The vigorous and spirited debate about the future of the Ford Plant site in Highland Park got me thinking about another large, polluted, previously industrial site in Saint Paul. The history of development of Victoria Park, which is bounded by West 7th Street, Otto Avenue, and Shepard Road, offers a lesson in plans changing over time. This is a short history of the 65-acre site and the changes that occurred from plans that had original goals of a “mixed-use urban village” that would be “pedestrian-friendly, transit-oriented community that provides a range of housing choices and prices” that would “reweave’ the urban fabric.”
(In the interest of disclosure, I should note that my children attend Nova Classical Academy, a charter school on the site. Their involvement in the development becomes an interesting part of the plot, but I, personally, have no opinion about the school’s land acquisitions.)
In 1995, ExxonMobil and Koch Refinery ceased operations of oil tank farms on the site. In 2000 the City of Saint Paul adopted the Brewery/Ran-View Small Area Plan, which included the site, and in 2001 the Housing and Redevelopment Authority (HRA) adopted the Koch Mobil Redevelopment Project Area Plan. The original plan called for 850 housing units, “neighborhood-scale” commercial/office use along West 7th Street, and return to a traditional street grid. Its vision included a mix of apartment homes, condominiums, town homes, senior units, single-family homes, and mansion-style buildings.
The first wrench thrown into the works was when ExxonMobil refused to sell their portion of the site (about 36 acres) due to concerns that housing would be built on it. They were concerned about future liability on the polluted site if it were used for housing. The city started condemnation proceedings in 2004 and ended up in court for four years. The resulting settlement came in 2009. The HRA ended up buying ExxonMobil’s portion for $1 and is required to only use the land for a park – no housing can go on that portion. The Master Plan was then revised from 850 housing units to 655.
Also in 2009, the first part of the commercial/office use came into being when the Mississippi Market Co-op opened at West 7th Street and Perlman Street and the Sholom Home built their east campus, providing 108 units of long-term care and short-term rehabilitation housing units.
The second wrench, which occurred at the same time, was the recession that started in 2008. Brighton Development was the master developer for the site at that time and put off building its proposed housing. The plan at that time called for two condo towers of up to 120 feet. It was not until 2014 that Brighton was able to complete a portion of the housing. That changed to smaller apartments and town homes that included 12 units.
The remaining land was purchased by Nova Classical Academy, which completed construction of its K-12 charter school in 2012, and Chase Real Estate. The Victoria Park Master Plan, last revised in 2011, called for a mix of single-family detached housing along Mercer Street, townhomes along Victoria Way, and condominiums at Shepard Road and Otto Avenue.
In reality, Mercer Avenue became townhomes built by Brighton and Victoria Avenue became 215 units of apartments, built by Chase. These were completed in 2014. Chase still owned the section immediately adjacent to the school at Kay Avenue, between Mercer Street and Victoria Way and had plans to build townhomes. This past summer, in 2016, Chase opened a 194-unit apartment building at Shepard Road and Otto Avenue.
At the same time, plans began for the park. The city received free infill from dirt from the Central Corridor project. The fill was placed in 2011, bringing the land up to recreational standards. The design advisory group began meeting in 2012. I will not go into details about the park’s development, except to say it looks very cool. As a nearby resident, I am excited about the future amenities which currently call for the city’s first universally accessible playground. The Fort Road Federation recently voted to recommend changing the name to Quarry Farm Park to differentiate it from the neighborhood Victoria Park. Here is a link to the city’s project page for the park.
I will note that in an innovative partnership, Nova Classical Academy and the city partnered on the parking lot. The school paid for part of the parking lot in return for being able to use it during the school day, leaving an otherwise empty parking lot full in the park’s non-peak times. I could see other places where this sort of partnership could make better use of parking lots to maximize usage.
Coming up on today
Chase Real Estate’s plan for more housing on the section next to the school ran into trouble in 2016. Initially, they planned on building townhomes next to the school. In February 2016, the city approved changes to the Master Plan to allow Chase to build an apartment building with 37 units. Chase asked for a variance to allow the maximum building height to increase from 40 feet and 49.5 feet, which would allow 13 more units. The city approved the variance as it was in-line with the Master Plan and, because it was less than a 10 percent land area change, was not a major modification.
