Concerns about traffic, noise and the loss of trees and property tax revenue dominated a Highland Business Association Lunch and Learn session on June 13 on the University of Saint Thomas’ proposal to build a sports complex at the Highland Bridge site. More than three dozen people attended the meeting, where UST officials outlined their plans for a new hockey arena, baseball and softball stadiums, an indoor practice facility and a parking ramp.

UST sports complex
A diagram of Highland Bridge showing the area under study for a new UST sports complex.

The need for the new facilities is a result of UST’s move from Division III to Division I in collegiate sports, according to UST vice president and athletic director Phil Esten. The intent, Esten said, is to provide the “best possible experience” for students, who would use the facilities for varsity and intramural sports and other activities.

Residents of the surrounding neighborhood are wary of the presence of a large sports complex. They said that their questions about the proposed facilities have not been answered by the city or Highland Bridge master developer Ryan Companies.

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The potential traffic, noise, lighting and other impacts from UST’s proposed sports complex will be addressed in an Alternative Urban Areawide Review. A public meeting on the AUAR is planned for July 26 at Lumen Christi Church in Highland Village.

One major concern is the wooded area adjacent to the former Canadian Pacific rail yard where the sports complex is planned. Trees there were tagged earlier this year. Last year almost 90 trees along Mississippi River Boulevard—many of them right behind homes on Colby Avenue—were removed to make way for a walking path. The neighbors do not want to lose more trees.

“We have owls, we have foxes. We just had a deer run across our lawn,” said local resident Pam Ginther. Removing more trees would take away the “soft edge” between the new Highland Bridge development and the existing neighborhood, she said. When plans for redeveloping the site of Ford Motor Company’s former assembly plant were announced, neighbors were told there would be a transitional space between the development and the neighborhood, according to Ginther.

Another issue is the tunnel that was built last year beneath Mississippi River Boulevard between Highland Bridge and Hidden Falls Regional Park. The tunnel has been a magnet for illegal activity, including graffiti, and has been fenced off. Local resident Jean Birilis said that she and her neighbors have had problems with trespassers after the tunnel opened.

The potential traffic, noise, lighting and other impacts from UST’s proposed sports complex will be addressed in an Alternative Urban Areawide Review (AUAR), according to Maureen Michalski, vice president of development at Ryan Companies. A public meeting on the AUAR is planned for July 26 at Lumen Christi Church in Highland Village. A similar study was done five years ago for the Ford site master plan.

Local resident Gary Marx asked if the hockey arena would be pressed into service for other purposes, ranging from commencement exercises to concerts. Non-sports uses are a possibility, according to Esten, but hockey would be the arena’s primary use. Esten said a second sheet of ice also has not been ruled out.

Most of the athletic complex would occupy the site of the Canadian Pacific rail yard, Michalski said. That 13-acre parcel was not included in master developer Ryan Companies’ 2019 purchase of the 122-acre Ford Plant site. However, Ryan has the CP Rail property under contract. If plans for the sports complex are approved, the property would be sold to UST.

The sports complex would also occupy the proposed site of Mica Park and two blocks near Montreal and Cleveland avenues where new housing and offices were originally planned. Mica Park would be relocated. Ryan is working with Project for Pride in Living and CommonBond Communities to relocate 110 units of affordable housing elsewhere at Highland Bridge. The other 65 units of market-rate housing would not be replaced. Neither would the 200,000 square feet of office space, given the downturn in the office market.

UST has been working with the architectural firm Populus on its plans. Populus, which was involved in the design of Allianz Field, has helped UST assess its existing sports facilities along with its future needs.

The UST men’s and women’s hockey teams have been playing in the arena at Saint Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights for the past two decades.

UST’s baseball team plays its games on the north campus at Cretin and Selby avenues. Moving the field would allow for other uses at that site, Esten said.

UST’s softball team shares a field on the south campus at Cretin and Good­rich avenues with the university’s soccer teams. That shared use has raised issues of equity, according to Esten.

The arena, ballfields and parking ramp would be well designed and constructed in keeping with the facilities on UST’s north and south campus, Esten said. Local baseball, softball and hockey associations have been in discussions with UST about sharing the proposed facilities, he said. However, shared use has to be done in a way that does not violate NCAA regulations, he added.

Questions were raised about the impact the proposed changes in land uses at Highland Bridge would have on job creation, the property tax base and the tax increment financing district at Highland Bridge. Michalski said those questions will be answered in the weeks ahead.

— Jane McClure

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. gretchenburke

    I agree completely Susan.
    This is a poor idea for many reasons not the least of which is the fiscal impact to the city.

    Villager team please investigate and publish the financial impact of this plan.

    Gretchen Burke, Merriam Park

  2. jenetl

    How does St. Thomas gaining sports complexes in Highland Bridge benefit St. Paul? Won’t they take away property that would otherwise add to our tax base? Would St. Paul taxpayer money in fact go toward St Thomas’s sports complex in the form of TIFF? Swapping yet more tax-exempt real estate in St. Paul for taxable real estate sounds like the exact opposite of what St. Paul needs right now, with 25% of our property already tax exempt. St. Thomas should have had a solution to their sports complex problem before they applied for D1 status, not after.

    Susan Crosby, Highland Park

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