Raquel Barrientos and her husband were happy their street dead-ended at the Hillcrest Golf Club in St. Paul. Especially in the four years since Hillcrest closed, their block has become a quiet place to raise their children.
But now that the city is on the cusp of redeveloping the site, Barrientos wants St. Paul to go big — extending trails, adding green space, boosting affordable housing and improving area libraries and community centers. Yet the plans she has seen so far for Hillcrest look heavy on warehouses and light on neighborhood amenities.
"I see no evidence that they have taken any of the community's priorities that were laid out," Barrientos said. "There is no sign that they have listened."
At 112 acres, the former golf course in St. Paul's far northeast corner is only slightly smaller than the city's other major redevelopment target, the former Ford site in Highland Park. But the visions being considered for Hillcrest's future aren't nearly as grandiose.
Some East Siders are fine with the city's goals of 1,000 jobs and 1,000 units of housing. Others wonder why officials aren't aiming higher.
The Ford site, now named Highland Bridge, will feature about the same number of jobs, nearly four times as much housing and 50 acres of open space, including four new city parks.
One reason Hillcrest's goals are different is the industrial-focused agency behind it: the St. Paul Port Authority, which bought the land with plans to build several light-industrial facilities, said City Council Member Jane Prince.
The other reason is that the city prohibited the dedication of future property tax revenue to help develop it. Up to $278 million in this type of revenue, called tax increment financing, will be available to develop Ford, Prince said.
At Hillcrest, money from land sales to developers will pay for infrastructure.
While Ford's location overlooking the Mississippi River certainly makes it an attractive site for housing, she said, "there is no way that the East Side should be cut off from using TIF money for infrastructure. … The East Side is an afterthought for development."
Nelsie Yang, the City Council member who represents the Hillcrest area, agreed with Prince that the project's master plan needs more community input, particularly from the area's Spanish-speaking and Southeast Asian populations.
A former community organizer, Yang wants to see the city conduct more focus groups and face-to-face meetings. And she wants deeply affordable housing on the site. She said she is confident that will happen.
"Our East Side community wants to be part of the solution and wants to be heard," she said. "There will be more voices."
Hillcrest opened as a municipal golf course in 1921 and in 1945 became a private club for Jewish golfers, who were barred from other clubs. Membership restrictions were lifted in the 1970s.
Steamfitters Pipefitters Local 455 bought Hillcrest in 2011 for about $4 million and closed the golf club six years later. In June 2019, the St. Paul City Council approved borrowing $10 million to finance the Port Authority's purchase of the site. The Port Authority has also helped redevelop other projects, including the former downtown Macy's building and Allianz Field.
The Port Authority plans to make Hillcrest a mixed-use development with 5 acres of parkland and another 15 acres of open green space. Fully developed, the authority estimates the site could produce $250 million worth of development and generate $5 million a year in property tax revenue.
By comparison, the Ford site is expected to be worth $1 billion and generate $18 million per year in new tax revenue.
Before Hillcrest can be redeveloped, however, the site needs extensive cleanup. The authority estimates it will cost about $2.5 million to remediate mercury contamination from a fungicide used on the greens and tee areas. The Port Authority's experience in finding grants and other funds for cleanup makes it the right candidate to develop the site, said Andrea Novak, the port's senior vice president of marketing.
Reaching the people?
Novak said the number of jobs and housing units being considered come from a market study commissioned by the authority. While the Ford site is at the center of the Twin Cities and near the airport, Hillcrest is less centrally located.
"We don't think that we're aiming low here," she said.
Neither does Lisa Theis, interim executive director of the Greater East Side District 2 Community Council. The area needs jobs, she said. And it needs more housing. The two preliminary plans under discussion give the community a good place to begin, she said. Until now, she said "there hasn't been a lot of investment in our neighborhood."
She added: "I don't view it, and my board doesn't view it, as either/or. It's a bit of each. ... It's a different animal than Ford is."
Theis said she is increasingly confident that planners and the community will arrive at a solid master plan by the end of the summer.
The master plan for Hillcrest is expected to be ready for City Council review and approval in September. Construction could begin in 2022.
Ben Werner would rather the city take its time to get it right, especially on the affordable housing front.
Werner, housing justice program director at the East Side Freedom Library, said he has been in the thick of the Hillcrest discussion for a couple of years now. The Greater East Side has more than 31,000 residents, 58% of whom are people of color and 33% of whom make less than $35,000 per year. Yet planners have engaged with only a few hundred residents, most of them white, he said.
In the rush to develop Hillcrest, "are even the right people in the room?"
To develop a project that truly meets the housing and employment needs of a diverse East Side, Werner said, St. Paul planners should take another three to six months.
"We need development over here, I'm not disagreeing with that," he said. "But it needs to serve the community."
James Walsh • 612-673-7428