A massive patch of dirt where Ford workers once assembled pickup trucks will be reshaped into an urban village.
St. Paul leaders signed off Wednesday on a divisive zoning and public realm master plan that lays out a street grid, parks and other infrastructure for the 122-acre former Ford plant site. It determines where housing, retail and office space would go and how much of it should exist at the prized property in Highland Park.
“With this plan I know we can honor the things that have made St. Paul and Highland Park special for decades, while moving forward to strengthen our neighborhood and city for future generations,” said Council Member Chris Tolbert, who represents the area.
City Council members voted 5-2 to support the plan. The vote followed months of campaigning from excited supporters who said it will help St. Paul grow in a sustainable way. Anguished opponents said they fear the plan’s effects on the neighborhood.
The zoning and public realm plan would divide the site in Highland Park into six districts, with the least dense development closest to the Mississippi River.
The tallest buildings would be six stories, but developers could build up to 10 stories if they add parkland elsewhere on the property, under an amendment by Tolbert.
The city estimates that by 2040, 1,500 people could be working at the site and 4,320 to 7,200 residents could be living there.
“When this vision for the Ford site is complete, it will be one of the most sustainable, equitable communities in the country — if not the world,” Mayor Chris Coleman said in a statement. “With opportunities to live, work and play, this area will integrate into and complement the surrounding neighborhood.”
But concerns over the impact on the surrounding community prompted Council Members Dai Thao and Jane Prince to vote against the decision.
Community members often note that the plan is the result of a decade of work by a task force that held dozens of community meetings, Prince said, but some of the group’s recommendations are not reflected in the plan.
“There’s a perception that we are not listening,” Prince said. “I have never seen this level of division and despair, so it is very troubling to me.”
Highland Park resident Karen Wilson was one of many people who voiced that despair. She told the council she likes the community as it is now and is worried the density included in the plan would alter it.
“You are taking our neighborhood away from us,” Wilson said. “You are supposed to be representing us.”
Nathan Hartshorn, who lives less than one block from Wilson, offered city leaders a very different view. He urged them to approve the plan.
“It makes our neighborhood more diverse, more vibrant and more capable of serving all the different kinds of people who want and deserve to live in St. Paul,” Hartshorn said.
Thao, who is running for mayor, said the policy doesn’t reflect the community’s desires. He proposed several last-minute ideas Wednesday aimed at addressing concerns, most of which his fellow council members didn’t agree to.
One idea was a community benefit agreement, where a developer would have to sit down with residents to work out issues. Fellow council members said that agreement would complicate things for developers interested in the site and potentially scare them away.
When Ford sells the property to a developer, it will have to submit another plan to the city that will flesh out details of the site and community concerns can be addressed then, Tolbert said. The city can reject a development proposal if it doesn’t meet its standards, he said.
Council Member Amy Brendmoen said although some people feel city leaders haven’t been listening, they have been reading comments and social-media posts. She echoed Tolbert’s statement that Wednesday’s vote was one step in a long process.
“We have so many more opportunities to make this fabulous, so please stay engaged,” Brendmoen said.