I Love St. Paul

As a lifelong Minneapolitan I’ve lived a scant 1.5 years in St. Paul. They were wonderful, and nowadays I frequently visit St. Paul for shopping, dining, entertainment and just to get perspective on my own city. St. Paul has a wonderful opportunity to create a new neighborhood and catalyze that through preservation of a piece of its history. I’m talking about the Ford Plant site and preserving a portion of its Grande Moderne facade as a open air promenade and focal point for surrounding residential and mixed-use development. The following proposal was posted at Joe Urban a few weeks ago:

Could the main facade of the Ford Plant be preserved as part of a public park/promenade?

 Main Facade

Shown in the photograph at left is a section of the former Ford Plant in St. Paul that seems to offer a wonderful opportunity for preservation and placemaking. Is it possible to remove the sections of windows and keep the columns so it would look and function something like this portion of Bethesda Terrace, shown below?


As you can see at left, while the end of this facade faces the Mississippi River, its length is perhaps 300 feet long. Having a 300-foot long promenade with open access like the image of Bethesda Terrace would make for a really interesting and wonderful place to stroll.

Bethesda Terrace 3

I propose opening up the window wells on the north and west-facing facades and making them accessible at ground level. Preserve/strengthen the roof for a covered but open-air promenade. I suppose the south and east-facing side would need to be created from scratch to match that of the old north and west facades. I’m assuming a level concrete floor inside could be largely left in place, if that is indeed what exists.

The park promenade could be lined by walking/bicycle paths on and other park facilities on its exterior as well. And it ends close to the Mississippi River and boulevard, which makes a lot of sense in terms of creating a park. The promenade could be used for events like farmers markets, concerts, weddings and reunions. And it need not be entirely open air, either, and could be partially enclosed for use as a restaurant or other semi-public use. Overall, though, the renovated structure would be the focal point for a new city park, Ford Park.

A review of the City of St. Paul’s Ford Plant page reveals no specific plan for preserving this portion of the building. However, Scenario 5 in the “Phase I Planning Document” hints at the possibility that it could indeed be preserved, presumably for its architectural interest, although a specific use is not given. I have provided a specific use.

I’ll give you a million reasons why this is a good idea. The first one is preserving a portion of the Ford Plant that has such an important role in the history of the city of St. Paul and the Twin Cities. This section of the building’s facade is really quite attractive, see?


You won’t see this type of thing built again, so once it’s gone….In a way, it would be criminal to tear it down. Creating a park promenade provides an opportunity to preserve some beauty in what is otherwise a challenging building to reuse.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was on the consulting team with Colliers International in 2007 that advised the City of St. Paul and the planning team on the creation of the above-rederenced five scenarios. At this time I have nothing but personal interest in my community (I live just across the river in Minneapolis).

Besides preserving a piece of our past that we preserve too little of, doing it as part of a park not only allows the general public to appreciate the past but use it in the future. How cool would it be to host an event in the shell of the former Ford Plant?

Also, and perhaps most importantly, preserving this piece of the past as the centerpiece of a new park may increase the value of development parcels around it. As we know from the Colliers market study in 2007, and this is still true today, the land is very valuable as potential new development for the city. Leveraging the value creation of a wonderful park space by selling parcels around it for development could help pay for its renovation – in other words, I think this idea if done well could add value to the redevelopment and frame some nice residential buildings around it.

Just imagine a wonderful stroll from the wonderful businesses in Highland, along Ford Park Promenade and down to the Mississippi River. If it is at all physically possible, the promenade should be actively pursued…now, before it’s gone.

Since posting this, I have made sure that representatives from Ford, the City of St. Paul PED, Councilmember Tolbert, district council folks, preservationists and urbanists alike. Many like the idea, which goes beyond simply saving a portion of this treasure for posterity by actually putting it to use.

The sticking point is this weird purgatory the site is in. By not getting any historic designation, there has been no money raised to save a portion of the building. The biggest problem, as all parties I have reached out to, is no developer has made an offer for the site, much less try and execute my vision. (And I don’t have a million dollars.) Of course not – why would a developer make an offer on a site when so much is still unknown about contamination and underground soil conditions? Without a developer coming forward soon with an offer to purchase the site and save this portion of the building, it will be lost. Are you listening, Ryan Companies? Or anyone?

Common sense tells me to calm down, understand the situation and let the chips fall where they may. My heart says this is insane. This idea for Ford Park not only preserves a piece of the Twin Cities, it helps leverage a vision for the site as a new neighborhood in St. Paul. Unless a developer comes forward this month, it is time for the City to take leadership on this issue and become the master developer. Are you listening, Mayor Coleman? The site is worth a monstrous amount of money as developed with an attractive mixed-use, primarily residential community surrounding Ford Park along the Mississippi River. Ford Park only adds to that economic return.

The bottom line is cost, of course, and who pays that cost, since at least a portion of this preservation effort would require a little upfront investment for both city and potential developer. However, it is far costlier to both the soul of the city and economic potential of the site to let it all come down. We only have a few months.

Getting this right would be one more huge reason to love St. Paul.

Sam Newberg

About Sam Newberg

Sam Newberg, a.k.a. Joe Urban, is an urbanist, real estate consultant and writer. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two kids, and his website is www.joe-urban.com.