For generations, the old car factory beside the river resounded with the whir of tires being bolted onto wheels and the hum of conveyor belts, the chatter of workers between shifts and the steady roar of the assembly floor.

But on Monday, the only sound to be heard was the grind of a Hitachi excavator clawing at the metal sheathing of Ford Motor Company's former paint building, punching through the corrugated surface like so much cotton candy.

Five years after Ford announced that it was closing its Highland Park plant and 18 months after it actually did, the automaker's longtime riverfront factory in St. Paul began coming down Monday, heralding an end and a beginning for 122 acres of real estate in a choice location.

Ford, which owns the property, will need at least two years to raze the remaining buildings and clean the site to industrial standards before offering it to bidders for what will be one of the biggest redevelopment projects in St. Paul history.

City leaders hope that the result will be a broad tract that adds housing, business, green space — and jobs — to an already vibrant neighborhood. They want the area designed to encourage walking, biking and mass transit.

National developers are said to be watching the site, thought to be one of the nation's largest pieces of developable urban property. Local real estate agents are excited, too.

"As long as it's not polluted and … the economy is stable to improving, you can't go wrong," said Tom Edelstein, a longtime St. Paul Realtor who was born and raised in Highland Park. "It's just a premier location."

At the site Monday, Mayor Chris Coleman said, "Today is a day that the landscape of St. Paul fundamentally changes … but it is a day that marks a giant step forward for the Highland community, for the city of St. Paul and for the region." Then he, City Council Member Chris Tolbert and Ford site manager Mike Hogan led a countdown to the first swipe made at the paint building by the excavator, the dust choked by spray from a water cannon.

Hogan acknowledged that it was unusual for such ceremony to accompany a Ford demolition. For city and company officials, it was a day to look forward to a time when the property will be productive again.

"It highlights the fact that we're working closely with the city of St. Paul, and we're happy to do it," he said.

But even Coleman, who worked hard for several years to persuade Ford to keep the plant open, proclaimed it "a bittersweet day" and noted that the car factory had provided "a solid path to the middle class for a lot of families" since the 1920s.

A couple of those families were represented at the wrecking scene Monday by retirees Denny Dickhausen and Dale Conrad, both of whom put in nearly 40 years at the plant and could not resist the chance to say goodbye to it in person.

"It was a good place to get a job, and I've got a lot of good memories," said Dickhausen, a Highland Park resident whose wife also worked many years for Ford. "I'm going to have tears in my eyes."

"I used to work in this building all the time," said Conrad, of south Minneapolis, nodding at the paint building. "Just to see it go down is sad."

Hoping to keep area's 'flavor'

Ford began building in St. Paul in 1923, spending $10 million on the plant and hydroelectric dam on a site chosen by Henry Ford himself.

More than 6 million vehicles were built there in the decades since, from Model T's to Ranger pickups, save for a couple of idled years during the Depression and armored car production during World War II.

The automaker won city approval last winter to tear down the plant after months of meetings with city officials and neighbors hammering out conditions for the demolition. Since then, the buildings have been cleared of equipment, most utilities have been shut off and asbestos removal has begun.

Environmental cleanup is being done with the help of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Project manager Steve Bill said that all metal from the buildings will be recycled and hauled out by truck and rail.

Demolition work and truck traffic will be restricted to weekday business hours; noise and dust will be controlled, and a hot line has been established to handle complaints. Weekly inspections will be done to ensure that the work is done properly.

Highland Park neighbors "are aware, and I think they're ready," Tolbert said.

On Monday, workers were lining the chain-link fences surrounding the plant with black screens to shield the work from busy Ford Parkway, another of the conditions to which Ford agreed.

Ford has enlisted Richard Palmiter, a veteran local real estate broker with national firm CBRE Corp., to market the property to developers.

Edelstein, who is with the Highland Park office of Coldwell Banker Burnet, said he thinks that the property should offer housing that appeals to a range of buyers, from first-time homeowners to retired couples and those in need of assisted living. Area residents, he said, "don't want to see a suburban explosion. They would like to keep with the flavor of the neighborhood."

Officials believe that it will take several years before things take shape. Coleman, for one, can't wait. "Within a couple of years, you'll see the seeds of a new community that will grow here," he said.

Kevin Duchschere • 651-222-2732