When you teach urban geography, you inevitably come across the concept of “post-Fordism.” The term refers to the shifting economic and geographic arrangements that followed in the wake of globalization, automation, and technological revolutions. The concept is best illustrated by the transformation of the auto industry in places like Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and elsewhere in the so-called “rust belt.”
And maybe also in Minnesota, where even in the relatively-balanced economic clime of our semi-agricultural, somewhat-technologically-savvy Twin Cities metro area, there were auto factories and they employed thousands of people but eventually closed. The Southwestern corner of Saint Paul practically grew up around the old Highland Park Ford car and truck factory, which lasted for a long time. The plant was a stunning example of industrial integration during its heyday, but finally dwindled down to nothing after decades of producing Ford Rangers. It closed in 2011 and was, at the time it shut down, the oldest Ford factory on Planet Earth.
But things change and now there are about 150 acres of somewhat polluted land on a prime spot in the heart of the Twin Cities metro, right next to a bunch of existing or planned high-capacity transit corridors. And right now demand for smaller, affordable, mixed-use housing is huge — and projected to grow immensely as demographic changes continue. It’s a dream come true for urban planners, and it’s a tabula rasa chance for Saint Paul to build a neighborhood designed around the future.
The land is currently being cleaned up by the Ford company. So far, there have been years of work putting together ideas for the site. the hope is that, once these broad plans are adopted, a Ford will sell the site to a willing developer who will flesh out these guidelines into a detailed proposal.
Here are my five favorite things about the plans so far.
1. The most sustainable new neighborhood in Saint Paul
Granted, “sustainability” is one of those buzz words that loses meaning when you repeat it three times, as if Beetlejuice wielded a semantic vacuum. But as I write this on a 62º day on February 17th, my kitchen windows open to the warm breeze, one tends toward embracing the concept of reducing one’s environmental footprint. And like it or not, meaningfully reducing the carbon pollution that’s tied of living life in Saint Paul means increasing density by living in smaller homes with smaller footprints. (That shouldn’t be a problem because household size is dramatically less than it was 25 or 50 years ago!)
And building sustainable community means reducing the need to drive. Prius or no, transportation pollution is a huge driver of climate change. That’s why it’s great that the Ford plan does marvelous job at tackling both of those goals. Density and transit are so intertwined, it’s often challenging to get them to work together. It’s a classic “chicken-and-egg” problem: “we can’t build walkable units because there’s no transit, and we can’t build transit because there isn’t any density.”
Well here we can do both at once. It’s a rare chance to get land use and transportation to work seamlessly together. If we care about climate change, it’s important to design cities that allow people to live out their values.
2. Aging in Place
Like it or not, baby boomers are getting old. If they’re honest with themselves, many people who are aging shouldn’t really be driving in a few years. Eyesight and reflexes start to go, and the last thing you want to do is drive through a complicated neighborhood at night. Not to mention shoveling the sidewalk…
The “empty nester” phenomenon is exactly why the demand for low-car, walkable, maintenance-lite housing is skyrocketing. That’s exactly the kind of housing this plan puts at the center.
Imagine walking on clean well-kept sidewalks to the store, sitting on a bench and watching a stream, staying active without going to the gym, and doing all of it in the city (or neighborhood) right in the heart of Saint Paul. Over the last few years, many of my retired friends and relatives have admitted to me that they were thinking about selling their houses, and downsizing to simplify their lives. Will they go downtown? Along the Green Line? Or might there be other choices for places to live where you can lead an active low-hassle life?
The “silver tsunami” (as some call it) is a great reason why we ought to be building urban density in the heart of Highland. It will allow thousands of retired people, many of whom already live in Saint Paul, to stick around even after they sell the old house.
3. Transit Potential
This site sits right along the Twin Cities first aBRT (arterial bus rapid transit) line, the A-line, which has already exceeded its ridership expectations after only being in service for a few months. Plus it’s close to the Blue Line light rail just across the river, and is on a dedicated transit right-of-way built through the site. (The Riverview Corridor project might also go through the heart of this site. And even if it doesn’t, two excellent transit corridors will be built and/or improved here regardless.)
A lot of people have expressed concerns about traffic that would be generated by the site. (See for example, this streets.mn piece about more traffic on Cretin Avenue.) That concern makes sense if you assume that everyone in this development will have similar transportation habits as your typical 1990s family.
