In August 2016, the city of Saint Paul lost a court case in the Minnesota Supreme Court. It was about right-of-way fees, a primary funding source for the city’s roads. To make a long story short, the court found that the fee was not a fee but a tax, meaning that every non-profit and government property in Saint Paul no longer had to pay. There are a lot of nonprofits in Saint Paul: Saint Thomas to Regions Hospital, First Baptist Church to Planned Parenthood, the State and County governments, and everything in between. A huge chunk of funding, over $30 million per year, was lost and the city won’t just let the roads sit unplowed and full of potholes. The question is: Where will the money come from now?
On the western edge of Saint Paul sits the former site of a Ford Plant that used to build Ranger pickup trucks. It’s a massive tract of land, one of the biggest development sites in any city in the country. The current plan for development is a great combination of mixed-use properties and a lot of green space. The buildings furthest from the river may be as tall as ten stories, and an expected 7,000 new residents are expected by the mid to late 2020’s.
It’s an ambitious plan as far as Saint Paul development goes, and the project has been unsurprisingly met with fervent anti-development parking-and-traffic-based reactionary opposition that is pushing the city to shrink the scale of the development. Which of course makes the next sentence seem like a radical idea:
The Ford Site in Highland Park should be more densely developed.
Now that your pitchforks are out, let me sell it. The strategy is two-pronged. A more densely developed Ford Site will produce a much more robust tax base for the city to pull resources from. Beyond that, dense developments encourage transport other than cars, which are far and away the biggest strain on our transportation system and our newly gap-toothed transportation budget.
As far as the money goes it’s pretty straight forward. 7,000 happy taxpayers are well and good for the city coffers, but what happens if you increase those 10-story buildings up to 15? A long shadow might fall across the scenic Lunds and Byerleys parking lot, but the new sleek buildings will still sit below the altitude of their northern neighbor, 740 Mississippi River Boulevard, and match par with southern neighbor Cleveland Hi-Rise. And again, we’d have 10,000 new neighbors writing checks.
And these would be new neighbors who are sitting on top of a hotbed of commercial potential, neighbors who are a minute’s walk from the A-line and a handful of other high frequency bus routes, neighbors that are a 5 minute cab from the airport. They’d be neighbors who are going to have access to the bike facilities on the River Boulevard, Ford and Cleveland, neighbors who won’t need to have a car for every adult in the home, which stretches out that transportation maintenance budget for the rest of us who do use a car.
There is of course no silver bullet for the new hole in our budget, and a dense Ford Site wouldn’t solve any of our immediate woes, but as Saint Paul enters the next decade, we can plan and grow in a way that will ease the burdens of mistakes made in this decade.
Like trying to disguise a tax as a fee.