Skip to Content

Support MinnPost

'Cutting edge' vs. 'hideous': The fight over the future of the Ford site is very St. Paul

The fight over the Ford site plan is very St. Paul
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Longtime residents of the area surrounding the site are well-represented among those opposing the draft plan.

On the surface, you might think two organizations called “Neighbors for a Livable Saint Paul” and “Sustain Ward 3” would agree on a lot of things.

They don’t.

Neighbors for a Livable Saint Paul” was organized to oppose — pretty passionately, it turns out — a draft plan to guide the redevelopment of the 135-acre site along the Mississippi River where Ford once built cars and trucks in the city.

Then there’s “Sustain Ward 3.” While it may evolve into something broader, the group is currently pushing hard for acceptance of the draft plan for the Ford site, challenging the notion that everyone in the neighborhoods adjacent to the site is against it.

Both were out in force last week when the St. Paul Planning Commission held a public hearing on what is called the Zoning and Public Realm Master Plan. And while “Neighbors” and “Sustain” weren’t the only ones who testified at the meeting, they provided most of the fireworks, reflecting both the hopes and fears involved in the ambitious effort to remake a sizable chunk of St. Paul.

10 years of work

The current plan is the culmination of 10 years of work by the city of St. Paul, Ford, state environmental agencies and regional economic development groups. The goal is to convert what was a big batch of bad news — the closure of the massive plant and the loss of its 1,800 jobs — into something positive.

Over that time — while Ford phased out the plant, demolished the buildings and began the work of environmental remediation — city planners began working on designs for what the city has long referred to as a “21st Century Community.”

A couple of ideas for the plan were clear from the start. First, the site wouldn’t be home to another factory; the city didn’t want it and there wasn’t really much of a market. Second, it wouldn’t be a subdivision of single-family homes; the city didn’t want that either, and neither did Ford, which still owns the land.

The geography that places the site as close to downtown St. Paul as it is to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport always suggested an urban neighborhood where residents shared space with jobs and retail and restaurants and a craft brewery or three.

So the draft plans call for it to be a mixed-use neighborhood of mostly multifamily buildings and commercial space. Under those plans, there would be solar rooftops, the density to support stores, restaurants and transit, and even a way to deal with stormwater that includes a surface water feature — not to mention the “daylighting” of a long-buried water flow that ends at Hidden Falls. Biking and walking trails were a given. “Sustainable” was the word frequently used to describe the whole thing.

Getting urbanism right? 

When the draft master plan was released in December, some saw it as the logical culmination of that sustainable vision. There could be up to 4,000 residential units; 1,500 jobs plus parks, trails and open space. Six different zones would govern how the site would be developed, with taller buildings near Cleveland Avenue and Ford Parkway and lower ones closer to the river.

A zone along Mississippi River Boulevard was set aside for carriage houses and smaller multi-unit buildings reminiscent of those already on the boulevard, while office space would predominate in what is termed the Gateway zone, along Ford Parkway from the landfall of the Ford Parkway Bridge to Cleveland Avenue.

Backers can hardly talk about the potential of the site without the expectation that it will be known worldwide as a place that did urbanism right. St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman even talks of a visitor center with a world map and pushpins that would locate the hometowns of all the acolytes who’ve come to see and learn.

St. Paul Planning Commission held a public hearing
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Last week, the St. Paul Planning Commission held a public hearing on what is called the Zoning and Public Realm Master Plan.

“This is the right direction for the future of St. Paul,” said Andrea Kiepe of St. Paul Smart Trips and Transit for a Livable Community.

Frank Jossi, vice chair of the Highland District Council, which has endorsed the plan, told the planning commission Friday: “I think St. Paul is in the midst of blazing a new trail with this site.”

“I’m happy to state that the plan before you could dramatically improve our city’s reputation worldwide as a leader in energy efficiency,” echoed Michael Noble, executive director of Fresh Energy, a nonprofit that promotes clean energy.

Too dense, too tall, too much traffic

Not everyone was enamored of the plan, of course. And though it might be trite to see the dispute as generational — old St. Paul vs. new St. Paul — it’s true that longtime residents of the area surrounding the site are well represented among those opposing the draft plan.

That area is one St. Paul’s most-desirable and historic districts. If not Summit Avenue, the area is well served with elegant houses from the first half of the last century, home to families who’ve lived, worshiped and raised kids there for a generation or two. And many who testified against the plan last week see it as a threat to that way of life — and a neighborhood they love.

