To the people packing the City Hall meeting room Friday morning, St. Paul planners’ proposal to redevelop the former Ford assembly plant site is either a visionary realization of a modern city — or reflects an unwillingness to slow down and listen to the desires of the neighborhood.

The city’s plan calls for as many as 7,000 new residents and businesses employing up to 1,500 people on the former Ford manufacturing site. The plan also calls for new park space and a latticework of bicycle and walking trails. But Highland Park residents have been divided on whether that all fits within the existing neighborhood.

“With radical density comes radical traffic and gridlock,” said Char Mason, who lives nearby.

But Aaron Berc, of Jewish Community Action, said the Ford site is St. Paul’s best opportunity to address the exploding housing needs of a diverse population.

“Keep the city’s door open to those of us displaced by rising rents and a shortage of affordable housing,” he said at the hearing, which lasted about three hours and included testimony from about 40 people.

Since planners revealed the Ford site master plan at the end of 2016, much of the conversation has centered on density of development on the 122 acres. Visions of apartment buildings climbing 10 stories high and parking and traffic woes caused by tens of thousands of new vehicles have alarmed many longtime residents.

Leading up to the Friday morning hearing before the St. Paul Planning Commission, more than 1,000 residents of Highland Park had signed a petition urging planners to decrease the density, increase the green space and make the redeveloped site more closely resemble the neighborhood surrounding it. Some residents complained that the city was wed to high density because it means more revenue from more new residents — for developers, the city and Ford.

“Highland isn’t just a spot on the map. It’s a community,” said Charles Hathaway, who urged planners to step back from the kind of high-volume development the city wants. “It should not be all about the money.”

Many others sang the praises of high density, saying the Ford site gives St. Paul a fresh canvas to create a modern, walkable community that relies less on cars and more on transit, with less reliance on fossil fuels.

Officials have said that high density makes the site more attractive to a prospective developer, can mean more tax revenue for the city and can help pay for greater amenities, such as parks and water features. Officials have said the site has a potential redevelopment value of $1.3 billion and possible new tax revenue of more than $20 million annually.

Proponents of the plan said they, too, have circulated a petition, garnering 400 signatures over the past two months.

“We’re growing by leaps and bounds and we need to accommodate that growth in a sustainable and affordable way,” said Kevin Gallatin, president of the Highland District Council and a supporter of the plan.

Next steps

The city’s proposed master plan divides the Ford property into six districts, including two commercial zones along Cleveland Avenue and Ford Parkway. It will be used to guide how a yet-to-be-chosen developer builds on the site. Ford is expected to sell the site to a master developer, perhaps by the end of the year.

City officials have said they favor higher density development because the more a developer builds at the site, the less public investment is needed for infrastructure including streets, parks and trails.

Friday’s hearing was to collect oral testimony. The city will continue to accept written testimony until 4:30 p.m. on Monday.

Merritt Clapp-Smith, the city’s lead planner on the project, said the plan now goes to a committee, which could make its own recommendations before sending it back to the Planning Commission for any changes and recommendations.

The earliest the Planning Commission would sign off on the plan is July 28, she said. Then it would move on to the St. Paul City Council, which could also make changes and will hold additional hearings. That would probably happen in September, Clapp-Smith said.