In the northeastern corner of St. Paul, houses and streets give way to a tract of open, tree-studded land that rises to the highest point in the city. Now the owners of the former Hillcrest Golf Club have placed it on the market, creating a rare opportunity for developers to reshape an overlooked neighborhood.
The Hillcrest Golf Club operated for nearly a century on the East Side. At 110 acres, it’s just 25 acres smaller than the former Ford plant on the opposite end of town. But unlike at the Ford site, development at Hillcrest won’t require major pollution cleanup — and so far, density-averse residents aren’t planting signs in their front yards as they have in Highland Park.
“It’s our Ford, with a lot fewer problems,” said Council Member Jane Prince, who represents part of the East Side. “And accordingly, I hope it gets the same attention.”
Steamfitters Pipefitters Local 455 bought Hillcrest for $4.3 million in 2011 and operated the golf course until closing it in October after years of declining membership. Now, the union has plans to sell it for mixed-use development.
The plans come at a time when development is transforming closed golf courses across the metro area. The area has lost more than 900 acres of golf course land since 2010, according to the Metropolitan Council.
Development at Hillcrest would be a big change for the East Side, where mayoral candidates in 2017 promised to address a lack of investment. Residents and local leaders are eager to see development — whether it’s multifamily housing, businesses looking to hire or good places to eat — and say Hillcrest seems like the place to do it.
“The location is ideal,” said Council Member Dan Bostrom, who represents the area. “It’s finding the right mix to fill it in and doing it in a responsible way.”
Richard Magler Jr., business manager for the pipefitters, said the union hired a design firm about two years ago to sketch out ideas for the site. It came up with a plan for mixed-use development with housing and commercial space, as well as green space, 3 miles of trails and a community center or events center in the existing clubhouse, he said.
There’s not a clear time line for when that development will begin. Magler said the hope is it will happen “as soon as possible.”
Mayor Melvin Carter met with Magler on Feb. 15 to discuss the Hillcrest site. Magler said the union met with former Mayor Chris Coleman multiple times when he was in office, and the meeting with Carter was a chance to update the new mayor on the union’s plans.
Hillcrest opened as a municipal golf course in 1921, and in 1945 became a private club for Jewish members. Membership had been unrestricted since the 1970s.
On a recent morning, the clubhouse was dark. Outside, wind churned across a deep layer of snow punctuated by bare trees.
Gary Unger has lived blocks from the golf course for most of his life, and he bookended a 35-year career at nearby 3M with stints as a caddie and then as a member of the grounds crew.
He knows what it’s like to watch the seasons come and go at Hillcrest. He knows which birds fly over (scarlet tanagers, bluebirds, wrens and swallows) and how many trees there are (about 600). He knows the view of the city from the top of the highest hill, at Tee 14.
Unger, president of the area district council, wants development at Hillcrest. He said he’d like the site to become a destination, with restaurants — maybe something like Mancini’s Char House on W. 7th Street — and other businesses that will create jobs.
But at the same time, there’s a tinge of melancholy at what will be lost when streets cross through the old fairways and buildings spring up where trees once grew.
“It’s been a golf course my whole life — it’s been open space,” Unger said. “It’s kind of hard to envision anything there yet.”