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Divisions deep over Ford site's future as St. Paul nears vote

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St. Paul Highland Park residents at Ford site redevelopment meeting.
Around 250 people, mostly residents of St. Paul's Highland Park neighborhood, packed a meeting room at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church Tuesday night to voice support for and against a redevelopment plan for the old Ford site.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

As his neighbors trickled in to a public meeting Tuesday at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Brandon Long handed out green stickers reading, "Say yes to the Ford site plan."

Long favors the high-density development plan the city's planning commission backed earlier this month for the old Ford truck assembly site: retail shops and offices that would employ around 1,500 people, along with as many as 4,000 housing units, some in buildings 10 stories tall.

"We have a housing crisis," said Long, part of the neighborhood group Sustain Ward Three. "We need to provide houses for people. Also, we really support walkable communities that are highly connected with transit. We think that the master plan does those things. And, fiscally, we have a huge hole in our budget in the city, so we really need to expand that tax base." 

St. Paul City Council members are expected to decide in about a month whether to approve a master plan for the 135-acre tract. A public hearing is set for Sept. 20. 

Tuesday night's meeting, however, made it clear that the local debate over the Ford site's future is far from over. Neighbors remain divided, with some worried the massive proposed project will choke already busy streets in the city's Highland Park neighborhood. 

Traffic remains a big concern for many longtime Highland Park residents, including Charles Hathaway. Ahead of the meeting, he stood a few feet away from Long, handing out red signs that said, "Stop the Ford plan. Rethink the redevelopment."

The Ford plant, which closed in 2011, employed some 2,100 people at its peak. Still, Hathaway said he fears all the new residents and workers that would come as part of the high-density development plan would mean all-day traffic jams along Ford Parkway, Cretin, and Cleveland avenues. The proposal, he added, just doesn't fit a quiet neighborhood of mostly single-family mid-20th century homes. 

St. Paul Council Member Chris Tolbert discusses Ford site plan
St. Paul City Council Member Chris Tolbert discusses a plan to redevelop the site.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

"What's needed there is something that would actually make the neighborhood more beautiful, would enhance the neighborhood. What the city has proposed is nothing like that," he said. "What we'd like to see is something far less dense, and something that is actually in character with and actually blends with the neighborhood." 

Hathaway, part of group called Neighbors for a Livable St. Paul, said a proposed compromise from Council Member Chris Tolbert doesn't go far enough in reducing density. 

During the meeting, Tolbert told the standing room only crowd that he wants to limit the tallest buildings to six stories instead of 10 or else force the site's developer to add even more park land. Planners have said 21 percent of the site should be public parks, trails and open space.  

"One of the things that I've heard by and large is that we want a mixed-use development, but we also want more open and green space," Tolbert said. "I think that's a good balance for a developer to choose if they do want to go higher than six stories, to give that extra green space and open space to the community that will be built there." 

Ford expects to put the site on the market as soon as this year and may choose a developer in 2019 or 2020, said Jonathan Sage-Martinson, St. Paul's planning and economic development director. 

No matter who buys the site, the city will still insist on a highly-detailed master plan that will undergo an environmental review Sage-Martinson said, and construction wouldn't begin until at least 2021, a decade after the assembly plant closed.