The future of St. Paul's Ford plant lies largely in the soil beneath it. After 86 years of pumping out vehicles -- most recently the Ford Ranger truck -- the sprawling Twin Cities Assembly Plant will close by year's end, prompting the inevitable question from anxious neighbors, public servants and business folks alike.

What's next for the signature 122-acre property, just beyond the bluffs of the Mississippi River?

The answer in part depends on the extent of the environmental cleanup, which won't be known until mid-2012. A tough economy also conspires to slow redevelopment of what will likely be a multimillion-dollar, yearslong project of enormous complexity in one of the Twin Cities' most-desirable neighborhoods.

And there's no consensus just yet on what the site -- one of the last substantial tracts of land left for development in the Twin Cities -- should become. That, too, depends on the extent of the site's pollution.

But those limitations haven't stopped St. Paulites from musing: Should the site be a green manufacturing complex? A densely populated transit village? A park? An office campus? A new middle-class neighborhood that mimics the surrounding community? All those options -- and more -- were floated by a task force of community members, planners, developers and others appointed by the St. Paul Planning Commission in 2007.

"It's a premier piece of land. There's nothing like it anywhere in the region," said Cecile Bedor, the city's planning director. "It is an incredible opportunity for the city, but it does come on the heels of devastating news for many families."

Roughly 800 people will lose their jobs when the last Ranger rolls off the assembly line, probably next week. Hundreds more have already left.

It's a scenario that has played out again and again at auto plants nationwide in recent decades, leaving communities to search for new uses for gigantic tracts of land. Since 1979, 267 auto plants have closed across the country, according to a report issued last week by the Center for Automotive Research (CAR).

"When an auto manufacturing plant closes, the job and income loss often causes an economic shock," CAR's Valerie Sathe Brugeman said. "But many communities have found ways to recover and at least partially restore property values and employment."

Indeed, CAR's analysis found that 48 percent of the shuttered plants have at least been partially repurposed, or are in the process of being redeveloped.

And the St. Paul site has an important advantage over many of them, which are located in gritty industrial areas on the outskirts of city centers. The St. Paul Ford plant borders the lovely basin of the Mississippi River as well as the vibrant residential and commercial Highland Park neighborhood, presumably an area that will be easier to market and develop.

Still, of the 267 factories studied by CAR, 109 were retooled as industrial or warehouse operations. Only four had a residential component -- the type of project that may require a more-extensive environmental cleanup. All five of the St. Paul task force's development scenarios involve some type of housing.

"If we asked experts in the real estate market, 'What is the highest and best use for this property?' their answer wouldn't be industrial reuse," said Jay Gardner, director of real estate for Ford Land, the real estate division of Ford Motor Co. "They would say some sort of mixed use, with commercial, residential, and R&D, maybe."

Condos in Kenosha

St. Paul has few examples to study nationwide when looking for inspiration -- that is, rehabbed auto plants with at least some residential component.

A condominium development in Kenosha, Wis., called Harborpark is one potential model. The property, located on Lake Michigan and Kenosha Harbor, was once home to an AMC/Chrysler plant that closed in 1988, leaving more than 5,000 people jobless.

The decision to erect condos was a no-brainer, according to Brian Wilke, development coordinator for the city. "Honestly, there was no meaningful discussion on industrial reuse. The closing left such a scar emotionally on our community when so many people lost their jobs. People said, 'We don't want to look at it anymore, what it once was.' "

All told, 380 condos ultimately went in, along with two museums, a marina and green space featuring walkways along the water. While Kenosha officials consider the project a success, they're quick to point out that it took more than 15 years to complete.

"Don't expect results overnight," Wilke said.

Meanwhile, a second Chrysler plant located inland a few miles from Harborpark closed a year ago, leaving an additional 800 people without jobs. While the city works on various development scenarios, the site sits empty.

Sometimes a plant closes, and nothing happens for years. A General Motors plant in North Tarrytown, N.Y., located along the Hudson River less than an hour from New York City, sits idle 15 years after the automaker shut it down. Though the closing came as no surprise to local residents and village officials, they held out hope that another industrial operation would set up shop.

But there was little interest, and by 2001 GM had demolished the plant, according to the CAR report. The village then got into legal battles with GM over the land's value, and with neighboring Tarrytown over potential traffic issues. Then, the economy collapsed in 2008.

Photographs show weeds sprouting through aging concrete slabs the size of trees. Yet the town remains hopeful a newly crafted residential and commercial development will get off the ground next year.

Stalled along the turnpike

Elsewhere, big plans have run smack into the brutal economic realities facing the commercial real estate market.

When the Ford plant in Edison, N.J., closed in 2004, township officials decided on a mixed-use plan involving open space, retail stores, restaurants, entertainment venues, a hotel and offices -- but no significant housing component. Artistic renderings of the project, called Edison Towne Square, show families congregating in bright, leafy surroundings.

Developers touted the enviable location -- along Route 1, a retail mecca that is close to the Garden State Parkway and New Jersey Turnpike. But so far, the only things that have been built on the 100-acre plot are a Sam's Club store, roads, a drainage system and a retention basin.

"It all depends on leasing, and leasing is tied to the economy," explains Ron Simoncini, a spokesman for Hartz Mountain Industries, the New Jersey developer of the site. Still, he said, the project will ultimately "turn into something really terrific."

A Macalester College alum, Simoncini said the Edison site is similar to St. Paul's because it's located in "a very thick neighborhood."

When asked what St. Paul can learn from Edison's experience, Simoncini said many constituencies will want a say in the way the land is developed, and the balancing act can be a challenge.

"Being pragmatic is important," he said. "The land has a voice. Nothing's going to be perfect, but ultimately, you have to look at the long-term benefit for everyone involved. The faster you get to the end, the better for everyone."

New economic reality

No matter what happens in St. Paul, it's unlikely the new use will provide the same quality and number of jobs lost as the Ford plant.

"It wouldn't be the same, economically, if you extract a factory from that site and put in a mixed-use development with retailing," said James Rubenstein, a professor at Miami University in Ohio and an auto industry analyst. "No matter how many jobs are created, it's a different group of people getting them. It's not like you take people from the assembly plant, and say, 'Stick around for 10 years, and at some point you can get a job at Crate & Barrel.'"

Art Wiegele, a bargainer for United Auto Workers Local 879, said he hopes that whatever replaces the Ford plant "will keep the memory alive. Put industry here, create some jobs."

In the meantime, he's taking a job on an assembly line in Kentucky, where they make Ford Escapes.

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752