the limitations on window paintings and signs would apply to all existing businesses in the affected zoning districts, according to Monson.

Pedestrian experience

Councilmember Anne Mavity said she has been particularly interested in the ordinance. She specifically focused on businesses along Excelsior Boulevard.

Guidance from city leaders has not always translated into the intended on-the-street experience that they had sought, she said.

“It’s really about when you are walking down the street alongside a building, does it feel cold and isolating and just like you’re walking along a wall, or does it feel engaging and interesting and safer because you’re interacting with what’s actually going on inside that building?” Mavity said. “We do not have any language on this right now. This is really important just for defining some clear guidance on this in the first place.”

Some cities, like Denver, have higher percentages of transparency required, she added.

Given the “unique situations” the planned ordinance contemplates, Mavity said, “I appreciate that there’s flexibility. I do hope that the record will show that as the zoning administrator exercises that flexibility that that is done with an eye toward, again, ensuring a priority on that pedestrian experience to be safe and welcoming and engaging and that we don’t take those exceptions too lightly.”

One of the key elements of the ordinance is an emphasis on how neighborhoods appear to people who are walking through them, Councilmember Rachel Harris agreed.

“Having each of our neighborhoods feel warm and welcoming, where people can see in rather than something that doesn’t feel inviting, will help encourage people to make choices that shift their mode of transportation from cars to walking or biking,” Harris asserted.

The change to 50% for the required level of transparency for front facades shows that the city council listens to its commissions, Councilmember Tim Brausen indicated.

“I think it’s evidence of the fact that we do have a working relationship with our commissions and we do utilize their services and we do listen to their recommendations,” Brausen said.

Business impacts

Mayor Jake Spano raised a concern about the impact on businesses that have placed shaded material on the inside of windows to reduce the amount of light and heat entering the store.

The ordinance would limit mirrored and frosted glass to more than the 10% allowed for painting and signs. The rest would have to meet a specific limit on “transmittance” and reflectance.

“There are films that meet the criteria of the ordinance that do block the heat,” Monson said. “Obviously, if they’re tinted a little more, it blocks the heat a little greater, but the percentage was not that huge of a difference.”

While Monson said window awnings would be allowed, she said the city already discourages building operators and tenants from using window shades.

“We’re not going to go after the restaurants who need to lower their shades at 4 in the afternoon when people are trying to eat their dinner, but we try to encourage window coverings to be used as sparsely as possible so we maintain that visibility into the space,” Monson said.

Spano said city staff members intended to apply a reasonable use standard. Echoing Mavity’s previous comments, he said, “The intent is to create a welcoming, open, walkable and safe space.”

The city staff report said developers have agreed to transparency requirements for specific developments in the past, but it states that commercial and retail tenants have objected to city requests for window transparency.

While several council members focused on the appearance of businesses for pedestrians, the staff report led with the ability of building occupants to see outside.

“One of the city’s goals is to allow people inside buildings to easily observe street life and improve public safety,” the report states. “Ground floor transparency regulations are particularly important in areas where there is high pedestrian traffic, as transparency can help create a vibrant and safer street. Ground floor windows and transparent doors may also strengthen the commercial viability of a use by attracting customers and adding to the enjoyment of the pedestrian’s experience on the street.”

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