Most zoning districts and the level of housing density remain largely unchanged

Looking toward the southeast is this artist's rendering of the Ford site when fully built out according to the master plan for redeveloping the 122-acre site.

By Jane McClure

The redevelopment of Ford Motor Company’s former assembly plant in Highland Park is moving ahead with a set of master plan and zoning amendments unanimously approved by the St. Paul City Council on May 13. The vote ended several weeks of debate over the changes that had been sought by master developer Ryan Companies.

Ryan officials and Ward 3 City Council member Chris Tolbert emphasized that the land uses, most zoning districts and the level of housing density remain largely unchanged from the master plan approved by the City Council in March 2017 and amended at Ryan’s request in March 2019. However, as the development proceeds, Tolbert anticipates more amendment requests. “This is a large site with a lot of complexities,” he said. “There are likely to be more changes.” 

Market forces affected by the COVID-19 pandemic could also come into play as Ryan brings in more development partners, Tolbert said. That is especially likely in the areas set aside for retail businesses. “The retail environment is changing as we speak,” Tolbert said. “It’s a difficult situation for retailers, and that part of the plan is something we may have to revisit.”

Market forces affected by the COVID-19 pandemic could also come into play as Ryan brings in more development partners, Tolbert said. That is especially likely in the areas set aside for retail businesses. “The retail environment is changing as we speak,” Tolbert said. “It’s a difficult situation for retailers, and that part of the plan is something we may have to revisit.”

Ryan officials were pleased with the City Council’s vote. “While we didn’t get all the amendments that were requested, we feel that the considerations provided in the amendments, including the updates provided by council member Tolbert, give us the most critical adjustments needed to deliver the vision of the master plan,” the developer said in a statement.

Many of the amendments were technical in nature. They addressed building height and setback, the design of underground parking, and where supportive housing, townhouses and rowhouses may be built. Zoning district boundaries were adjusted to match platted streets. Other changes were made to line up the master plan with the development agreement approved last year by the City Council.

 

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Among the more controversial changes was the redesign of Woodlawn Avenue that cuts through the Ford site. The master plan had envisioned Woodlawn as a 23-foot-wide right-of-way shared by cars, bicycles and pedestrians. Ryan and the St. Paul Department of Public Works wanted to create a more traditional city street with public sidewalks on either side and some on-street parking, and that was what was approved.

Heidi Schallberg, a member of the St. Paul Planning Commission’s transportation advisory committee and a former member of the Highland District Council (HDC) Transportation Committee, was among those who took issue with that change, saying that it runs contrary to current efforts to encourage motorists to travel at lower speeds. Schallberg also objected to the lack of time given to the HDC to review the proposed change. The HDC and its committees took no positions on the zoning and master plan amendments.

Another controversial amendment adopted by the City Council removed the requirement for commercial space at the southeast corner of the Ford site. While most of the commercially zoned property on the Ford site is on the north end near Ford Parkway, the master plan had required that 10 percent of building space in the southeast corner of the site be earmarked for commercial use.

Ryan officials contended that the requirement could make it more difficult to obtain financing for residential development, especially low-income housing. The Planning Commission’s Zoning Committee reduced the commercial space requirement to 5 percent in March, but the full commission restored it to 10 percent in April. Tolbert pointed out that the plan as amended by the City Council does not preclude a building at the southeast corner from having commercial space, but leaves it up to the developer.

Another amendment approved by the City Council at Tolbert’s request allows faith-based institutions to be located in the zoning district along Mississippi River Boulevard. The Planning Commission, on a split vote, had rejected that amendment.

The public was not allowed to testify in person on the Ford plan amendments due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so the City Council reviewed two dozen pages of public comments received by phone and email.

Mount Curve Boulevard resident Rose Sherman said that while she has supported the Ford site redevelopment plans in the past, the changes give the impression of a “bait and switch.” She is particularly worried about increased traffic.

The redevelopment “is not integrating with the existing community,” said Highland Parkway resident Emily Saunders. Citing potential changes to the quality of life in the adjacent neighborhoods, Saunders added, “Please stop the corporate greed.”

Ryan recently sold portions of the Ford site to Project for Pride in Living (PPL) and Weidner Apartment Homes for their respective housing developments. Additional partners are expected to be announced in the future for residential, commercial and mixed-use developments.

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Dale Mischke

    Heidi, we corrected the posted story on our website and will run a correction in the next Villager issue. Thank you for pointing that out. Dale Mischke, Villager editor

  2. Heidi

    My comments referenced in this article were submitted as written testimony to the city on these amendments. The article misstates the committee on which I serve that I referenced in that written statement. I currently serve as a member of the city’s Transportation Committee, which advises the city’s Planning Commission. Although I have served on the Highland District Council’s Transportation Committee in the past, I have not been a member of that committee for over a year and would not identify myself as such.

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