“Right now the current vision is too dense, the current buildings are too tall and there is too much traffic,” said neighborhood resident Jean Hoppe, who called the relationship between the decade-long discussion and the draft plan a “bait and switch.”

“The developers aren’t going to be living there,” she said. “Ford will be long gone. These are not the entities that should be benefiting. The community, the neighbors, the taxpayers. We should be benefiting from this.”

Howard Miller, who referred to the built-out plan as a “concrete coop,” asked the commission what the hurry was with the zoning plan. Ford does not expect to have a developer chosen and work started until 2020. Between now and then, important decisions will be made that could influence the area, such as who will be the next mayor and whether a proposed transit corridor between downtown St. Paul and the MSP airport will pass through the Ford property.

“Why would you want to spend all this money for a development in a neighborhood that for the most part opposes it?” Miller said. “This is the neighborhood that typically elects mayors.”

Proposed zoning districts
Saint Paul Planning Commission
Proposed zoning districts

Those opposing the plan did not let Ford off the hook, either. Some accused the company of being greedy, of maximizing profits at the expense of its onetime neighbors. “What is Ford hoping to get?” Miller asked. “Does Ford want this overbuilt, mini-metropolis surrounded by hostile neighbors as their legacy?”

(Though the question was rhetorical, the answer to Miller’s question was provided later in the hearing by a Ford representative, who said the company endorses the plan.)

Leah Hedman, a neighbor who introduced herself as an environmental attorney, predicted that no one would want to live in the midrise apartments and condos, and existing neighbors would flee the area.

“Look at the plan, with all the squares on it: 10-story building, 10-story building, 10-story building, 10-story building. What does that look like? Really, really ugly. There’s no way to design something attractive with the current zoning plan. It will be hideous. Because if it wasn’t you’d see it somewhere else. You’d see it in Edina. You’d see it in Wayzata.”

Sharing in Twin Cities growth

On the other side, supporters of the plan spoke of sustainability, of hoped-for transit improvements, of a desire to be able to walk to stores and services. And while those backing the plan weren’t exclusively younger than those who opposed it, the group certainly skewed in that direction.

Brandon Long, a neighbor who belongs to Sustain Ward 3 and is a leader of the St. Paul Green Party, noted that he is 29 years old, but that “by the time [the plan] will be built out, I will be over 50 years old.” He said the plan responds to his concerns about climate change by envisioning a future where cars are less necessary.

Kevin Gallatin, president of the Highland District Council, said the region is “growing in leaps and bounds,” and he wants St. Paul to capture a share of that growth. “With the facilities the city is planning to provide on this site, and with the excellent bike lanes, pedestrian walkways and public transportation, I think we’ll have the ability for some really excellent transit-oriented development and it’ll have a world-class reputation.”

Heidi Schallberg described herself as a renter near the site and told the commission that 41 percent of units in Highland are rentals. She said if St. Paul is to absorb the population growth that the Metropolitan Council predicts, it will need much more multifamily housing than it does now.

Beyond neighborhood concerns

With its proximity to both downtowns, the airport and the river, the Ford site involves issues that go beyond current neighbors concerns, however. In fact, the region might count itself lucky that the fight is happening at all. Most of the 267 plants connected to the auto industry that were closed between 1979 and 2011 have little redevelopment potential. Accord to a U.S. Department of Labor study, half remain unused.

As such, the draft plan for the site has the support of regional officialdom. Met Council planners say it fits within regional goals; East Metro Strong says it comports with desires to beef up transit options in Ramsey County; the Capitol Region Watershed District is praising the stormwater plan, and affordable housing advocates support its affordable housing elements.

And the city’s current wish for a fairly dense redevelopment matches Ford’s desire to maximize return on the property. That is, land zoned for a six-story, mixed-use building is worth more than the same land zoned for single-family homes or townhouses. The city has expressed a willingness to use tax increment financing — essentially borrowing against the expected increased property taxes on the property — to build the infrastructure as well as subsidize affordable housing.

‘Cool it. And God bless St. Paul’

Not everyone who testified was either for or against the plan. Alan Robbins-Fenger, a National Park Service ranger from the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, endorsed much of the plan, but had concerns that the proposed heights for buildings nearest the Ford Avenue Bridge are too high and exceed rules for the Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area plan.

Robbins-Fenger also asked that Mississippi River Boulevard be reconfigured to remove a curve in the roadway near Hidden Falls Regional Park, which would provide more room between the road and the bluff at the point where a restored falls will be created as part of the plan.

And Raintry Salk, president of Friends of the Parks and Trails, urged that the plan increase the requirement for parks and open space beyond the 9 percent required in the city’s existing park dedication fee program.

