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St. Thomas hoping to build baseball, hockey facilities on old Highland Ford site

If built, the new arenas and ballparks would occupy all of the Canadian Pacific parcel, along with another dozen acres of Highland Bridge land currently owned by Ryan Companies.

A significant parcel of former rail yard always lurked at the bottom of the maps of Ryan Companies’ PowerPoint presentations of the Highland Bridge development.
A significant parcel of former rail yard always lurked at the bottom of the maps of Ryan Companies’ PowerPoint presentations of the Highland Bridge development.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

When it was being planned years ago, I’d never have predicted we’d end up debating whether the University of St. Thomas should build hockey and baseball facilities on the south end of the old Ford site. If you follow St. Paul politics, this is an ironic twist, because if there’s one thing that aggravates concerned neighbors more than tall buildings, it’s St. Thomas students. The amount of times St. Paul politics have revolved around the 6,000 person University of St. Thomas campus — restrictive student zoning, campus expansion debates, nuisance complaints, and the like — is practically endless.

But why not hockey and baseball facilities? There are a few reasons why it might be a bad idea, and a few reasons why it might be a good idea. At the very least, it’ll be interesting.

The mystery of the CP land

Throughout the years of debate over the former Highland Ford factory, there was always a tiny asterisk in the PowerPoint presentations. While most of the 122-acre site would be owned and controlled by Ryan Companies, the master developer for what is now known as Highland Bridge, a significant parcel of former rail yard lurked at the bottom of the maps. It was always surrounded by a dotted line and marked “CP Rail,” and nobody knew what would happen to it.

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One hope was that government might purchase the property along with the five-mile long rail spur leading northeast. In the master plan, there was theoretically going to be office space and 55-units of housing on the Canadian Pacific (CP) land. But rumors suggest that the asking price for the land was quite high, and perhaps this land deal with St. Thomas is one of the reasons for the impasse.

According to Maureen Michalski, a vice president at Ryan Companies, “the CP Rail parcel was part of the original master plan; The CP Rail parcel, however, was not acquired by Ryan with the Ford properties and was not part of the original redevelopment agreement.”
Ryan Companies
According to Maureen Michalski, a vice president at Ryan Companies, “the CP Rail parcel was part of the original master plan; The CP Rail parcel, however, was not acquired by Ryan with the Ford properties and was not part of the original redevelopment agreement.”
Everything changed when, a few months ago, the university released a plan to build an athletics complex that would include upgraded, Division I facilities for their hockey and baseball teams. If built, the new arenas and ballparks would occupy all of the CP parcel, along with another dozen acres of Highland Bridge land currently owned by Ryan Companies.

The Ryan Companies presentation argues that the acquisition by St. Thomas could help bring transit and a recreational trail to the CP Ford Spur.
Ryan Companies
The Ryan Companies presentation argues that the acquisition by St. Thomas could help bring transit and a recreational trail to the CP Ford Spur.
The big picture story here is that, three years ago, St. Paul’s University of St. Thomas was kicked out of the Division III Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference for being too big and too good. They had to quickly pivot to joining D1 school, and have lined up a series of different conferences for their various sports programs, including the CCHA and WSCHA for men’s and women’s Hockey, respectively.

While I’m sure that athletes on MIAC teams like Hamline and St. Olaf breathed a sigh of relief after the change, at the time, few people talked about how the new league rules required upgraded sports facilities for St. Thomas. Since then, school officials have been looking for land – ideally, in St. Paul – where they could locate their new areas and ballpark. After an aborted attempt to buy the Town and Country Golf Course (some of the most valuable riverfront property in St. Paul), they’ve ended up here, in the old Ford plan rail yard.

“I think it’s an intriguing prospect,” said St. Paul Council Member Chris Tolbert, who represents the area and has worked on the Ford Site in various ways for a decade. “It could be a nice amenity for the neighborhood. We’re short on softball, baseball, and ice locations in the area. And it’d be fun to watch Division I baseball and hockey right in our own neighborhood.”

Tolbert is looking forward to a conversation with the community, and negotiations with both the St. Thomas and Ryan Companies about how to make sure any athletics facilities serve the city.

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As part of the moving pieces of the Highland Bridge site, Ryan Companies oddly shift some of the affordable housing and a planned park to other parts of the project. But not everyone is pleased with the plan.

“This sports complex; it’s just another bridge too far,” said Brandon Long, who lives a few blocks away on Cleveland Avenue and spent years advocating for density on the Ford Site and. “The section of it that occupies the Ryan (Companies) land was envisioned to host a senior housing facility.”

Long argues that the senior housing facility was popular in the community, and would have brought good jobs into Highland along with much-needed housing for older folks. Instead, he sees the St. Thomas proposal as shifting costs of the project onto the other property owners.

“We’re going to disperse the valuation this parcel for (tax-increment financing) TIF across for the rest of the site,” Long explained. “If they do that it means they can’t be taxed – they’re a non profit – but they’ve pushed the cost onto everyone else.”

Brandon Long is not wrong about the property tax impact. By selling a chunk of Highland Bridge property to a non-profit University, Ryan Companies would be taking that land permanently off the tax rolls permanently for a stadiums and parking lost that sit empty at least half the time. That makes it harder for the rest of the site to generate envious revenue to pay off the city’s initial investment, part of a financing scheme called tax-increment financing.

But Tolbert doesn’t see the tax implications as a deal breaker, and suggest that it’s possible the athletics facilities might help boost the commercial and housing markets at Highland Bridge.

“Part of the vision for Highland Bridge was to have vibrancy and I do think this could add a unique vibrancy for the area,” Tolbert told me. “On the site, you are still going to have market rate and affordable housing. We’re going to have great park spaces and a great water amenity. More than anything, this is just connecting all those things.”

There’s another irony to the St. Thomas proposal is that the baseball complex will occupy the site of the Ford Fields ballparks, built by the Ford motor company nearly a century ago. The ballpark’s long held a totemic place in the community, and often featured prominently in Highland Villager headlines, the local newspaper.

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If the university is willing, there’s a chance the new fields become something of a community asset, and could occasionally be used in its presence. If that happens, it’ll be quite the graduation for the old little league diamonds, another sign that St. Paul is growing into city.

In the meantime, because they are working under a binding agreement with the city, Ryan Companies has to go through a public process called Master Plan Amendments. Those changes will go before the City Council this summer, and there will be a public hearing on the plans at 8:30 a.m. in City Hall (Room 40) on Aug. 5. If this hearing is like every other St. Paul public meeting where St. Thomas students are on the agenda, it should be very well attended.