Maybe no other chunk of urban property across the Midwest holds more potential for future development than the broad riverside tract in St. Paul where Henry Ford long ago established an automobile manufacturing plant.

Yet three years after the plant closed, after nearly nine decades in business, only a few things are certain about its future: It won’t be used for a stadium or a big shopping center. On-site energy sources probably won’t include a nuclear plant or wind turbines.

But with the city ready to begin rezoning the 122-acre parcel, and Ford Motor Co. applying finishing touches to prepare it for sale, it may not be long before the future of the Highland Park site starts to come into sharper focus.

“We’re setting the stage for successful marketing this year, while providing clarity for our priorities and how the site should redevelop,” said Jonathan Sage-Martinson, the city’s planning and economic development director.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and other city officials have expressed their vision for the site: a mixed-use, transit-oriented village dotted with green space that generates its own energy and offers housing of all types, including units aimed at retirees; good jobs at offices, businesses and light manufacturing firms; and commercial, shopping and entertainment amenities.

Much of what happens, however, will be up to Ford, which will pick the developer. Ford site manager Mike Hogan said there could be a master developer or multiple developers, and added that the company isn’t completely ruling out developing the property itself.

But Hogan also said that the site’s sales price and future use will largely depend on how the city zones it, and how much pollution is found there.

“It is Ford’s goal to make this development happen as soon as possible while still working through the process thoroughly,” Hogan said.

In coming months, St. Paul will conduct studies weighing energy options and job possibilities for the site. By fall, city officials hope to forward zoning recommendations for both public and private areas to the Planning Commission.

In the meantime, Ford will finish demolition, report to the state on soil pollutants, and put down grass seed to wrap the property in a sea of green. Then it will open the door to developers, who are said to be getting antsy about the site.

“It’s an extraordinary property, with great topside potential,” said Russ Nelson, president of Minneapolis real estate consulting firm NTH. “It abuts the Mississippi River. It’s urban. It’s proximate to the airport and the downtowns.”

Crushing and cleaning up

After 19 months of demolition, the property is nearly as blank a slate as it was in 1923, when Henry Ford proclaimed it perfect for his manufacturing plant.

Buildings and concrete slabs are gone, with only a few work structures and concrete rubble piles breaking the horizon. Some foundations and basements are all that’s left to be removed, along with underground utilities.

Much of the work this winter involves crushing concrete from the razed structures and using it to fill pits and depressions, including shallow utility tunnels. Deeper tunnels in the bedrock will be closed rather than filled, Hogan said.

Ford is drilling borings at scores of places across the site to test the soil for contaminants, as part of a voluntary program with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). The company eventually will issue a report and propose a cleanup plan, subject to review by the MPCA; it also is investigating groundwater contamination in a ­former riverside dump.

MPCA hydrogeologist Amy Hadiaris said that so far no surprises have been uncovered — mostly lead and hydrocarbon solvents — although such groups as Friends of the Mississippi River want Ford to expand the scope of its work.

“This site has had almost 100 years of heavy industrial use, and the kind of things that we find out there are pretty predictable,” Hadiaris said. “We’ve found contamination but it’s happened in spots where we would expect to find them.”

City officials working on the site have a busy year ahead. A community meeting will be held Jan. 29 on the energy study, which will look at using cost-effective renewable energy to meet the site’s power demands; that study, conducted by Denmark-based Ramboll Energy, is expected this summer.

A jobs work group, made up of business representatives, has been formed to identify good employers for the site, and a traffic analysis is underway. To pay for infrastructure if needed, the city is asking the Legislature for a period of seven years within which to establish a tax-increment financing district at the site.


But the city’s most important Ford-related task this year will be rezoning the property to guide building design and public spaces.

The City Council budgeted $200,000 to hire consultants to help prepare a zoning draft for public discussion this spring and summer. A final draft will go to the Planning Commission before it heads to the City Council for final approval early next year.

Merritt Clapp-Smith, the city’s lead planner on the Ford project, said that some flexibility will be built into the zoning to respond to marketplace changes and possible environmental challenges.

“We’d like to come forward with ideas to intrigue developers that want to do great neighborhoods, that capture the imagination and get ­people to live and recreate there,” she said.

In March, a delegation of St. Paul leaders from City Hall, the business and nonprofit sectors will travel (using private funds) to Germany, Denmark and Sweden to visit urban developments that could offer ideas for the Ford site.

The delegation will include Coleman, Sage-Martinson, Clapp-Smith and Council Member Chris Tolbert, who represents Highland Park.

“What we’re trying to do,” Tolbert said, “is set expectations for a first-class development, but also set the stage so that a developer can come in and see what’s possible — a modern development that has the qualities that the neighborhood and the city expect and deserve.”