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What to do with St. Paul’s Ford site: Lots of fuzzy ideas, but no plan

Time is running short, but a panel of urban notables failed to come up with more than abstract ideas to chew on.

An aerial view of the St. Paul Ford plant in 1938.
Photo by Philip C. Dittes/Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

One can get really impatient at those frequently held conclaves purporting to discuss “what to do about X.” For “X,” you can substitute just about anything — campaign finance, anorexia nervosa, bank lending practices — but such conversations often skim the surface, piling on alternative after alternative until dizziness overwhelms.

So it went Wednesday night at St. Catherine University where 150 folks (more less) convened to hear Gil Penalosa, former parks commissioner of Bogota, Colombia, and featured guest of the St. Paul Riverfront Corp.’s Third-Annual Placemaking Residency. Under consideration was what should be done with another “X” — the now nearly empty site of the Ford Motor plant in St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood.  

Unfortunately, neither Penalosa nor the panel of five notables who joined him, gave the audience more than abstract ideas to chew on. St. Paul, Ford and some civic groups have been chugging along with planning. But, time is a-wasting. “We don’t have the luxury of five years to discuss generalities,” said Lynn Hinkle, an audience member and a founder of ARISE, a coalition of community groups and technical experts concerned about the site. In 18 months or so, Ford may be issuing requests for proposals to developers.

Ford first announced its intention to shutter its St. Paul assembly plant in 2006 (though it ultimately stayed open until 2011). Almost immediately, St. Paul set up a task force to study what should go in its place. It was obvious to everybody, after all, that the site presents a fantastic opportunity, a nearly blank slate of 135 acres within St. Paul city limits, lying 20 minutes from both downtowns and only 10 minutes from the two airports. What’s more, it is bordered by a stable neighborhood of mostly single-family houses, a thriving commercial district and parkland overlooking the Mississippi. It could become a new town within a city that could realize the best practices in urban development.

‘New vision’

In kicking off last night’s session, Mayor Chris Coleman urged the audience to help develop “a new vision for the Ford site and do it in a way that enhances the river and this wonderful neighborhood.”

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Penalosa’s signature program in Bogota was ciclovia, a bike path that closes 75 miles of city roadways to cars on Sundays and holidays to make way for runners, walkers and bikers. (Already, ciclovias have become popular in more than a dozen cities across the United States, including Fargo-Moorhead.)

Not surprisingly, he’s a heavy-duty champion of walking, biking and mass transit, but, as he points out, “transit does not take you door-to-door.” You have to walk partway, and “the glue in-between is nice places.”

Gil Penalosa
Photo by Nancy Paiva
Gil Penalosa

What makes a place nice? Room to walk, safety from cars, buses and bikes and spots to lounge, chat and watch the world go by. “You put benches, tables, a fountain, some coffee,” he says. Such places give a city spice, and millennials (those born from 1980 to 2000), whom every city is trying to recruit to its workforce, seem to prefer cities that are spicy. The Twin Cities’ blandness may be the reason for its loss of millennials, Penalosa claims, although, in point of fact (I looked it up), Minneapolis is fairly popular with this age cohort. Of course, one can always be spicier.

Unfortunately (for me), I’d already heard this same presentation, almost word-for-word, two days earlier, and it offered no specifics about the Ford site. Those, I hoped, would come from the panel. In that I was also to be disappointed. Mostly, they advanced general principles.

Jon Commers, a thoughtful member of the Metropolitan Council, for example, seeming to push for the Ford site to remain at least partly devoted to industry, pointed out that these days, proximity is important to innovation, and people now value it. They want to be in contact with each other, to exchange ideas that would create new products and companies. (This is quite a switch from the last 15 or 20 years, when social commentators decided computerization obviated the need for industrial or office hubs because the Internet allowed people to work from huts in the woods.)   

Jessica Treat, executive director of St. Paul Smart Trips, a nonprofit devoted to promoting sustainable transportation and land use, envisioned a community with a “village feel,” not unlike Highland Park itself, which would combine different age groups. And, I would hazard a guess, she would also like to see sustainable transportation and land use.

Shawntera Hardy, director of the transportation and built environment program for Fresh Energy, a nonprofit for clean energy, to nobody’s shock, urged people to think about clean energy.

Good design that incorporates the history of the place and a “rich mix of affordable and market-rate housing” plus economic development and living wage jobs was on the mind of Colleen Carey, president of the Cornerstone Group, an innovative housing developer.

Finally, Tom Fisher, dean of the University of Minnesota’s School of Architecture, suggested that whatever is built on the Ford site follow the upheaval that is now occurring in work itself. “If a 3-D printer can produce a car, who needs Detroit?” he asked. He seemed to picture a modern version of a medieval city with people living above their stores or offices, labs or shops (or near to them) with some agriculture nearby.    

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And so it went — with more ideas coming from the audience. Whatever was built on the Ford site should include a diverse array of people, have ultra-high-speed broadband, bring children into the process, include smaller companies, not just large corporations, reduce dependence on cars and so on. Listening to all this, I began to think that development of the Ford site might be able to end hunger and bring about world peace.

The former site of the St. Paul Ford plant, 2014.
MinnPost photo by Marlys Harris
The former site of the St. Paul Ford plant, 2014.

Big opportunity

To be Minnesota Nice about it, maybe the opportunity the Ford site offers is so broad that it’s hard for anybody to wrap his or her mind around it. So here are some actual facts. Mike Hogan, site manager of the Ford plant, reported that pretty much all the buildings have been demolished down to their concrete slabs. Next week, crews will start to remove the slabs. Then comes an environmental investigation of what’s underneath. Nobody knows for sure what’s there — plain old dirt, some kind of toxic goo or a combination of both — but whatever it is, it may determine what the land can be used for and/or how much it will cost to remediate.

According to Merritt Clapp-Smith, principal planner for St. Paul’s Planning and Economic Development department, Ford has promised that it will remediate the land to the point where it can be used for industry, and that work may take some time. But further work by a developer may be necessary to make the site suitable for “higher uses,” say, single-family housing, schools or a hospital. “Ford bears the long-term liability; so they want to make sure it’s safe,” she says.

Hinkle pointed out that a great deal of work has already been done, and he’s right. Studies have established sustainability guidelines, looked at green manufacturing and zoning. A 2007 study considered 16 scenarios, which it narrowed down to five for the redevelopment of the site. One was a kind of “more of the same” plan with mostly light industry. The second combined light industry and high tech with more commercial space along Ford Parkway and single-family housing on the Mississippi side of the site. The third made space for office and institutional uses and added townhouses to the mix. A mixed-use urban village with lots of single-family housing was the fourth scenario, and the last a high-density urban village with some five- and six-story complexes in addition to townhomes and single-family housing.

There are limits on what can be done. Part of the site lies in a “Safety Zone B” airport overlay district that allows no housing, no institutions (schools or hospitals, for example) and no buildings over 110 feet high. (That’s about eight stories.) Another large slice of land is part of the Mississippi Critical Overlay District, which has its own special zoning requirements that would have to be revised for certain kinds of development to take place.

After the environmental investigation will come more studies and more public engagement, but St. Paul’s timeline anticipates that Ford will start looking for a master developer by the end of this year.