Density? Or just getting real about the future?


In our focus on Highland Park this year, we will once again take a look at the Ford Site Development Plan. Because a lot has happened over there in the intervening year, a lot of ink has been used covering the complex debate, and there are echoes in Highland Park at least of the battle underway on the Minneapolis side over the Minneapolis2040 Plan. (And 2040 also happens to be the target date for the Ford Site Plan to finally come to fruition—yes, it’s that big and ambitious a project.) We’re going to use the epistolary technique to give a sense of the unfolding story of the past year through news stories, blog posts and excerpts from online articles, with occasional interjections.

On Dec. 19, 2017, in, an online newspaper: “If you’re a deep-pocketed developer looking to build the neighborhood of the future—something environmentally-sustainable, heavy on apartments and bike- and public transit-friendly—look no further. Ford Land, the real estate division of Ford Motor Co., has officially put the company’s 144-acre former manufacturing site in St. Paul’s Highland Park community on the market for sale to private developers. The land is being marketed through the CBRE Group, a real estate firm.”

Note the acreage.

On Feb. 12, 2018, in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune: “Developers have less than two weeks to submit offers for their vision for the former Ford plant site in St. Paul. Real estate services company CBRE, which has been marketing the site since December, said offers were due by Feb. 23. The company said it has already received ‘considerable interest’ for the 143-acre property… ”

Hmm, it seems to have lost an acre. I wonder if that was the result of overzealous environmental remediation, which Ford was just about to finish up on this date.

On June 25, 2018, in “The national developer behind the CHS Field ballpark in St. Paul and the Downtown East project in Minneapolis will oversee the redevelopment of the former Ford Motor Co. plant area in the … Highland Park neighborhood. Ford, which still owns the 122-acre site that its manufacturing campus once sat on, has selected Minneapolis-based Ryan Cos. as the master developer for what will become a ‘a connected, livable, mixed-use neighborhood that looks to the future’… ”

Wow, now it lost 21 more acres. What’s going on over there?

What, indeed. Highland Park has divided into two politely (apart from the occasional lawn sign theft or salty language in a public meeting) warring camps, spearheaded by the organizations Neighbors for a Livable Saint Paul (whose red signs say Stop!) and Sustain Ward 3 (whose green signs say Yes!). Even though it’s pretty much a done deal now, with a developer chosen and all—excuse me, that’s a Master Developer—the battle rages on. Did I mention that the plan will take up to 20 years to complete, and up to two years to even start? Even though it’s called a master plan with a master developer, the devil or angel is in the details, and details are what they are fighting over. You can’t really simplify this to NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) vs. YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard)—yes, YIMBY is a thing now, although what sort of a thing is very much part of the debate we’re talking about here, because the thing is going to be in Highland Park’s back yard one way or another. The debate is about the kind of thing. Will it be ten stories max, or four? Or compromise at six? Will it be walkable, bike-friendly? Well, OK, but not too bike-friendly. They’re being mean to car owners! O the humanity! Back to the epistles:

On July 3, 2018, in, an article by Jay Walljasper, first published in CityLab a week earlier, summarizes the generational nature of the clash: “Indeed, the Ford site debate often broke along generational lines. ‘You had older people who were concerned about traffic, and you had younger people who said, “I want to live there!” ’ says Jane McClure, a local journalist who has covered Highland Park for 33 years in The Villager neighborhood newspaper.”

One interesting portal into this local debate is via a nationwide organization called Strong Towns. Interestingly, both sides of the debate seem to claim Strong Towns as an ally. For instance, the Livable Side linked to this story in the Strong Towns blog, “The NIMBYs Are Right, Development Is Terrible,” by Austin Maitland, March 5, 2018 (excerpts): “WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?

“So how can planners and developers respond? To start, we must recognize that resistance to development usually implies a false dichotomy: develop or don’t develop. In reality, there is an important third option: change how to develop. Development patterns are heavily influenced, if not entirely dictated, by municipal zoning codes. At present, these codes prescribe the kinds of development fueling NIMBYism. Therefore, reasonable arguments put forth by NIMBYs can help guide the much-needed analysis and reform of our zoning laws. …

“With some basic zoning reform, we can get to a place where new development doesn’t automatically mean more traffic, higher taxes and less open space. But the government has to get out of the way and allow developers to pursue more cost-effective, spatially-efficient development patterns. It’s not easy to build widespread support for something as unsexy as zoning reform. Luckily, we have dedicated, passionate groups of people all over the country making a powerful case for change. For that, NIMBYs, we thank you.”

But before that, a local activist, Nathaniel (Nate) Hood, who is a contributing member of Strong Towns, as well as a frequent contributor to, a YIMBY, transit systems and bike-affirming blog, had written a blogpost on the Strong Towns blog that gave major and precise insights into the two camps, with a lot of compassion for the Livables, even though he is a founding member of Sustain Ward 3. Strong Towns blog, “Who Gets to Decide How a Neighborhood Is Developed,” by Nate Hood, September 6, 2017 (excerpts): “THE EQUITY GAP.

“There’s also the narrative of a stark wealth gap pitting equity-rich homeowners against first-time home buyers. It’s hard not to notice that “STOP” signs are sprouting up in front of the million dollar mega-mansions of Mississippi River Boulevard and Mount Curve while the “YES” signs are being proudly displayed in front of modest, but well-kept, homes and apartment buildings. This is another partially true narrative exacerbated by millennials—shock and awe that homes here were once purchased for reasonable amounts of money. Every time someone stands up at a meeting and says, ‘I’ve lived here for 30 years …’ the younger audience thinks, ‘I bet you bought that $700,000 house for $150,000.’ ”

Go to to read the whole article. Worth it.

Even though it was written nearly a year ago, the closing paragraphs of Nate Hood’s blog post are still relevant to the debate because they place the debate in a historical context of shifting demographics and a way of life that is just no longer sustainable even now, but certainly not in 2040: “ ‘Neighborhood character’ is a vague term used to describe the ‘feel’ of a neighborhood. But it’s usually limited to people within bubbles. The neighborhood character of Highland Park, as many see it, is that of single-family homes along Mount Curve Boulevard, set among the mature trees lining the Mississippi River. This is true. But it’s also true that 45% of the neighborhood is composed of renters, 25% are people of color, and 10% of residents live below the poverty line. Go to the intersection of West 7th Street and Maynard Drive and start asking people about neighborhood character. You may get a completely different answer.

“And while the conversation divide is pointed at topics like density and traffic, those are just subsets of the real questions: Who owns the city? and Who are we making the city for? It’s about the changing culture of a neighborhood and who it’s going to accommodate. I think the usual narratives are too simple. It’s not exclusively generational, nor is it rich versus poor. That’s the simple answer.”

PHOTO CAPTION: Vision of future of Ford site

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