A video from the City of St. Paul pans over a large, brown expanse -- flat, dirty, and pocked with mud puddles. Gentle flute and acoustic guitar wafts through the background. This, the narrator explains, is the site of the former Ford manufacturing plant, which closed in 2011 after nearly a century of popping out Model Ts and whatnot.
Its closure, the narrator says, “provided St. Paul with a unique redevelopment opportunity.”
Since 2007, St. Paul has been looking for the right plan to turn the brown, empty Ford site into… something. Odds are, if you’ve been involved in the politics of the relatively well-off, neighboring Highland Park, you’ve been pretty invested in what that “something” will be.
The name of the game is “density.” Some Highland Park residents wanted to keep it low, restricting buildings on the Ford site to single-family homes, or a golf course, or a corporate campus, or even a Ford museum. Something that would keep traffic at a minimum and keep the area’s “Highland Park” feel.
But there are plenty of folks who wanted exactly the opposite. St. Paul is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis. Rents are rising, wages are stagnating, and with a vacancy rate of about 2.4 percent, there just aren’t enough homes to go around. One could ask if a golf course and a bunch of big, single-family homes are really the best choice for the moment.
Nearly a decade later, we finally know what the Ford site is going to be. And it looks -- dare we say it? -- cool.
Ryan Companies, the same company that brought you the CHS Field ballpark, is proposing a mixed-use “village” of sorts, with 3,800 units of housing. That includes about 35 single-family homes down by the river, but the housing becomes denser and taller -- up to six stories -- as you move further into the city. Ryan didn’t respond to interview requests.
According to the city’s master plan, 20 percent of that housing is supposed to be affordable, peppered throughout the site. The plans also include turning 21 percent of the area -- about 50 acres -- into public parks, trails, and open spaces. That includes a big plaza and promenade, complete with a fountain, and about 1,000 trees.
The streets are to be designed with “all users in mind,” according to the promotional video, with ample room for cyclists and pedestrians. At full build-out, the site is supposed to have enough retail space to provide about 1,500 jobs.
Ford is expected to close on a land sale in the next few months, with construction to begin within a year. That means Highland Parkians could be well on their way to biking down the riverside, strolling through plazas, choosing from a range of apartments, and even playing on two of the area’s three original baseball fields, which Ryan has promised to leave untouched.
Of course, not everyone is totally pleased with the announcement. The Neighbors for a Livable St. Paul group (which also did not respond to interview requests) posted a disheartened reaction on its Facebook page Thursday morning.
“Does this artist rendition of the buildings to come really look like an extension of Highland Park,” it asks, or an “out-of-place” mash of tall buildings and “overcrowded roads?”
Still other commenters are apparently more than satisfied. Says one simply: “I want to live there.”