Why the City of St. Paul’s Plan for the Ford Site is Wrong for Highland
By Charles Hathaway, on behalf of Neighbors for a Livable St. Paul
Imagine that you had poured your heart and soul into making something remarkable, something you were very proud of. Imagine you had built up your own brewpub from scratch. You found the building, invested in the equipment, planned the layout, spent long nights and weekends developing the look of the interior and creating a lovely, pleasant outdoor patio area, and brought in great employees. And after many years, all of this hard work has brought success. Your brewpub is immensely popular. People love what you’ve created; they can feel it’s simply a great place to be. You’re proud of it—and you should be.
Then one day you find out the city is planning to allow the installation of a metal shredder—a car and scrap metal recycling operation—next door. It’ll be loud and clanky, and in addition to the noise there will be dust and air pollution issues, and large trucks hauling scrap in and out 24/7. There will be new traffic and parking problems. As a result, your brewpub will become much less pleasant, and will lose its charm and appeal. You can see that your truly admirable creation will be greatly degraded.
How would you feel about that? Would it seem right to you?
Let that settle in for a moment and you’ll have a sense of why Highland neighbors are opposed to the city’s proposal for the Ford site redevelopment.
Set on the east bluffs of the Mississippi River, Highland is a quiet, green, charming residential neighborhood with a small commercial area the locals call “the Village.” You only need to walk or bike down a few of the pleasant tree-lined streets and look at the variety of mostly modest, older but well-kept homes, and you’ll understand what people love about it—and why even people who don’t live there say, “Highland’s a great neighborhood!”
Communities are about values, and the values that made Highland what it is are worth preserving. People there are friendly, they respect their neighbors, look out for each other, generally live responsibly and peaceably; the crime rate is low versus other Metro areas. Highland is what it is today because of the commitment and values of the people who settled in the community and who have lived there for generations. In this regard Highland is no different from many great St. Paul and Minneapolis neighborhoods, where the residents themselves have shaped the character of the area over many decades. But it is the Highland community that will be most affected by the Ford proposal.
Why are people in the community against the city’s proposal? The St. Paul planning department has admirable intentions, including the promotion of a mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly, bike-friendly, transit-friendly development featuring a healthy tax base and range of housing types and costs. Several aspects of the city’s proposal are favorable. However, it fails unforgivably to achieve a critical objective.
The city’s stated vision for the Ford site is that redevelopment should take place in a way that “conserves and improves the qualities and characteristics of the unique Highland Park neighborhood.” But rather than conserving and improving the neighborhood’s qualities and characteristics, the redevelopment endorsed by the city’s plan disregards the neighborhood’s unique characteristics and diminishes its quality.
The city’s proposed plan calls for a mini-metropolis to be shoehorned into the midst of this peaceful residential neighborhood. It features massive, looming apartment complexes up to 10 stories high, grossly out-of-character with the existing neighborhood. The redeveloped Ford site would have minimal space allowed for parks and recreation. The tenant population at the site would be comparable to that of the most densely populated urban areas in the nation.
In supporting the plan, the planning department brushes away the many negative impacts that are anticipated: overtaxing of existing local amenities such as the athletic fields, library, and rec center; parking spillover into the surrounding neighborhoods; overburdening of local public services such as police, fire department, and schools; diminished residential property values; and the worsening of an already difficult traffic situation in and around the neighborhood’s central shopping district.
What neighbors want is a development that harmonizes with the great neighborhood and community that is Highland, and makes it even better. One that features a density much more in line with what the neighborhood currently has. That promotes, through its design, community-building and integration with the neighborhood. That provides the open recreational field and park space the area needs. That features building sizes and architecture of scale and form in line with the existing neighborhood. That through thoughtful blending of housing types, minimizes the negative impacts the population increase will have on the city’s ability to provide public services—including minimizing the inevitable worsening of traffic congestion in the neighborhood.
The neighborhood understands that the Ford site will not remain vacant, that it’ll be developed at some point. Change is coming, but the coming changes need to make the neighborhood better, not worse.
Charles Hathaway is a lifelong resident of St. Paul, having grown up in the Merriam Park neighborhood. He has lived with his family in the Highland area just north of the Ford site for more than 20 years. A civil engineer, he has been a member of the city’s Ford Site Task Force since its inception in 2007.