But if you look at vehicle miles traveled and car ownership data, you find there is a lot of variability based on what kind of housing and neighborhood you live in. Some neighborhoods, it’s easy and convenient to get around without a car, and people rarely drive. In others, it’s impossible to get anywhere without a car, and taking the bus is a pain in the ass. People in those places drive all the time.
This is a long way of saying that the traffic projections that the engineers and consultants put together — done, by the way, by Nelson Nygaard, who are national experts in traffic projection analysis — are perfectly reasonable assumptions. The overall impact of the traffic growth is pretty small considering the “payoff” that Saint Paul and the neighborhood will get out of it.
Which kind of neighborhood do we want? With a blank slate, the city has a real choice about what kind of place to build for the future. If we want low-traffic development, we can make it here. (For example, an extreme case: the city of Vancouver has grown by hundreds of thousands of people and car traffic has gone down.)
4. Water at the Heart
When I first started learning about urban planning and development debates, I’ll readily admit that I didn’t take water seriously. “Water runoff”, “watersheds,” and drainage or whatever seemed like a footnote to me compared to the key issues at stake — affordability, safety, sustainability, etc. — about how we plan and maintain our city.
But in my five years on the Planning Commission, I’ve learned a lot from my colleagues about the importance of stormwater for sustainability. For example, here’s an article about street runoff and how routinely it pollutes the Mississippi River. Or here’s another one about parking lots and how a brewery built a rain garden. It turns out, there’s a lot going on with water that I hadn’t realized was important.
We’re rightly proud of our urban lakes and rivers in the Twin Cities, but there’s still a lot we can do to improve how our cities affect them. This project is the most groundbreaking example of a stormwater-centered development in Minnesota history. They’re daylighting a stream (the one that goes into Hidden Falls) and really re-connecting a site down the bluff to the river. Saint Paul has long been separated from its river, which we’ve lined with freeways. The water connections in this plan are truly remarkable and would be an amazing amenity for the people of Highland.
5. Relief for St. Paul Property Taxpayers
The projections for show that the plan will increase Saint Paul’s tax base by $20 million per year. Sure, some of this will probably be put into TIF (deferred taxes), but now and in the future, this will do a lot to alleviate rising property taxes for people living in Saint Paul.
(One of the ironic things about the protests by some people in the neighborhood is that additional parking lots will probably have to be paid for by TIF dollars, decreeing the “payoff” for people in Saint Paul.)
If we want to keep taxes in Saint Paul reasonable, we need to build density, especially along transit corridors. This is exactly the kind of project that will alleviate the city’s precarious financial situation. In fact, if we really want to have a fiscally stable city, we need to much more development like this. (Along the West Side Flats, the Riverview corridor, Snelling-University, the East Side, etc.) Otherwise we might see huge property tax increases as city infrastructure ages and our already-shaky revenue streams get stretched in an era of decreasing State and Federal support.
The Ford site is the Future
The Ford factory is gone. The 150-acre site is just sitting there, polluted and bare. It’s a great chance to build the kind of Saint Paul we want to see.
And I believe the current plans are the best thing I’ve ever seen Saint Paul propose, anywhere. They’re forward-thinking proposals, intended for how people will want to live ten, twenty, or fifty years in the future. They’re just as innovative as the original Ford factory plans were back in 1927.
We have a chance to build and design an urban neighborhood where, decades from now, low-carbon, more sustainable lifestyles will be the architectural and design default, not a painstaking exception. In fact, there is no project in the state that’s as ambitious as this one about reducing the carbon and environmental footprint of urban life. This is something we desperately need, and I can only pray that in twenty years this kind of sustainable design will be more commonplace. Where once there was a pollution-producing car factory, Saint Paul can lead the way, for once, by committing to a low-car, energy efficient, stormwater-centered neighborhood where walking and active living are a normal way of life.
Here’s a rare chance for Saint Paul, capital of Minnesota, to show its true quality. We can be a national leader in creating a real transit-oriented, sustainable, river-focused, 8-80 neighborhood. I can’t wait.
ford site zoning public realm plan [Big ol’ .pdf]
FORD_TransportationPresentation Final – 11-21-16 [Transportation & traffic study by Nelson-Nygaard.]
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