Highland Park neighbors are posting yard signs, knocking on doors and distributing campaign literature, with all the attention on one candidate: the Ford site zoning and public realm master plan.

An impending St. Paul City Council vote that will guide redevelopment of the former assembly plant property has overshadowed the November mayoral election in the wealthy, politically involved community by the Ford site.

Many of the mayoral candidates staked out their stances on the site long ago. Melvin Carter and Elizabeth Dickinson have generally supported moving forward with the city’s plan, while Pat Harris and Tom Goldstein raised concerns. But candidate Dai Thao — the lone current council member in the race — is the only candidate whose opinion will matter when the council votes on the plan. That vote is scheduled for next week.

Thao announced Tuesday he does not support the plan and called for “a more transparent and accountable process.”

His comments echoed the concerns of plan opponents who turned out at City Hall on Wednesday for the first of two public hearings. Dozens of residents urged city leaders not to approve the documents, which they said would overcrowd streets and were created through a process that lacked transparency.

The city’s proposal says between 4,320 and 7,200 people could live at the 122-acre site by 2040.

“I’m not against reasonable development at the site. I am opposed to this level of density,” said Highland Park resident Jim Winterer. “We have time to do better. We can develop this property without destroying the neighborhood we love.”

Winterer is one of the approximately 700 people with a red “Stop the Ford Plan” yard sign. Residents who have banded together under the title Neighbors for a Livable St. Paul paid for the signs. They also distributed 13,000 door hangers this month, said Carl Kuhl, who has been handling media relations for the group.

Sustain Ward 3, the group that supports the master plan, has also been trying to get its message out. Group member Nathaniel Hood said his group has written editorials, spoken on talk radio shows and created about 200 green yard signs that proclaim “Say yes to the Ford site.”

Dozens of supporters, dressed in green, said Wednesday the zoning helps prepare St. Paul for future growth. The city has a very low rental vacancy rate and growing demand for multifamily housing, said Heidi Schallberg.

“This pressing need for more multifamily housing won’t wait,” she said.

Peter Armstrong, who was on the Ford site task force that helped develop the plan, urged council members to pass it, as it was the result of a decade of work and more than 40 public meetings.

Candidate differences

The Ford site fervor and neighborhood campaigns have reached their peak this month, with the final council vote scheduled for Sept. 27. But the site will likely not be fully developed for another 15 or 20 years, and what it will ultimately look like remains uncertain.

The zoning and public realm master plan lays out a streetscape, maximum building heights, parkland requirements and stormwater plans. But whoever buys the site from Ford would bring an environmental review and detailed development master plan to the city for further review.

Harris, who lives in Highland Park, is concerned with the city zoning the entire site before a developer is selected, which he said limits the city’s ability to negotiate for community amenities.

“I have come to understand that we need to be cautious and avoid inflating the sale price at the expense of the development’s quality and its impact,” he said in a statement issued Wednesday.

Carter called for the city to move forward with the plan to rezone the site.

“Our city faces a critical choice between making decisions based on preserving the status quo and supporting a bold vision to build Saint Paul for the future,” Carter said in a statement.

Dickinson has also been supportive, though she said St. Paul could do more to encourage energy-efficient buildings and renewable energy there. Goldstein has said the city is rushing unnecessarily to get the framework done and criticized officials for allowing conversations to become so adversarial.