The planning commission now hands the chore of reviewing the plan to its comprehensive planning committee. That group will report back to the full commission toward the end of the summer. Merritt Clapp-Smith, the principal planner who has been involved in the project since it began, said she expects it will reach the St. Paul City Council in September.

While there is little to suggest the issues surrounding the plan will become less contentious or less emotional, the hearing ended with a request for such an outcome.

Leila Poullada mostly praised the vision, but said it was worth working together on resolving differences. “I just hope that the people who said they wanted to work together will try really hard to keep emotion out of this because with emotion you can’t get together and collaborate,” she said.

“So please, work together. Cool it. And God Bless St. Paul.”

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to clarify that residences proposed near Mississippi River Blvd are not considered single-family homes but accessory units sharing a lot with multi-unit buildings.

Get MinnPost's top stories in your inbox

Related Tags:

About the Author:

Comments (24)

Neighbors

I live a few blocks from the Ford site and I support the plan or any similar high density plan.

I am puzzled by the commenter who calls herself an environmental attorney. If you are concerned about the environment, you should absolutely support high-density development. She is actually taking the Anti-environment position on this. Although her opinion seems to be based on that the buildings will be ugly (subjective, but ok) that no one will want to live in them (flat out wrong) and that neighbors will flee (utter nonsense to anyone familiar with housing demand in the area).

You do see this in Edina

The neighborhood resident who suggested that you do not find the new urbanism in affluent communities like Edina should get out more often. In fact, Edina has massive redevelopment in its Southdale neighborhood, with mixed use housing, retail and office, with medical office space, senior residences and hotels in the mix.

That makes Edina a place where people of all ages and income levels can live. In fact, one of the newest buildings is a special facility for homeless teens and young adults from the suburbs, built with financial support from the City of Edina and area churches.

Of course, neighbors have a lot to say about these projects, but the reality is that they do not own these properties and their loud voices are heard, but they are not given veto power over decisions made for the greater good of the city.

These new multi-unit homes are populated by young people trying Edina out for size, many who will end up eventually in single family homes. They also attract empty nesters ready to give up their family homes, but who want to stay here. Finally they enable more of those who work in the city to afford to live here.

Instead of a one size cookie cutter approach that pretends that the world isn't changing, these developments simply are part of a new world that offers people more options. They also create a tax base that holds down property tax increases.

I don't really think the people of Highland Park don't want their kids to be able to live close or be forced to leave their familiar surroundings when it is time to give up the family home. Broaden your perspective and your reflexive "not in my backyard" attitude may soften.

Since Edina was mentioned

I do not have a dog in this fight and I don't know anyone who does. Since I do not live in Highland Park, I could understand if I was invited to butt out of the conversation. But I do live in Edina and since one of the speakers referred to what people in Edina would like, I'll take that as an invitation. I am now living in my 39th abode of which Highland Park was one. I have lived in mega-metropolises, inner cities, farms in the Badlands, small rural villages and a cabin in the woods with no utilities. I have never been happier than where we now live in an inexpensive condo on the Promenade of Centennial Lakes Park in Edina. Every night, my wife and I walk to get our groceries, walk 2 miles around the most beautiful lake, enjoy an outdoor concert, do various errands in foot, and meet dozens of foreign speaking families. Thousands of us in this area are enthralled with an environment which seems similar to the proposed plans for the Ford property. Stop by Centennial Lakes and walk the Promenade with us. Even if it turns out to be not for you, it may offer some first hand experience.

I like Centennial Lakes

I have lived in the Mac-Groveland neighborhood for over 30 years now, and hope to stick around for several more. I am convinced that St. Paul will need higher density development, and the infrastructure to support that development, if it is to continue as a vibrant and thriving city. I haven't lived at Centennial Lakes, but I have walked and shopped there, so I strongly support the notion of a similar development plan at the Ford Plant. Eventually my wife and I will be moving from our home to an apartment or condo, and we have strong hopes that the Ford Plant site will be a reasonable place for us to look...

Please consider that the

Please consider that the environmental attorney was speaking to the aesthetics of this Wondrous New Urbanistic Plan, as presented.

New urbanists get all excited about their theories and forget the concept of streetscape--what the place actually looks and feels like. A bunch of similar low towers of apartments or condos recalls Soviet-era brutalism in architecture. Or 1960s federal housing projects in our big cities, big blocs.

Leading with theory means you always come up with the same results.

Not what this is

Somehow basically every major city on the planet has places with several stories of housing that is not brutalist concrete towers. That is not what is being suggested for this site.

