When it comes to redeveloping St. Paul’s 122-acre former Ford plant site, it appears time to move the conversation to the living room.
In an effort to encourage a range of discussion and encourage people to ask deeper questions, St. Paul is inviting Highland Park residents to host small community gatherings regarding the Ford site.
Char and Paul Mason hosted the first small gathering Monday in their Mount Curve Boulevard home, even putting out cheese, crackers and beverages for the dozen or so neighbors who came to what felt more like a book club than a development meeting.
“I was the first to respond to it. I kind of thought, ‘Well, why not?’ ” Char Mason said of the city’s invitation to area residents. “It’s a neat civics lesson.”
The idea is to create informal opportunities throughout April to meet and ask questions without having to compete for a mic or shout over a large crowd, said Mollie Scozzari, marketing and public relations manager for the city’s Department of Planning and Economic Development.
“I would say this is definitely something unique that the city is doing,” she said.
“We thought this extra outreach and engagement would be valuable to have more granular discussions on various topics.”
At the Masons’, that meant asking detailed questions about proposed housing density at the site, and to raise concerns about what effect adding up to 10,000 additional residents may have on the character of an older and attractive residential area. Many of the neighbors said they’re excited at the opportunity to add new green space, new housing and new commercial opportunities. But many also worry about shoehorning so many people onto the site.
Neighbor Maggie Kilpatrick said the smaller gathering “was really valuable to me for two reasons: One was the size of the meeting. Everybody had a chance to speak and everyone was listened to. And, two, everyone walked away with a better idea of what they can influence and what they cannot.”
For instance, area residents have been asking for months why the city is so intent on multifamily housing throughout the 122 acres. Then they heard Jonathan Sage-Martinson, the city’s director of Planning and Economic Development, say that Ford doesn’t want single family housing, in part because of the cost of pollution cleanup and potential liability.
The informal setting, Kilpatrick said, helped people feel comfortable asking questions.
“I feel like I was listened to, absolutely,” she said.
That comfort went both says, said Sage-Martinson. He also said he could ask residents more detailed questions about what they like, and don’t like.
“We have had several meetings of 150-200 people plus, with some as large as 400 people,” he said. “This is another way for us to engage so we can have more of a dialogue.”
Nathaniel Hood, a member of the Highland Park District Council, recently hosted a smaller meeting at an area restaurant to discuss transportation issues related to the Ford site. There is value in providing a variety of venues to encourage feedback, he said, because people who are less likely to attend large gatherings are more likely to show at someone’s home. Hood said he hopes to host an event in his home soon.
“I really commend the city for taking this initiative and trying to move forward with it,” he said.
Libby Kantner, an aide to Council Member Chris Tolbert, said Wednesday that at least eight more small meetings have been scheduled, with more possible.
Char Mason said she is happy she hosted.
“The value on my side is we heard things that haven’t been shared publicly, or well enough, before,” she said. “On the flip side, I hope Jonathan heard us and they use the real reaction and the real concern from neighbors.”