If the former Hillcrest golf course is to become the carbon-free housing and jobs provider its developers strive for it to be, they better start planting the seeds. And soon.

"Things really need to get moving over the next several months," said Monte Hilleman, senior vice president of real estate development for the St. Paul Port Authority. "We think it's all doable. But it has to get done."

First on the list is city approval of the Hillcrest master plan, which could happen as soon as April. After that, the Port Authority, which is the site's developer, and the city must hit four key milestones over the next several months:

  1. Create a district energy system for the 112-acre site. It's been done before in St. Paul, downtown and in Energy Park in the Midway. The idea here would be to use the site's aquifer to heat and cool new buildings while rooftop solar panels would provide electricity — eliminating utility bills.
  2. Secure $100 million in financing. This isn't all new spending but would use traditional energy cost savings to secure up-front financing. And "there are numerous government and philanthropic financial opportunities available that we are actively pursuing," Hilleman said.
  3. Win support from the mayor and City Council. Hilleman said Mayor Melvin Carter supports the Port Authority's carbon-free goals for Hillcrest. And the City Council has approved an ordinance that gives the Port Authority the option to ask for additional funding for an advanced energy system.
  4. Prove there is marketplace demand. This might be the toughest hill to climb, Hilleman said. The project needs to prove return on investment over a short enough period of time to convince would-be businesses that it's worth the up-front costs.

"Initial feasibility analysis shows this to be the case," Hilleman said. "We now need to translate this to show what it means on a building-by-building basis."

He added: "We need to know what to tell the market sooner than later."

Rick Carter, president and CEO of LHB Inc., an architectural and engineering firm that's done decades of work with energy-efficient and sustainable development, has been working with the Port Authority to develop its carbon-free aspirations.

Hillcrest would be the largest community development to actually achieve carbon-free status, if the Port Authority and the city can pull it off, he said. Carter said he is convinced they can.

And a huge part of that will come not only from using green heating, cooling and power sources, he said, but in building highly energy-efficient buildings. Getting to zero-carbon energy efficiency will require buildings that are more efficient than current building code requires.

Carter estimated that all buildings at Hillcrest will need to be 75 to 80% more efficient than what was established as a baseline in 2003.

He agreed with Hilleman that a major sticking point — beyond obtaining financing — will be in persuading businesses to take on the up-front costs.

"There is a threshold for pain in payback," Carter said.

One way for the Port Authority or the city to help reduce those costs is to get financial help from the U.S. Department of Energy through the recent infrastructure bill, he said.

Even with all that, Carter said, "It's not just going to be any developer beating the door down."

A carbon-free Hillcrest will likely attract from a specific group of would-be occupants, including investors who want social and environmental projects in their portfolio, aspirational residential developers who want to raise their public profile and nonprofit developers who will need to have the lowest possible operating costs, Carter said.

"If all these costs could be subsidized, this becomes a really attractive development," he said. "The person who is in [a Hillcrest] building could have zero costs for electricity and gas."

Matt Doll, who lives just a few blocks from the site at the northeast corner of St. Paul, said many in the community are excited at the possibility of a "green" Hillcrest. He works for the Minnesota Environmental Partnership and can imagine the day when solar panels blanket a cluster of new buildings.

He acknowledges there is work to be done.

"There's not really anybody saying we should go backwards on this, but if we don't get the funding at various levels, it's going to be a pretty big lift," Doll said.

Still, he's convinced that going carbon-free is not only right, but also that the buzz it would create will spark a development boom.

"If the East Side can do that, it's really something to put us on the map in a way," Doll said. "That kind of sets the stage for what we can do down the line."