In any case, I'd hate to see the horrors of change come to the glorious boulevard that is the parking lots and strip malls of Ford Parkway.

Environmental attorney

If she was speaking to aesthetics, I'm not sure why she introduced herself as an "environmental attorney." Her anti-density position is unequivocally anti-environment. Maybe she was trying to deceive people, or maybe she just wanted to share what she did for a living. Again, she also claimed that people wouldn't want to live there and neighbors would flee, and was very wrong on both counts.

In case you haven't noticed, there have been a lot of low towers of apartments and condos built in the cities in recent years. Some are clearly better than others, but I haven't seen anything I would describe as Soviet brutalism.

"streetscape"

Loosely defined, a streetscape is the design of the space between the property lines. "Streetscaping" is often a term for all the little bits of street furniture on the sidewalk, things like lamps, trees, benches, etc. If that's what you mean by streetscape, it's something that urban designers think about a lot, probably obsessively. I know it's a huge focus of the Ford Site plans, as the renderings and street cross-sections in the plan show quite well. I daresay this will have the nicest streetscape in all of Highland, and that's saying something because the businesses along Ford and Cleveland have invested a lot of money into streetscape amenities.

If by "streetscape" you mean "having no traffic on the road", then that's a different story.

Have you been to Vancouver?

It's got rows of new towers and yet isn't Soviet-esque or ugly in any way. And those towers are a lot taller than we're talking about here.

I don't think that you can reach any conclusions about streetscape or quality design from the single data point of the allowed height.

Tilting at windmills

Uh, no buildings have yet been designed, so I'm not sure how you're able to comment on their aesthetics.
As for streetscape, instead of fighting the plan, neighbors could be advocating for safer, narrower streets reduced setbacks, and reduced parking with better pedestrian facilities. Those things are what will add to the streetscape.

Dogs In Fights, & Zucchinis

If you live in Saint Paul. or in the metropolitan area, you have a dog in this fight.

Last month, the city council in Berkeley, CA sent a building project back to the city's Zoning Adjustments Board. At the meeting, one neighbor complained that the new building would cast shade on her zucchini plants. This is not from The Onion.

If we want BRT and LRT to work, they require density, not 1/4 acre lots for single family homes.

Sometimes I'm surprised we aren't still living in caves.

Density is the right move

I appreciate Peter's excellent coverage of this issue. It's very gratifying to read the comments readers have posted. I frequently hear anecdotes like this and to me it cements the notion that density is the right move for the Ford Site. Regardless of where you live, I encourage people to visit the website of the group mentioned in this article, sustainward3.com. If you see fit, please consider signing the petition and leaving a comment. Any comments may be shared with the Saint Paul Planning Commission and the Saint Paul City Council.

We heartily agree

Neighbors for a Livable St. Paul have, in fact, included Centennial Lakes as a good example of reasonable development (please visit our website at www.livablestpaul.com to verify this). The Ford site however (check this on any map) has no interstates or limited access highways nearby (e.g. I 494, I-100, the Crosstown and two 8 lane thoroughfares skirting the Edina development).

The Ford site has a river on one side with a tiny 2-lane boulevard (Mississippi River Blvd.) used more often by walker, dogs and bicycles than cars. There is one 4 lane street (although it's been under construction for 2 or 3 years so it's really a 2 lane too) called the Ford Pkwy across its northern side. Another 4 lane boulevard skirts the eastern edge of the site, but its nothing like York or France Ave. Ford has no mass transit system large enough (i.e. light rail) slated to serve the development and based on the Riverview Corridor discussion recently have none to look forward to. We have one designated bus route which labors along Ford Pkwy.

Try to imagine Centennial Lakes and Southdale (throw in the Galleria for good measure) without all of those highways and 8 lane thoroughfares and you'll have a much better idea of what it is that we oppose in the Ford development.

Made these other side's case

The lack of nearby freeways is exactly why we need to build dense transit-friendly, bike-friendly development like the Ford plan. Building more car-centric development just exacerbates the problem.

sounds great to me!

I actually love imagining Centennial Lakes without all the wide, dangerous, unpleasant and uncrossable roads around it. Picture too, if you will, an actual natural water feature (daylighted Hidden Falls creek) instead of an obviously artificial "lake". Sounds like what I support in the Ford Development.

Right

And, of course, all of that road capacity in Edina wasn't built for Centennial Lakes and I rather doubt that it's a significant contributor to area traffic.

