A new hockey arena, baseball and softball fields, a practice facility, public plaza and parking ramp are all included in the University of Saint Thomas’ preliminary plans for a portion of the Highland Bridge site in Highland Park. Representatives of UST and Ford site master developer Ryan Companies discussed the possibilities with the Highland District Council (HDC) Community Development Committee on February 15.

A corner of the former Ford Motor Company assembly plant property is just one of the locations UST is studying for new athletic facilities to accommodate its recent jump from NCAA Division III to Division I sports. Another site that Saint Thomas had been exploring was the Town & Country Club golf course at Marshall and Cretin avenues.

Town & Country leadership sent out a message to its members in mid-February saying the club had received an unsolicited proposal from the University of Saint Thomas to purchase the club’s property east of Otis Avenue for $61.4 million. The sale would include the entire golf course, but not the clubhouse, pool and other amenities west of Otis.

An artist's rendering of the Highland Bridge development when fully built out shows the Canadian Pacific Railway yard where the University of Saint Thomas is considering building its new hockey arena and baseball and softball fields That is the muddy area in the lower right hand corner of the development.

“To be clear, none of the club’s property has been made available for sale, and this proposal was entirely unsolicited,” the Town & Country leadership stated. The club’s board was planning to engage its membership on the issue immediately.

Andy Ybarra, UST’s associate vice president of communications, confirmed the university’s interest in the Town & Country property on February 18. “Saint Thomas is continuing to evaluate multiple possibilities for developing new facilities to support its Division I athletics programs and accommodate any longer-term plans for campus growth,” Ybarra said. “At the suggestion of an independent consultant, the university’s board of trustees authorized Saint Thomas to present a letter of intent to Town & Country Club to gauge its interest in selling a portion of its property.”

The Town & Country Club later informed Saint Thomas that it was not interested in selling.

“The club has informed us it is not interested in engaging with the university on this matter,” Ybarra said. “Saint Thomas understands and respects this decision. We appreciate that Town & Country’s leadership brought our interest forward to its membership, and we thank them for their consideration.” 

The Tommies currently play hockey in the arena at Saint Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights and baseball and softball on its Saint Paul campus. However, UST does not have the space on campus to accommodate all of the sports facilities it needs.  If the Highland Bridge site is chosen, and fundraising and city approvals go smoothly, construction could begin in 2023 and the facilities could be operating by 2024.

Ford site zoning would allow for Saint Thomas sports facilities

UST and Ryan are looking at the 13.5-acre Canadian Pacific Railway yard at Highland Bridge and the property immediately around it. The rail yard, which is located at the southeast corner of the Highland Bridge property, has been dormant since the Ford Plant closed in 2011. According to Maureen Michalski, who is overseeing the Ford site redevelopment project for Ryan, the UST facilities could offer many benefits to Highland Bridge and the surrounding neighborhood.

Ryan bought the 122-acre Highland Bridge site from Ford a few years ago and has the rail yard property under contract. The athletic facilities would be located in an area zoned for “gateway” or institutional uses in the Ford site master plan. That zoning allows for the type of facilities UST is planning, according to city staff, though they are different from the uses proposed in the Ford site master plan.

Athletic facilities would displace new offices, housing and park

For that section of Highland Bridge, the master plan has penciled in 200,000 square feet of office space, 110 units of affordable housing and 55 other rental housing units. The 110 affordable housing units could be built elsewhere at Highland Bridge, Michalski said, though the office space and other rental units would probably have to be scratched.

The plan unveiled on February 15 also calls for relocating the planned 1.5-acre Míča Park to the west. The park would be just as large in the new location, Michalski said, but it also would be more accessible to the public and not as steeply sloped.

Ryan has discussed with city officials the effect the change in land uses would have on future property tax revenue. Like UST, the CP Railway and park properties are already tax-exempt, but the new uses for the remaining parcels may call for adjustments.

HDC committee members liked what they saw in UST’s preliminary plans, although there was some skepticism about future traffic estimates. According to Michalski, swapping 200,000 square feet of office space for new athletic facilities would likely bring an overall reduction in traffic. UST officials are expecting about 50 hockey games and 50 baseball and softball games every year. However, the seasons for these sports do not overlap, so large events would not occur at the same time. 

The athletic facilities would “without a doubt” be available for use by the general public, according to Phil Esten, UST’s vice president and director of athletics. “We know there’s a need for ice time in the community,” Esten said. The parking ramp would also be available for general use, he added.

HDC committee member Jim Schoettler asked Ryan Companies representatives to consider the potential effect UST’s plans would have on the Riverview Corridor streetcar line that has been proposed from downtown Saint Paul to Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport and the Mall of America. The proposed route of the streetcar is along West Seventh Street, but it could be routed through the Ford site as well.

According to Michalski, a Ryan staff member is involved in the Riverview Corridor transit studies and is tracking that planning closely. She said the master developer is also willing to accommodate plans for a new bicycle and pedestrian trail and possibly a transit line along the CP Rail spur that leads from the Ford site. She said the redevelopment of the rail yard is being designed with space for a rail spur connection in the future.

— Jane McClure


The Villager welcomes comments from readers. Please include your full name and the neighborhood in which you live. Be respectful of others and stay on topic. We reserve the right to remove any comment we deem to be profane, rude, insulting or hateful. Comments will be reviewed before being published.


house ad