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Curious Case of the Missing Comments: In the end, Ford site moved forward despite feedback glitch

St. Paul Planning Commission
Rendering of potential heights & scale in the Residential – High district.

Opponents of a St. Paul plan to redevelop the land where Ford built cars and trucks for 84 years didn’t prevail in a city planning commission vote last week.

The plan they vigorously — and at times tearfully — oppose passed unanimously. It now moves to the City Council, which will conduct its own process complete with public testimony in the fall.

That doesn’t mean opponents centered in the neighboring Highland Village neighborhood weren’t on the minds of commissioners and city planning staffers. They spent much of Friday’s meeting explaining the causes of what has become a raging conspiracy theory as well as going through the top complaints from opponents — that the plan is too dense and too tall and produces too many people and cars.

Few changes were made to the plan, however. And those that were came primarily from staff and commissioners, not opponents.

The latest controversy might be called the Curious Case of the Missing Comments. A glitch in the city email box set up to receive and collate comments resulted in some 200 comments being left out of initial reports. Opponents who are organized as Neighbors for a Livable Saint Paul sent letters to St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and Ward 3 City Council Member Chris Tolbert demanding a delay in the planning commission vote.

“Whatever the reason for those comments having gone missing, the community has lost confidence in the accuracy of information published by the city and presented to the Planning Commission regarding public opinion toward this project,” said group spokesman Charles Hathaway in a statement.

But after acknowledging that some comments — both opposed and in favor of the Ford plan — had been misplaced, senior city planner Merritt Clapp-Smith said they were found in time for the meeting of a commission committee two weeks ago and were sent to other commissioners shortly thereafter. She said staff has compiled them and recalibrated a chart showing the sentiments of commenters.

All comments have been posted on the Ford project website [PDF] since July 13, she said. Clapp-Smith said the missing letters were more in opposition than in support, “but there were some very strong support letters as well. It wouldn’t have behooved us to ignore a set of comments of that nature intentionally. It was a very unfortunate error.”

The comments — both the initially found and the initially missing — total 400 pages. While not all fit easily into pro or con sentiments, Clapp-Smith said some 58 percent oppose the plan, 34 percent are favor and 8 percent are mixed. Those opposed think the built-out site will be too dense, with taller commercial and residential buildings that are out or character with the single-family and low-rise apartments in the neighborhoods to the north and east. Too many people and cars will make traffic in the area worse than it already is and the transit improvements hoped for by the city remain speculative.

There are also many comments in favor, including from neighbors organized as Sustain Ward 3 and many organizations who think the area should be a dense, mixed-use community with ready access to both St. Paul and Minneapolis downtowns and the airport. The density would support the retail and restaurants that would create an urban setting missing elsewhere in the city. And the city could use the revenue generated by the redevelopment.

Planning Commission nameplates shown prior to Friday's meeting.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Planning Commission nameplates shown prior to Friday’s meeting.

Most of the once-missing comments mirror those already received. Still, some commissioners thought it would be wise to send the matter back to the commission’s Comprehensive Planning Committee that had already given it unanimous support.

“In this type of commission, the process is important and I just want to make sure that while we’re moving forward, we can move forward in saying we heard the community and were flexible enough to send it back to committee,” said commissioner Cedrick Baker. “My concern is more with the reputation of the process.”

But Commissioner Kyle Makarios said the committee had all of the comments when it met to discuss and approve the plan and doubted the result would change by having the committee meet again.

Said Commissioner Trevor Oliver: “There’s nothing new here.”

The motion failed on a 9-7 vote. Then, when the commission held its final vote on sending what is formally known as the Zoning and Public Realm Master Plan to the council, all members present raised their hand to vote yes.

A few changes, a few clarifications

The plan as debated at a public hearing June 30 has been changed in a few areas. Staff asked for a few adjustments, such as an intention to require any parking structures built to be convertible to other uses if the need for parking declines.

The Comprehensive Planning Committee also wanted the commission on record in support of an idea to change the configuration of Mississippi River Boulevard to erase a sharp curve near Hidden Falls to make more room for open space. That had been requested by the National Park Service, which manages the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.

The planning commission Friday made another significant change. At the suggestion of Commissioner Kris Fredson, a zone along Mississippi River Boulevard was change from one with the lowest density on the site to something a bit more intense.

Proposed residential and business use for the former Ford Plant site.
City of St. Paul
Proposed residential and business use for the former Ford Plant site.