Typical opposition

The opposition seems to be entirely comprised of long-time residents that just don't want change. That's a group you see in any proposed development and that alone isn't a justifiable reason to oppose the plan.

The key comment to me came from Howard Miller. When someone asks "what the hurry is" to a plan that was 10 years in the making, you know there's no winning that argument.

10 years or 8 months

Before November of 2016 the plans for the Ford Development included 5 scenarios none of which exceeded 1200 people. A quick visit to the Planning Department's website will confirm this. That limit was broken last November when the current zoning plan was presented for the first time. That was eight months ago. The difference between 1200 and 7200 (not including customers, workers and staff in the Gateway and other office buildings) is considerable.

Neighbors for a Livable St. Paul is not pushing for suburbia. We think medium density (four story row houses or apartments) is great! We'd like some more parks so our new neighborhood more closely resembles all the European examples the PED observed in Sweden, Germany and Denmark.

I do not understand the reasoning behind all the vehement supporters of this particular design. Is it really 10 floors or a cape cod with a white picket fence? There are just a few alternatives in between if people are capable of opening their minds and envisioning them. I don't appreciate being accused of NIMBY-ism and being close-minded by folks not willing to carry out this objective act.

Sweden Germany and Denmark ...

... are all places with vastly higher density, better walkability, lower per capita driving, lower CO2 emissions, and better transit than Saint Paul. Good goals, to be sure. Ford Site helps get us there.

I had a negative response to the headline

until I thought about it for a moment. It was this same NIMBY approach to life that gave St. Paul the practice freeway, I-35 E south of downtown, and, to a certain extent, the current location of I-94 west of downtown. In both cases, it was the more affluent white citizens who commanded the field. (Where else in this country do we have two major interstate highways that don't have connections in all directions?) Frankly, neighborhood control of development has run amuck since then, often at the expense of the rest of the community.

Highland Park is largely a post-war housing development that itself helped lead the way to reduced urban density. It grew up around the Ford Plant in part because of the jobs it offered. But for that, I'm sure Ford would have been considered a blight and opposed by residents had their homes come first.

With all due respect to the suburban desires of some Highland Park Residents, St. Paul can not afford more suburban housing. We need the expanded tax base, more jobs, and at least some affordable housing. Ball fields, parks, and other amenities have a place in this development but not at the expense of the rest of us.

Lest anyone think I'm an interloper: my family lived in the Rondo neighborhood when I was born and later moved to Mac-Groveland before fleeing to the suburbs for affordable housing. I've lived at my current Mac-Groveland address for 33 years. I plan to spend the rest of my days here.

Required reading on the subject:

https://www.vox.com/2017/6/20/15828464/urbanism-brent-toderian

Former Vancouver planner talks about how to make density work for all types of people. Very insightful.

This was a helpful link,

This was a helpful link, especially the part that dealt with keeping young families in the city. The problem that I am seeing with a great deal of the new development here is that there are so many developers who want to build such small apartments. I hear a lot about 900 square feet places, 1 and 2 bedroom places in recent developments. That isn't big enough for many families. If we are forward thinking, and the goal is actually to help support growth, we should consider not only mixed use, mixed income, but also a variety of sizes of dwellings.

Demographics

Monica, actually I think they're looking at the demographic trends and responding thusly. And while my family of five likely wouldn't find a suitable space in the proposed development (well, to be fair, we haven't selected a developer yet so we really don't know what varieties of housing units will be available), the demographic trends suggest that building more units for 1-2 people is smart, since household sizes have been decreasing over time (and if you think about it, this makes sense since boomers represent a large portion of the population now and are probably almost all 1-2 person households, and also younger generations are having fewer kids and getting divorced at higher rates).

It would be interesting to

It would be interesting to see the data from demographic trend research on housing needs in St Paul. I am sure Met Council would have some, but I didn't easily find it on their website. The families that I know want affordable housing that is bigger than 900 square feet. Some of them are immigrants. Some of them just have larger families and low wage jobs. Some of them are in multi-generational households (a family doesn't have to be parents and young kids). Then there are the people in my professional circle who are getting married, moving out of their parents' homes, and not finding anything they deem affordable and sized right for starting a family in St Paul. Maybe I just have a disproportionate amount of acquaintances who have these needs. And I don't think all housing needs to fit those needs. A percentage of bigger units would likely fill the needs and help with city growth. But with a great deal of newly built housing and housing proposals, I hear very little about anything more than 1-2 bedrooms. As the link above about Vancouver indicates, the norm has been small units not because of any demographic data but because it is economically advantageous to the developer. That's great for the developer, but wonder where that would leave us in the long run.