Redevelopment at the former Ford Assembly Plant in St. Paul has often been described as a “once-in-a-lifetime’’ opportunity. Rarely does a 100-acre-plus blank slate plot of land come available in a central city, middle- to upper-income neighborhood. It’s important to get it right.
In that spirit, a zoning plan for the Highland Park site recently got a well-deserved green light from the city’s Planning Commission. And though the plan has significant opposition from some neighbors, it should move forward. The zoning proposal represents a practical vision for a more densely populated, mixed-use urban village overlooking the Mississippi River.
Years in the making, the plan divides the 122-acre riverside property into six districts that allow for higher building heights away from the river. Residential townhouses and multifamily buildings along five blocks of Mississippi River Boulevard E. would be limited to 48 feet (about two stories).
Buildings on parcels farther east of the river could be taller, but the maximum height would be about 10 stories. The plan would change zoning from industrial to commercial/residential, with some setback and open-space requirements. Up to 4,000 housing units and an estimated 1,500 jobs could be added. Building widths would be limited to 500 feet to encourage the addition of courtyards or other open space.
Though more than 100 meetings have been held on the project, opponents believe their concerns have been ignored. They argue that the city’s approach would create more noise, traffic and congestion that would drive down property values.
While it’s true that more people would bring change to Highland Park, it doesn’t have to be negative. Traffic in the area may flow more smoothly, for example, because several roads that were previously cut off by the massive Ford plant would be opened.
Some neighbors want more single-family homes, but one of the requirements that Ford set for selling the property was that the buyer/developer could not build single-family residences. That question is out of the city’s hands. Although Ford expects to sell the property later this year or in 2018, the city controls zoning.
Other neighbors want significantly less population density, but that’s not the kind of housing most in demand. Urban villages in the Twin Cities and elsewhere have succeeded largely because they meet the needs of contemporary renters and buyers — young adults and baby boomers who want smaller, multifamily living with close access to amenities including transit. Another huge plus for the Ford project: It would expand the city’s tax base and help keep property taxes lower.
The “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity for St. Paul has finally arrived, and the city and its residents should seize it.
The plan must be reviewed and approved by the City Council, so tweaks could still be made. The council is accepting comments at stpaul.gov/FordComments, and a public hearing will be held in the fall.