In March 2016, Nova Classical Academy appealed the variance due to concerns about increased traffic, safety of children walking to the school, and concerns that the increased height would impact their building’s heating and cooling and block sunlight. The appeal was not granted.
At the close of 2016, Nova Classical Academy purchased the remaining land near its school and Chase decided not to build the proposed apartments. It is still unknown whether Nova will purchase that part as well. The school has tentative plans for athletic fields, but other options are still being discussed. There is no more land available for housing development leaving the area 77 units short of the revision to 500 units in 2011’s plan amendment.
Realizing the Dream
As Robert Burns, said, ‘The best laid schemes o’ Mince an’ Men, Gang aft agley.” I wouldn’t say these plans have gang aft agley, but the site does not exactly resemble the original plans. In minutes from a Saint Paul Planning Commission meeting regarding Chase’s variance request one commissioner commented that 80 percent of the plan had changed since it was first written.
The biggest difference is the change in housing – 850 planned units to 423 actually built. I walk or bike through this area nearly every day and I try to envision what it would look and feel like if the original housing goals were realized. If the unrealized housing looked at all like the townhomes and apartments that were built it would have a very urban feel. As of now the Nova area feels somewhat suburban, with most of the large undeveloped areas now owned by the school. The housing areas feel too “new” to be quite urban (which will change with time). It sort of feels like those new suburban developments, like the Heart of the City in Burnsville. Yet, the buildings are built to the street with parking not visible and they are a stately brick, not the sheet metal roofed boxes that neighbors tend to object to.
The original plan was not as specific about commercial and office uses, but it seemed like intended feel was one to two level commercial with housing or offices above. Mississippi Market moved in early on and is a great asset for the neighborhood. I wish there were safer pedestrian crossings near the market, like at Perlman and West 7th Street, but that’s a different post. The Sholom Home, likewise, offers jobs to residents and housing to area seniors. The parking is hidden and the building comes up to the sidewalk. I like how the large dining room windows open out to West 7th Street.
Finally, the planned talked about being pedestrian and transit-oriented, as well as providing connections for pedestrians and bicyclists to the river. This is a mixed bag. I previously wrote about the new off-street path on Otto Avenue between West 7th Street and Shepard Road. Since that time the city added a pedestrian leading interval to the signal at Shepard Road. It’s amazing! However, maybe because of the suburban feel and undeveloped land, the roads feel very wide, encouraging speed. Sadly, many of my children’s classmates have parents that ignore crosswalks, speed, and drive aggressively near the school. Design improvements that could encourage slower driving would be most welcome in this area. Enough children bike or walk from the neighborhood and many children walk to Mississippi Market or the Super America on Otto Avenue and West 7th Street after school to make this a priority. As for transit-oriented, well, there is this Riverview Corridor discussion…..
As for lessons for the Ford site, I am not a prognosticator, but for all of our hand-wringing right now the Victoria Park site may serve as an example of how different things turn out than intended. The Victoria Park Master Plan started with many (most?) of the elements for a New Urbanist Dream, but economic recession, a court case and settlement, a wealthy charter school, and developers’ changing plans resulted in something quite different.
1995 – ExxonMobil and Koch discontinue tank farm
2000/2001 – area plans first adopted calling for 850 housing units
2004 – condemnation notice to ExxonMobil
2005 – Victoria Park Master Plan adopted by the City Council
2007 – Master Plan amended adding senior housing and subtracting townhomes on the Sholom Home campus
2009 – Mississppi Market and Sholom Home
2009 – legal settlement with ExxonMobil, 36 acres of land can only be used for a park, plan revised to 655 housing units
2011- Master Plan amended to reflect the park land usage, changed land to institutional use for Nova’s construction, and decreased residential plan to 500 units from 655
2011 – environmental cleanup on park land complete
2012 – Nova Classical Academy opens
2012 – park design advisory board begins meeting
2014 – Brighton Development opens townhomes with 12 units
2014 – Chase Real Estate opens apartments with 215 units
2016 – Chase Real Estate opens apartments with 194 units
2016 – Chase applies for variance and Nova appeals
2016 – Nova purchases remaining land slated for townhomes and single family homes
 Victoria Park Master Plan 2005 (amended, 2007 and 2011) https://goo.gl/WfMbiX