Representatives of the University of Saint Thomas and Highland Bridge master developer Ryan Companies met on January 18 with the Highland District Council (HDC) Community Development Committee to discuss the possible construction of a new hockey arena and baseball and softball fields for the university at Highland Bridge in Highland Park.

Saint Thomas is contemplating new facilities for several of its sports programs with its recent move to NCAA Division I. “We’re currently carefully assessing our options on and off campus, and (Highland Bridge) might be one of them,” said Amy McDonough, chief of staff for Saint Thomas president Julie Sullivan. 

Ryan officials are excited about the possibility of having Saint Thomas at Highland Bridge, according to Maureen Michalski, Ryan’s vice president for real estate development. She called it a “once-in-a-generation opportunity.” 

ford site master plan
The University of Saint Thomas has been discussing with Highland Bridge master developer Ryan Companies the possibility of constructing a new hockey arena and baseball and softball fields at the southeast corner of the old Ford site (above) in Highland Park.

Ryan and Saint Thomas have been looking at the former Canadian Pacific Railway yard at the southeast corner of Highland Bridge as well as adjacent property owned by Ryan. Ryan has the 13-acre CP Railway property under contract.

Ryan is performing due diligence on the rail property, including environmental issues. The developer is also reviewing traffic, parking and infrastructure issues with Saint Thomas.

A new hockey arena is the university’s top sports priority currently. For the past two decades, it has shared Saint Thomas Academy’s hockey arena in Mendota Heights, but that arrangement is not likely to continue. The university needs a college-level ice arena with 3,500 to 5,000 seats.

The university is weighing several factors in its search for new athletic facilities, according to McDonough. Saint Thomas would like the facilities to be in Saint Paul, at a site that is convenient to mass transit and near businesses that could contribute to a good fan experience. 

 

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“If I had my druthers, we’d play all of our contests on campus,” said Phil Esten, UST vice president and director of athletics. “But we don’t have that luxury.” The campus does not have the space for the new facilities, and its expansion is restricted by the university’s 2004 conditional use permit with the city.

A new hockey arena is the university’s top sports priority currently. For the past two decades, it has shared Saint Thomas Academy’s hockey arena in Mendota Heights, but that arrangement is not likely to continue. The university needs a college-level ice arena with 3,500 to 5,000 seats, Esten said. A market analysis is now underway to determine everything that is needed in a new arena.

Saint Thomas has no timeline for building new facilities, according to Mark Vangsgaard, UST vice president for finance and chief financial officer. University officials did not mention any other possible sites for those facilities on January 18. Vangsgaard noted that “there is not a lot of undeveloped land” near campus.

UST is open to shared use of new sports facilities

One of the goals for the new facilities is that they be a “broad community asset,” McDonough said. Public use of the new facilities attracted the interest of many people at the HDC meeting. Esten outlined possible shared-use opportunities when the facilities were not being used by the university. As the parent of a young Highland ballplayer, Esten said he would be especially interested in shared field use since one of the three Highland Ball baseball
diamonds was lost with the redevelopment of the Ford site.

Saint Thomas’ new facilities would be financed largely through philanthropic donations and revenue from athletics. The university’s willingness to share the facilities could be an incentive for the city to get involved by helping with related infrastructure costs and possible tax increment financing. 

The railroad property is already tax-exempt. However, McDonough said UST would not be opposed to paying for its share of city services.

 

How would new sports facilities affect future use of CP Rail spur

One issue HDC committee members raised is traffic. Saint Thomas’ men’s and women’s hockey teams each play about 18 home games a year. UST officials discussed various transit options, including shuttle buses to transport athletes and spectators to and from games.

Another issue was how the new sports facilities would affect plans to redevelop the five-mile CP Railway spur as a new recreational trail and transit route. That plan was adopted by the City Council in 2018, though it hinges on a public entity purchasing the rail spur.

According to Ryan and UST officials, the use of the rail spur as a recreational trail would still be possible even with the new sports facilities there. The HDC is expected to vote next month on a resolution urging local units of government to push for the purchase of the rail corridor, which extends from Highland Bridge to the area around the former Schmidt Brewery in the West End.

— Jane McClure

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