What was originally billed as a glimpse Thursday of what’s in store for the former Ford Motor Co. factory site in St. Paul’s Highland Park became another chance for Ryan Cos. to collect public feedback on the city’s biggest potential development project in generations.
But while company officials said they weren’t quite ready to reveal the details for what they intend for the 122-acre site, they gave the crowd of about 200 people at Highland Park Jr. High School some ideas.
Among the 10 things they said they won’t do: “We’re not going to build 10-story buildings,” said Mike Ryan, market leader for the company’s North region, to applause.
What they will do is build a “significant” amount of affordable housing, said Tony Barranco, senior vice president of development. They also plan to set aside more than 50 acres of public access open space and plant 1,000 trees.
Thursday’s community meeting served to collect even more data from Highland residents. The crowd was invited to answer a series of instant survey questions about housing, retail, landscaping and parks via text message.
Company officials have kept their ideas for the Ford site to themselves since Ryan was announced as the developer in late June. In many ways their caution makes sense, given the divisiveness in the neighborhood spawned by varying expectations.
City officials and many residents envision transforming the site from Ford’s 20th-century manufacturing facility into a high-density 21st-century urban village, complete with a new street grid, parks, housing and retail contained in six districts. Those districts would have varying residential density, with shorter, smaller buildings erected near the Mississippi River and taller buildings farther away.
The city estimates that by 2040, 1,500 people could be working at the site and 4,320 to 7,200 residents could be living there. But company officials said Thursday that they will opt for “quality over quantity” when it comes to retail, and that they don’t plan to build more than 4,000 units of housing.
The City Council voted 5-2 last September to approve a master zoning plan designed to steer development in that direction. But other neighbors have looked at the city’s master plan, with its focus on density, and cringed.
Many have said they despair that the site will be too heavily developed and that its accompanying traffic will irrevocably change the quiet character of neighboring blocks of single-family homes. A group of neighbors in opposition even launched a petition drive to put a repeal of the plan to a citywide vote, an effort that was later blocked by the City Council.
Officials at Ryan, the Minneapolis-based developer behind Downtown East and CHS Field, are tasked with developing the site in a way that not only hews to the city’s ambitions but satisfies a swath of neighborhood desires.
The developer comes with a reputation for listening to the neighbors, and on Thursday Mike Ryan and other company officials tried to allay community concerns. They may not be able to deliver everything that neighbors of the site may want, he said, “But I think it’s important that you know that we’ve heard it.”