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

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

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.”

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.    

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.

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Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by jody rooney on 05/09/2014 - 10:24 am.

    Here’s the problem with consensus

    Consensus results in a lack of vision and generally results in the most acceptable or least objectionable plan not the best plan.

    Vision and creativity are individual pursuits but can be informed by multiple viewpoints and in the public arena needs group consent (informed or uninformed) to be carried out.

    So far it looks like “same old, same old” and the public meetings could have been held anywhere to get that result. I would venture a meeting in Hopkins or Cambridge or Marshal (except they would have thrown in some sort of tourist attraction) would have yielded a similar result. We spend an obscene amount on public planning meetings without actually putting them to good use. At that kind of meeting the consultants talk for 10 percent of the time and listen 90 and the public gets to do some of the heavy lifting.

    I strongly disagree with Merritt Clapp-Smith I think Ford has an obligation to return the site to the environmental standards of it’s current zoning. This is no different the Twin Cities Ammunition Plant site. The additional up grade in zoning is a cost to the developer and they and the City can find financial assistance in multiple places.

  2. Submitted by Ian Stade on 05/09/2014 - 10:37 am.

    MLS Stadium or Costco?

    Looks like the perfect place for a professional soccer stadium or an urban Costco.

  3. Submitted by Peter Mikkalson on 05/09/2014 - 11:12 am.

    RE: Mixed use-done right-done now….

    Yes, this site presents some very unique opportunities with precious few real challenges. This site cries out for mixed use-residential/retail/park-all done to a very high standard and priced accordingly. Trust me-you’ll not want for well-heeled inhabitants. But it’s the same thing every time in this region-so much discussion preceding so limited construction. Somebody please get 10-20 visionaries and bankers together to produce an economically viable, spacious, dynamic, unique master piece. Please!

  4. Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 05/09/2014 - 11:32 am.

    If St Paul were serious

    about making this place a walkable, transit/bike friendly place, they would plat it out as a small street space with small lots and a relatively loose form-based code (http://smallstreets.org/). Building large blocks with wide streets in hopes of getting most of the site developed as soon as possible will result in few developers (limiting architectural diversity and competition for housing/retail prices). If they use current zoning and regulations, there will undoubtedly be an over-supply of parking (that justifies larger public spaces as roadways than necessary), large setbacks, etc. The 5 scenarios are nice, but feel extremely master planned, not to mention inherently risky if the few parties involved can’t deliver.

    St Paul should outline what the public space plan is (streets, parks, transit), and let the market fill it in slowly. Plan for frequent but small parks, one large park to anchor the area, and potentially an underground LRT stop as a branch of the Riverview Corridor using the Ford Rail spur. Build the streets incrementally outward from Cleveland and Ford Parkway in the same way Jakriborg (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jakriborg) has started their village. You’ll end up with a place that is:

    – Inherently walkable. Narrow streets will calm traffic, and decrease distances to all destinations.
    – By extension, supportive of bicycling and transit. The type of natural, low-to-mid rise density (including single family homes!) that result, along with calmed streets, make biking a natural second mode and transit high-return
    – High ROI for St Paul: low public infrastructure costs due to a high tax-paying land::public ROW/park space ratio. This helps the whole city.
    – More affordable: lower tax rates, fewer parking costs bundled into housing, and no requirement to own a car lower the baseline housing prices.

    Reset the vision, St Paul!

    • Submitted by Gerald Abrahamson on 05/09/2014 - 01:25 pm.

      Add trolley service to link area to downtown Mpls/airport/MOA/et

      Minneapolis is already moving ahead with building a street-level trolley system running to downtown Mpls and extending to at least beyond Lake Street and maybe down to 46th. 46th is the Ford Bridge, so it is rational to connect the new residential/shopping area to high-demand transit destinations. Being able to do so without using your own car AND being convenient to use makes usage far more likely.

      Big box retailers do not really fit the area UNLESS there is good public transit–which would mean even more need for systems such as a trolley system. Of course, self-driving cars eliminate the need for most other forms of local transit because an electric vehicle FLEET serving the public means minimal need for people to own their own car in the first place–thus freeing up parking space for other uses wherever the service is available.

      One to three tall highrise buildings (one luxury condos, one standard rentals, one affordable public housing), plus a variety of 8-story residential housing as well. It all fits well with the local neighborhood, which was a bedroom community for the Ford plant. Now it is an expanded bedroom community within the metro, serving both sides of the river, and offering housing/etc to a wide range of incomes.

  5. Submitted by Chris Williams on 05/09/2014 - 12:48 pm.

    Jonathan as a model?

    I liked the piece that TPT did on Jonathan, MN a while back. The town didn’t work out as planned when standing on it’s own – but works really well as a “town within a town” now within Chaska, twenty to thirty years later. Maybe that could work here?