The initial idea was to fit in with the types of housing along the boulevard east and west of the Ford site — mostly large and sometimes historic single-family houses. But rather than connected townhomes of two-to-six units with accessory single-family units on site, Fredson asked for townhomes of up to 16 units.

He said it would allow more people to live on one of the most attractive roads in the area but take a little bit of density pressure off of the rest of the Ford site. His motion passed easily.

City staff also tried to clarify how the plan impacts issues such as building heights, especially on building sites in view of the river. State and federal rules governing critical areas along protected rivers discourage buildings that can be seen from the river surface and the far riverbank.

St. Paul has already adopted an overlay that caps building heights at lower levels than what is contained in the Ford Plan. Clapp-Smith said that overlay would trump any proposed zoning heights. But a developer could request a conditional use permit to exceed the critical area heights. And since staff believes such permits could be granted if the requester can show that it still meets the goals of the critical area protections, the Ford Plan should accommodate those heights, she said.

She also presented a rendering of how the tallest buildings in the parts of the plan that allow them might look, given other requirements for paths, open space and setbacks. The rendering was meant to dispute claims by opponents that the site would present cavernous streetscapes with rows of tall buildings. One opponent referred to it as a “concrete coop.”

“This isn’t to say whether you should like it or not like it,” Clapp-Smith said. “It is to say this is our best attempt of a maximum build out representation of scale and height so that when you do form an opinion you are forming it based on accurate information.”

Friday’s vote was the penultimate action in a 10-year process to decide how to repurpose the 135 acres still owned by Ford and 13 acres still owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway. While the city can influence redevelopment via its zoning and land-use process and by where it places roads and other infrastructure, the land will remain privately owned.

planning commission
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
When the commission held its final vote on sending what is formally known as the Zoning and Public Realm Master Plan to the council, all members present raised their hand to vote yes.

Ford has expressed support for the plan that allows relatively dense development with building heights in some areas reaching 110 feet. The plan would allow up to 4,000 residential units in a mix of housing types ranging from midrises near Ford Parkway and Cleveland Avenue and connected townhomes along Mississippi River Boulevard. It also envisions up to 1,500 jobs in commercial and mixed-use buildings.

Ford has been overseeing environmental cleanup and has said it expects to seek bids from master developers later this year or in early 2018. It could take 15 to 20 years to completely develop the site.

After Friday’s meeting, neighbor and plan opponent Kate Hunt said she was heartened by some commissioners’ concern for the process. But she said the neighbors group is still asking for more transparency and said the city needs to rethink the plan to regain public confidence. She also asked for an independent review of the comments so as to get an accurate count on the number opposed and the number in support.

The statement asking Coleman and Tolbert to delay action also stated that Neighbors for a Livable Saint Paul could take legal action to force the city to do so.

“The process is rushed,” Hunt said. “What’s the rush?”

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 07/31/2017 - 10:12 am.

    Just my perspective

    As one of the commissioners at the table on Friday, there are some misconceptions about the nature of public comments for a Planning Commission. For me, I value public comments as a gauge of some of the issues that might come up. For example, the idea to increase density along the River Boulevard was an idea that appeared in an early comment.

    It’s good to keep in mind that Planning Commissions are not a democracy and originally, in the early 20th century when they were invented, were designed to serve as a buffer *from* urban machine politics. One problem with petitions like the ones submitted to the city is that nobody really knows how the process of gathering these petitions played out. You can imagine someone going door-to-door and saying all manner of things — true, untrue, alarmist, fantastic, scapegoating, etc. — to get someone to sign a piece of paper, and in fact this happens a lot during public comments. I can think of a recent zoning case where neighbors went around basically suggesting that a new group home would house pedophiles, and gathered a lot of names! It was a false charge, and the Zoning Committee approved the new project despite the petition.

    The point is that how engagement happens matters a great deal, and I know that many Commissioners are very attentive about equity and access issues. Who gets to speak at meetings? What voices are gathered at the table?

    This is to say that the 400+ comments the Commission received were interesting, certainly, but most Commissioners make up their own minds about issues like this based on a wide range of values and backgrounds that ideally reflect the big diverse picture of Saint Paul. That the plan passed a 20-person body unanimously is testament to its high quality, in my opinion.

