21st Century Thinking: In St. Paul time to hit the pause button on 3 development projects for the 22nd Century


For as long as there have been Mayors there have been projects to complete and build before they leave City Hall.

Saint Paul and its current Mayor are no different.

Yet, there are three specific projects that ought to be have the “pause” button pressed to permit his successor, whoever he or she may be, to re-evaluate the opportunity before the taxpayers of St. Paul.

The first is the St. Paul Ford Plant property.

From 1925 to 2011 the Ford Plant was as much of the fabric of the City of St. Paul as any icon it has had since being incorporated in 1854.

While the City had known for several years that the plant was in trouble few could have envisioned that it would cease to exist completely as a manufacturer of Ford Trucks.

Fewer still would have imagined the complete removal of all of its structures and in its place a blank canvas of 135 acres of land.

To City planners the idea of reengineering 135 acres of land in an urban community is like sending a kid into a candy store without a spending limit.

Which, unfortunately, is exactly where the process of visualizing the future of the St. Paul Ford Plant has ended up.

It’s not that City planners, prodded on my politicians eager to put their imprimatur on the vast swath of land, have done anything wrong.

It’s that the process they have used, once again, was created to achieve their pre-determined vision.

On a City website where information about the planning process of the Ford Plant has been housed there is this paragraph:

“As Ford’s former Twin Cities Assembly Plant is redeveloped in the coming years, a 21st Century Community will emerge on the 135 acres of land situated along the Mississippi River. Saint Paul residents have spoken loud and clear: this site will be a livable, mixed use neighborhood that looks to the future with clean technologies and high quality design for energy, buildings and infrastructure. This site will support walking, biking and transit, and provide services, jobs and activities that every generation can enjoy. A 21st Century Community is about to unfold.”

The sentence that stands out is this one:  “Saint Paul residents have spoken loud and clear: this site will be a livable, mixed use neighborhood that looks to the future with clean technologies and high quality design for energy, buildings and infrastructure.”

Whether written by a planner – or a politician – the sentence oversells the participation of St. Paul residents in the process and undersells the significant impact any development will have on existing residents that surround the property.

So much so that if one were to poll St. Paul residents about anything other than the name of the former automaker it would likely not register a blip on the radar screen.

However, the impact on City residents, particularly those that live within its radius in St. Paul, and those who will live within its radius in Minneapolis, has had virtually no public discussion.

The second is the current bid to construct a luxury hotel on the site of the former West Publishing building on the banks of the Mississippi River.

Long considered the most desirable piece of developable property along the Mississippi River

Now, after resisting calls for decades to raze the property it is virtually complete.

Not, however, without Ramsey County officials underestimating the cost of demolition by nearly $6 million.

Technically, the City of St. Paul doesn’t own the property.   Ramsey County owns the property.

But, technically, and accurately, St. Paul taxpayers are the ones most directly impacted by the property.

One could be excused for wondering why, after decades of anticipation that only one developer – and one outside of the State of Minnesota – has presented a proposal for development.

And that the proposal is, per published media reports, something along these lines:

“Ramsey County property management director Bruce Thompson has said the proposal includes commercial office space, a five-star hotel, housing units, hospitality and event space as well as retail and restaurant space and supporting parking, according to county spokesman John Siqveland.”

Heather Worthington, deputy county manager and co-chair of the task-force assigned to guide the process had this to say about what guidelines were issued to prospective developers:

“In our request for proposals, we called for a ‘bold and architecturally significant redevelopment’ and that’s what we are looking forward to for this iconic and vital site.”

Remarkably wrong with all of this is the notion that downtown St. Paul, already seeing a growing level of commercial vacancies, should now add additional commercial office space to its inventory.

That, along with the fact that only one developer has submitted a proposal to develop this one-third mile of scenic real estate, calls for an immediate re-evaluation of the process.

And, telling the current developers and their proposal that the process is going to start all over again.

The third is the vacant lot that sits directly west of the Xcel Energy Center.

In 2014 the Pioneer Press reported on the City’s selection of a developer for city-owned 2.4-acre site.

“Opus Development Co., partnering with the Greco property management company, will develop the city-owned, 2.4-acre parking lot on West Seventh Street, pending approval from the city council. Its mixed-use development plan will also include a public plaza.”

That same story offered the following paragraph to describe the site:

“The site is bounded by Smith Avenue, Kellogg Boulevard and West Seventh and Fifth streets. It sits at the gateway to both downtown St. Paul and the West Seventh Street business corridor.”

In 2014 the vision that Opus and Greco presented, and that City officials seized upon, may have made some sense.

A new hotel and a vision to behold when visitors drove into the City from the West seems bold.

Perhaps not as bold as the decision that City officials had when they decided that the structure in front of the 2.4-acre site should be an ugly parking ramp.

But, that’s for a different post.

What has changed that should cause the City to tear up its existing development agreement with Opus Development?

It’s called the RiverCentre Parking ramp.

A May 2016 story in the Pioneer Press stated:

“A study found the nearly 50-year-old ramp on Kellogg Boulevard has about five years before it should be replaced. Visit St. Paul, the convention authority that owns the roughly 1,500-stall ramp, is asking the Legislature for $1.9 million to plan a replacement ramp, which would cost about $50 million, and a potential expansion of the Roy Wilkins Auditorium. The new ramp could prove key if a convention center hotel ever comes to town.”

I am not, I admit an architect.

But, even someone who is not an architect can tell you that replacing the RiverCentre ramp is not a $50 million project.

Perhaps it is closer to $80 to $100 million.

What is of concern to me, however, isn’t that the ramp needs to be torn down and replaced.

It’s where it should be rebuilt.

The place it should be rebuilt is not on a glorious piece of property overlooking the Mississippi River.

On the contrary.

The development envisioned for the 2.4-acre piece of vacant land across from the Xcel Energy Center should be relocated to the site of the current RiverCentre Parking Ramp.

And, the RiverCentre Parking Ramp should be built on the site of the 2.4-acre piece of vacant land across from the Xcel Energy Center.

Both projects are needed and necessary.

Unfortunately, the City has their proposed locations reversed.

It’s time to reverse them to what makes sense.

A parking ramp across the street from Xcel Energy Center.

A hotel development on the banks of the Mississippi River where a parking ramp has stood for 50 years.

Each of these development projects are going to impact the City of St. Paul and regional residents and taxpayers well past the 21st Century.

Which is exactly how we ought to be planning each of them.

Not for the 21st Century – but for the 22nd Century.

All too often Americans are criticized for their concept of “placemaking” being based on short-term vision.

Honestly, in the world of city building, 80 years is short-term vision.

Long-term vision is looking at the assets we have and asking ourselves will it sustain the vision of our City 180 years from now.

In each case with the currently proposed concepts for the Ford Plant – for the old West Publishing site – and for the 2.4 acres of vacant land across from the Xcel Energy Center – the answer is a resounding “We don’t know.”

Because we don’t know we shouldn’t allow either of these projects to proceed forward with any amount of haste and urgency.

St. Paul has taken over 160 years to get to the point of where it is today with 53 Mayors – countless City Councilmembers and City Planners – and the idea we need to shove all these projects out the door before January 2018 makes absolutely no sense.

Each of these projects are important to future generations beyond those that currently live in the 21st Century.

Let’s start talking about building a City for the 22nd Century.

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