  6. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/09/2014 - 01:36 pm.

    Planning? What planning?

    Sadly, this scenario highlights one of my primary complaints about the groups of people, usually appointed by the powers-that-be, called “Planning Commissions.” They don’t do any planning, and ought to be called “Development Review Commissions,” which would far more accurately reflect what most of their time is spent on. Meanwhile, in this case, where’s the planning? Ford announced the closing of the plant in 2006, and… 8 years later… there’s no plan for what to do with the property? For the United States, World War II involved stupendous amounts of planning, all of it done in quite a bit less than 8 years.

    I don’t live in St. Paul, but I’ve driven past the Ford site numerous times, and the best plan right now seems to be the one from commentator Alex Cecchini. I don’t know if Alex has any planning credentials or not, but his brief proposal here has a lot more specifics than most of what Ms. Harris reports from meetings. Of itself, that ought to be painfully embarrassing for a whole bunch of people in St. Paul, from the Mayor down through the planning department to the offices of some of the city’s major developers. The site is not going to be a blank slate for very much longer, and we can rest assured that it won’t remain undeveloped for very long. Nature, and development, abhors a vacuum. “Fuzzy ideas” are not the stuff of which development is made. If there’s no plan in place, and no vision to guide it, then the result is likely to be a “lowest common denominator” result that will be a disappointment for both St. Paul and the whole metro region.

    That should not be allowed to happen.

    Step up, Mr. Coleman, and use some of your political capital.

  7. Submitted by Eric Sandeen on 05/09/2014 - 02:18 pm.

    Go green

    I’d love to see a community designed around sustainability – walkable neighborhoods, access to transit, consideration for EV charging, heightened building codes for efficiency, air-tightness, insulation, and solar readiness for both homes and the installed grid infrastructure, stormwater management (think rain gardens not curbs & storm sewers), you name it. It’s a chance to do things really well from scratch.

  8. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 05/09/2014 - 04:59 pm.

    Could it be that the city of St. Paul seems hesitant about specifics on the Ford plant site’s future because, well, the whole thing still belongs to the Ford Company? They will decide to whom they sell, right? They’re probably waiting for a developer t make a suggestion, or a bid, and St. Paul knows that.

    In the meantime, there are all these “public” meetings that seem to go nowhere.

    A contextual note: The MN Historical Society recently put up a mid-1990s article from MN History (their mag) that featured dams on the Mississippi in St. Paul and Minneapolis. One thing struck me: a phenomenal, almost-century-long subsidy by all public bodies concerned to Ford, in that the Ford Dam’s electricity belonged to Ford, which paid about $93,000 a year to use it and sell what it didn’t need to NSP (now Xcel). From 1924, when that yearly rent was set, until 2003, $93,000 per year was all Ford paid–and made a large profit from the power it leased from us. Talk about the public paying for a corporation to create and keep jobs here! (Calculate what $93,000 in 1924 became, with inflation, by 2003.)

    What is now happening to the power plant on the river at The Ford Dam? Is anyone talking about incorporating that electrical power (with or without the increasing subsidy we all paid to Ford in the 20th century) into development plans?

    • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/09/2014 - 07:53 pm.

      The difference is $900,000+

      Thanks to Ms. Sullivan for the history lesson, and for yet another illustration of how talk of a “free market” is usually hogwash. An awful lot of Minnesota businesses could be paying their employees a lot more, with generous maternity/paternity leave, pensions and paid vacations, if 99% of the primary energy bill of those Minnesota businesses was being paid for with public dollars – or simply didn’t need to be paid.

      The figures obviously change over time, so the public subsidy, while generous, would not have been nearly as generous in, say, 1933 as it was 70 years later in 2003. Nonetheless, it would have been a substantial public subsidy, and one of which the general public was probably unaware.

    • Submitted by Bill Barton on 05/14/2014 - 01:32 pm.

      Ford Dam

      The FERC license for the Ford Dam Power Plant is held for the next ~28 years by a Canadian company as none of our power companies wanted to bother with it – to small & to much trouble for the small amount of power it produces.
      It is a shame the city isn’t including the dam that has destroyed the only gorge on the Mississippi River in it’s planning, especially now that the Saint Anthony locks will be closed. The section above the dam was once a premier spawning area for sturgeon and other fish with riffles, pools, and natural fluctuations in flow and level. It has become a silt filled almost stagnant pool that costs us millions a year to keep the channel open and operate locks for a few sand and aggregate barges.
      It’s time to take out the dam, save a whole lot of money, and let the river run free.
      From the “DamNation” film website: There is a “…sea change in our national attitude from pride in big dams as engineering wonders to the growing awareness that our own future is bound to the life and health of our rivers. Dam removal has moved beyond the fictional Monkey Wrench Gang to go mainstream. Where obsolete dams come down, rivers bound back to life, giving salmon and other wild fish the right of return to primeval spawning grounds, after decades without access. …..a metamorphosis in values, from conquest of the natural world to knowing ourselves as part of nature.”

