The plan to redevelop the former Ford assembly plant in St. Paul is likely to include 35 single family homes with million-dollar views.
That became clear at a public hearing Wednesday evening, where the majority of St. Paul City Council members and about a dozen residents said they support the new zoning proposal by the project’s developer, Ryan Cos. In addition to the single family homes along the Mississippi River, the new plan would also increase the amount of parking. The council is likely to approve the changes with a vote as early as next week.
“This gets us where we all want to go,” said Council Member Jane Prince, who voted against the master plan in 2017. Compared to the contentious public hearings over the site in the past, the meeting Wednesday was relatively polite, potentially signaling a new era for a project that has long been characterized by fierce debates.
Ford currently owns the 122-acre site along the Mississippi River in the Highland Park neighborhood. For years, the company made it clear that it did not want single-family homes included in future development of the site.
But that has changed. Ford chose Ryan Cos. — a Minneapolis-based developer behind myriad projects in the Twin Cities — to lead the redevelopment design work last year. Since then, the developer has written a master plan that includes 3,745 housing units, retail and office space — a plan the city has touted as a national model of sustainable development that will add new jobs and tax revenue to the city’s economy.
But the master plan is just a guiding template for street design and layout, and the city and developer can modify it, especially now that Ford has granted greater design flexibility. Ryan Cos. says it needs to add single-family homes and more parking to the site in order for the development to thrive. “Ryan hasn’t gotten everything it’s wanted,” said Tony Barranco, senior vice president of the company, while holding up a large bound book that details the master plan. “But the items that you have before you and the items that you have in the resolution are the items that we need to be successful.”
Of the several dozen people who attended the meeting, 13 members of the public and one council member, Mitra Jalali Nelson, spoke against the new plan. Among those who did, many called out the city and developer for going against former proclamations to reserve the site for multifamily housing and to incentivize nonmotorized transportation by limiting parking spaces. A few emphasized the St. Paul Planning Commission’s disapproval of the new proposal to allow single-family homes. “There will essentially be mansions,” said Jalali Nelson, who won her council seat last fall after running on a platform of increasing affordable housing in St. Paul.
Similarly, resident James Phillips said he thinks the space along the river is too small to allow single-family housing, and the more people who can enjoy riverviews, the better. Another opponent, Elizabeth Wefel, called the addition of single-family zoning “immoral,” considering the city’s growing number of homeless people.
Some were more willing to compromise. Rob Wales — who chairs, Sustain Ward 3, a group that has long pushed for greater housing density on the site — told the council they would like less parking space than what Ryan wants, but they would agree to more than what is in the master plan. He also said they could get behind single-family homes — or what could be a “de facto wealth zone,” he said — if the developer agreed to more affordable housing on the boulevard, too.
Sharing a personal story, Diana Tasted-Damer, of Highland Park, recalled home searching with her wife roughly a year ago, and how they wanted an area where they can walk around instead of drive. “That’s why we chose St. Paul, not the suburbs,” she said. From her perspective, the addition of single-family housing would go against her choice of a walkable, communal neighborhood.
Tom Basgen, who also lives in Highland Park, summarized his opposition to the proposed changes by saying, “Two years ago, we spent the better part of a year in Ward 3 shouting at each other so we could turn this master plan into a statement of our shared values, and it just seems wild to me that in the last couple months we roll right over for a millionaire district and double parking.”
But several people said they have noticed a change of heart among former opponents of the plan. The chair of the Highland District Council, Frank Jossi, said at one recent meeting the crowd of neighbors gave the developer a standing ovation. “A lot of those people that I know personally have come around to embrace the plan that once hated it,” he said.
Ryan Cos. credits its work negotiating with former opponents over the past several months to reach consensus around the new proposals. Several testifiers applauded that work Wednesday, including Linda Hoaglund, who has lived in the Highland Park area for 68 years.
She told the council when Ford said it was closing its assembly plant, she and others thought the company would demolish its buildings and then find a way to build a neighborhood exclusively for commercial purposes. But she’s observed “good change” with the city and developer’s direction for the area. She described the addition of single-family homes along the riverfront as “just a continuation of beautiful homes. … They start at Summit and they continue so on.”
In a preliminary vote last week, Jalali Nelson and Council Member Rebecca Noecker, who was absent Wednesday, voted against the proposed changes. Council President Amy Brendmoen and Council Members Kassim Busuri, Jane Prince and Chris Tolbert, who represents the Highland Park area and sponsored the proposals to amend the master plan, supported them.
The council will hold a final vote on the proposed amendments as soon as April 10, but that will not be the end of the discussion. Council members still need to decide the city’s financial commitment to the project, a process that could last months — or years. Ryan is requesting more than $107 million in public finance, funding that it says would help build park space and affordable housing, including units for people who earn 60 or 90 percent of the area’s median income, as well as those who earn 30 percent of the AMI — or about $28,000 per year for a four-person family. Brianco, of Ryan, said the project is the biggest affordable housing the developer has ever done — and the biggest in the city.
Construction on the Ford site could begin by 2022 and and last 20 years.