A new hockey arena and new baseball and softball fields could be built for the University of Saint Thomas on the site of the 122-acre Highland Bridge development in Highland Park. Representatives of Saint Thomas and Highland Bridge master developer Ryan Companies have confirmed that the university is considering developing a portion of the former Ford Motor Company assembly plant to accommodate its newly upgraded Division I athletic programs. That property could include the former Canadian Pacific Railway yard that served the Ford plant.
Andy Ybarra, Saint Thomas’ associate vice president for public relations and communications, emphasized that the university has not finalized any decisions regarding future athletic facilities or the enhancement of existing facilities. Its greatest need is a bigger and better hockey arena. The Tommies’ men’s and women’s hockey teams currently play at Saint Thomas Academy’s arena in Mendota Heights. Baseball is played on the diamond at Cretin and Selby avenues, and softball is played on the south campus at Cretin and Goodrich avenues.
“The university is in the early stages of evaluating a range of site locations, building programs and partnership opportunities,” Ybarra said. “The Highland Bridge site is among multiple options being explored, but no plans are final. We expect to share information soon with neighbors and other community members.”
“Ryan Companies is delighted to be working with the university as it considers various sites for their new Division I athletic facilities,” said Maureen Michalski, who is serving as Ryan’s lead on Highland Bridge. “These include the potential of Highland Bridge and the adjacent CP Rail parcel.”
“Ryan Companies is delighted to be working with the university as it considers various sites for their new Division I athletic facilities,” said Maureen Michalski, who is serving as Ryan’s lead on Highland Bridge. “These include the potential of Highland Bridge and the adjacent CP Rail parcel. Meanwhile, we continue to advance Highland Bridge as envisioned and seek opportunities to support the master plan. We look forward to sharing more as we continue to explore this opportunity.”
Ward 3 City Council member Chris Tolbert called the idea “intriguing,” but said he will wait to see what materializes. He also said that if a Highland Bridge site is chosen by Saint Thomas, a lot of community review and other public processes would lie ahead.
CP Rail officials declined to comment. The railway began removing track from its 13-acre yard late last year. The former railyard is at the southeast corner of the former Ford plant. It is part of the Ford site master plan the Saint Paul City Council approved in 2017 and amended in 2019. However, new uses for the railyard were not indicated in the master plan because it was not part of the land that Ryan purchased from Ford.
During the Ford site planning process, the railyard was zoned as a gateway to the Highland Bridge development. Gateway districts are intended to accommodate offices, institutions or retail and service businesses, although recreational uses are also allowed. The minimum building height in the gateway zone is 30 feet, and the maximum is 65 feet. Saint Paul does not have a specific zone for sports facilities, though most are located in residential areas.
No request has been filed with the city to change the Ford site master plan. “Any substantial amendment to the Ford Site Zoning and Public Realm Master Plan would require the same review and approval process as took place with the master plan initially,” said Luis Pereira, the director of planning in the Saint Paul Department of Planning and Economic Development (PED). “This includes review by the city’s Planning Commission and action by the City Council.”
The old railyard and the tracks that extend east of it have been eyed for other uses in the past. PED led a study of the entire rail spur that in 2018 recommended reusing it as a recreational trail and transit route. The rail spur extends from the old Ford plant to the area around the former Schmidt Brewery in the West End.
— Jane McClure
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