  9. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 05/10/2014 - 12:01 pm.

    Where the old may become new again…wish it were so…

    Tom Fisher suggests using the European model of small village ambiance; where old world charm becomes new again…maybe like the old marketplace which we adopted and have now disintegrated that past ‘theme’ one could say, into mad malls?

    Actually if the village atmosphere could survive with its romantic appeal; if only pocket development called commerce can control its competitive self ( let’s say big box stores would be also banned possibly…then maybe there is some hope beyond where Jonathan failed.

    All which sounds interesting if one bans ‘the car’ also, as viable means of transportation…walk, bike, streetcars, whatever?

    Call it a time warp of sorts as old becomes new again

    …and Mother Goose will be buying the first quaint cottage with hollyhocks and a picket fence with cobblestone streets like in the ‘old country’, possibly smiling every morning as she feeds her chickens while in the twin cities a bike ride away but covered by its own private industrial smog so thick and she can no longer see the poor folks trying to survive in those once uppity condos that now, mid-century or so have become ghettos?

    Let the planning begin and I will go back and finish my purple book of fairy tales…

  10. Submitted by William Pappas on 05/11/2014 - 09:26 am.

    Ford Plant plan

    The healthiest prospect for the Ford Plant site would be more manufacturing. With the energy producing dam and prepared site there are many advantages, including the nearby residential neighborhood within walking distance. Good paying jobs (as opposed to retail or senior housing) would be a community benefit that have a huge impact on the local economy. Certainly there are many reasons why a manufacturing business would want to locate on the Ford Plant site besides the offering of tax advantages. Do we have the right people in place to find and create this scenario that leverages all of these advantages.?

  11. Submitted by Deborah McLaren on 05/11/2014 - 11:32 pm.

    What she said

    ‘Ford has an obligation to return the site to the environmental standards of it’s current zoning.’

    Why tear it down with all that infrastructure? It could have been a great enterpreneurial start-up zone. 80% of Minnesota businesses are MICRO businesses. We could use a lot more of those. Lost chance.

    Now it’s gone. Clean it up, make Ford help. Don’t force a decision. Let the city/neighborhood mull it over.

  12. Submitted by jody rooney on 05/12/2014 - 06:57 am.

    How about a groups of pocket neighborhoods?

    See http://www.rosschapin.com/Projects/PocketNeighborhoods/PocketNeighborhoodsOpener.html

    Not much of a street scape for walking but definitely a more neighborly life style.

  13. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 05/12/2014 - 07:35 am.

    When the brown fields become green again…

    …but till then with all the expected cleanup of industrial contaminants, the multiple code reviews and zoning issues overlapping, there will be time for citizen input which may stimulate planning ideas beyond archaic, standard formulas?

    Rooney’s “pocket neighborhoods” is well worth incorporating if only invested interests do not monopolize; grabbing the landscape and destroying the possibility of doing something special for once?

    It’s like handing the city a game board where Monopoly is not its format this time?

    I envy citizen and planner and architect who have been given this gift one could say, of a huge chunk of urban landscape at a time when the city has begun to reestablish its right to be and suburban and fringe development is becoming ‘old’ developer’s concept from a bygone era?

  14. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 05/15/2014 - 10:52 am.

    It’s fun to dream of a ‘new town within a town’ concept

    …and my apology for taking the issue here so lightly, if it is as Barton tells the narrative with his relating the primary significance of the dam and ownership etc…which then preambles the whole idea of planning and development?

    The dam itself becomes the fine tuning fork – if all such history can be so validated – the dam itself needs to be recognized before such planning stages begin?

  15. Submitted by Pat Brady on 05/15/2014 - 08:05 pm.

    This is my neighobrhood

    As a life long resident of St. Paul Highland Park area, I am very excited about this once in a lifetime opportunity to build a new urban neighborhood within an existing one. Do it right, we only get one chance.
    Business we do not need: big box stores with a acre of parking.MOA is a short drive away. No strip mall shops. We have one on the SE corner of Ford Pkwy and Cleveland.

    Multi use with various housing, single, townhomes, apts. Open green space, walkable, connect with LR along the old Ford rail line. A bus hub to reduce bus traffic off Ford Parkway.
    A band shell for outdoor concerts. lots of benches, fountains,
    And shops of all types for urban dwellers. Small businesses not manufacturing. There is plenty of space for that along the W7th St corridor.
    And please find architects who design for cities not suburbs.
    Knowing that tax increment financing will be used by any developer, it is the citizens of St. Paul who pay taxes that will be in part funding these developers.

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