  2. Submitted by John Clouse on 07/31/2017 - 10:44 am.

    Ford site

    I would like to see a study that explains just what is gained by a larger tax base. These people act as if this is free money. If it were, the City would have plenty of tax money available. As it is, it is always looking for more.
    Why not, in the interest of building tax base, make the buildings 100 stories tall? That would create both tax base and density.
    There are plenty of examples of great city planning around the world and we seem to be ignoring them.
    As for density, where is the public transit to take advantage of it?

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 07/31/2017 - 11:28 am.

      Tax base

      You want a bigger tax base to increase revenue, which can pay for services and provide tax relief. It’s not free money, but density makes it a lot cheaper to provide infrastructure and city services. There are obviously upper limits to density being practical, which is why (with the exception of downtowns) this site doesn’t have anything taller than what already exists in the neighborhood.

      The Ford site plans are not ignoring city planning around the world. They are based on good city planning. This is 10 years of work getting it right. It is the plan opponents who are ignoring the facts here.

    • Submitted by Matthew Steele on 07/31/2017 - 11:43 am. has an excellent explainer

      Hint: New and growing shares of the tax base pie elsewhere in the city necessarily shrink tax liabilities elsewhere in the city as a portion of a fixed tax levy. That’s why most property owners in Minneapolis have had years of property tax bills going down despite the property tax levy staying flat or even increasing one or two percent a year. The tax base was growing faster than the tax levy.

  3. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 07/31/2017 - 11:41 am.

    I mean, go ahead, but..

    Just imagine if this money was used for a more productive purpose than fighting what will be a huge benefit to the city. Another case: Neighbors for East Bank Livability, a single-purpose organization created only to sue over a proposed residential tower in Northeast Minneapolis, appears to have lost their $100,000 surety to the developer plus likely the defendant’s legal fees. Are they proud of lighting so much money on fire for no benefit whatsoever?

  4. Submitted by Tom Goldstein on 07/31/2017 - 01:34 pm.

    Tax Base Argument is a Ruse

    The city is claiming that a fully-developed Ford Site will have a valuation of $1.3 billion, but the city is unwilling to release any documentation from Springsted Inc., the consultant that provided this estimate? Why? Is it possible that the figure is just “back of the envelope” calculations that make all sort of unrealistic assumptions–or a sound analysis for which there is solid evidence?

    Even if we assume the valuation to be realistic–I don’t–offering a $275 million TIF subsidy against a project that might yield an increase of $366 million in taxes over the next 25 years is ridiculous, because the net gain for what is described as the “most desirable parcel available in the Upper Midwest” would be a mere $3.5 million or so a year, small potatoes given the size of Saint Paul’s tax base. And should the estimate be overstated, the new property taxes generated could be less than the subsidy, meaning we end up with a negative impact on the tax base. Somehow that possibility is ignored because the city is only interested in projecting rosy scenarios.

    As it stands, the proposed $275 million TIF only generates $90 million for the project, with $180 million going toward interest payments. So those who are championing density because they support increasing the tax base are choosing to ignore the realities on the ground. Achieving a $1.3 billion valuation would require a level of density that would completely overwhelm the surrounding neighborhoods–unless the new tenants will walk and ride bikes everywhere.
    Unfortunately, developers are not going to invest a ton of money in building things for which there is not a demand, and so far no one at the city has produced examples of successful developments (other than in downtown areas) in which people are willing to give up their cars and eschew parking concerns.

    Pulling together all sorts of housing and business elements on a drawing board and pretending this vision will be realized might excite people who have no development experience, but sustainability and greater density don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. If you want to solve major economic problems–poverty, housing, homelessness, health care, etc.–you have to grow the city’s property tax base, something this project will not do if heavily subsidized.

    Wishful thinking is not a development strategy, whether it happens over six months or ten years. And neither is adding density for density’s sake.

    • Submitted by Matthew Steele on 08/01/2017 - 09:55 am.

      I realize the layers and intricacies of municipal machinations are not always clear to those outside City Hall. So it’s worth pointing out this current legislation is simply an amendment to the zoning code and comprehensive plan regarding the Ford site. It is not a specific land use application up for consideration, and it is not legislation to offer TIF or any other development incentive. It’s merely setting allowances for what types of land uses, structures, and forms will be allowed and accommodated by the city.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 08/01/2017 - 11:55 am.

        Thank you

        I looked through all the Ford plant site materials and couldn’t figure out what Mr. Goldstein was talking about.

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