Why St. Paul Needs The Ford Site Plan
By Bill Lindeke
Nothing represents St. Paul’s bright future better than the Ford site, an empty, polluted former truck factory on the Mississippi River. Having 135 acres of “blank slate” land is a rare opportunity. And after a decade of meetings, and thousands of community conversations, St. Paul has proposed a forward-thinking plan that will help solve many of the city’s challenges.
The “land use and public realm plan” is thick with richly illustrated detail. The buildings themselves are a mix of different designs and heights, generally “stepping up” from the riverfront. Yet even at their peak, they are lower than the two high-rise buildings in surrounding Highland. The transit-oriented street designs offer peerless walkable public space, and everyone loves the large stormwater feature—“daylighting” an underground creek—that is the central part of the park land plan. But there has been some debate over the size of the development, which amounts to 4,000 new housing units and 110-foot tall buildings.
With that in mind, here are three key reasons why I support the proposed Ford site plan.
First, from an environmental perspective, one central benefit of the Ford plan is that it reduces St. Paul’s carbon footprint. Now that the federal government has abandoned global consensus on climate change, Minnesotans need to get serious about meaningful action. In a place like St. Paul, that means building energy-efficient housing in walkable, transit-friendly areas. A sustainable neighborhood at the Ford site is what commitment to climate action looks like at the city level, and hopefully it’s the tip of a much larger melting iceberg.
Second, St. Paul needs a strong tax base. The city is home to a high percentage of the state’s concentrated poverty, while one-third of city land is occupied by tax-free users like government, schools, and nonprofits. Meanwhile, state and federal support for cities has been declining, putting St. Paul in a tight budget pinch. With density at the Ford site, St. Paul can provide excellent amenities for the neighborhood and boost the general tax base while keeping subsidies to a minimum. Fully developing the Ford site will ensure the capital city remains financially stable for the next generation.
Third, the Twin Cities has a housing crisis. A good economy, shrinking household sizes, and shifting lifestyle tastes mean that rents and home prices are going up fast, especially in walkable neighborhoods like Highland. Meanwhile, aging baby boomers need smaller, more flexible alternatives that allow them to “age in place” and lead active lives. Market research shows strong demand for housing in this new neighborhood. If anything, the city should think about increasing density even more, to help forestall the housing crunch to come.
Meanwhile, over the last year of community conversation, the most convincing critique of the plan—increasing car traffic—is still a red herring. A team of engineers thoroughly studied future traffic projections using conservative assumptions about travel behavior. They found that, with the new streets, impacts were minimal and manageable. At the same time, the new streets around the Ford site would really improve pedestrian safety.
Simply put, when it comes to traffic, we get what we plan for. If the city builds a neighborhood around giant streets and parking lots, almost everyone will drive. If we build around walking and transit, people will look for alternatives. With a better transit system, the Ford site could be at the center of the entire region. Imagine being able to hop on a train and get to downtown Minneapolis, downtown St. Paul, or the airport, all in 30 minutes?
Critics forget this is a long-term project, and the land won’t be fully developed for 20 years. For St. Paul, the Ford site vision addresses big challenges that aren’t going away. Climate change, city budget strains, and our regional housing shortage each demand urgent action. With the Ford site plan, St. Paul can act to ensure a bright future.
I am confident that, in 20 years, when I’m enjoying a great craft beer at a Ford site brewery, surrounded by a creek, homes, shops, and hundreds of people walking and biking along the riverfront, the new Ford site neighborhood will be a huge asset to the city and the region. I hope to see you there!
Bill Lindeke, Ph.D., is an urban geographer and writer. He has taught at the University of Minnesota and Metro State University, blogs at Twin City Sidewalks and streets.mn, and is a member of the Saint Paul Planning Commission.