Highland Character Quest

Recently, I purchased a home about a half a mile north of this industrial waste site. I was okay with this, since prior to finalizing the contract I had read some very intriguing things about the city’s plans for the site, known in conversation as “The Ford Site.” But after living in my new community a while, I learned that there are residents of Highland Park, the neighborhood that houses this industrial dump, that are gravely concerned that turning this veritable superfund site into a mixed-use and multi-density development will destroy the “character” of Highland.

Part of the appeal of the city’s plans was the eventual transformation of this site into a bicycle and pedestrian friendly thriving urban center, yet I don’t want the “character” of my new home destroyed in the process. But what was the character of my new home in Highland? Curious about the answer, I set out by bike to discover Highland’s character, and to figure out how it might be in danger.

Here’s what I found out…

Part One: The Quest for Sight-Lines

The first part of my character quest went down the street occupied by some of the most vociferous opponents of the city’s plan. It’s as wide as a highway, with huge sidewalk gaps. Residents probably worry about it becoming a freeway because it’s built like one.

Mount Curve: Look ma! No sidewalks!

But I soon found evidence of the dense urban hell that these residents seem to fear.

There it was, towering over the attractive homes. From this vantage point, I’m standing as close to the building in the background as I could ever possibly be to the tallest planned structures on the Ford Site from Mississippi River Boulevard. And wow, they weren’t kidding about what that does to the views around here.

It’s also 240 feet tall, more than twice the height of any planned or authorized structure at the Ford Site. In fact, if I lopped off the top half of that building, I wouldn’t even be able to see it from where I took this picture.

This was very confusing, since residents of this street had recently circulated flyers with images of large Bauhaus-esque structures towering menacingly and unattractively over stately riverfront homes. This just didn’t look anything like those scary pictures on their petitions, even at twice the height.

Did I mention that this street is as wide as a highway? It’s almost like some bike lanes could go here. Again, I was on a quest trying to discover Highland’s character, not destroy it. Discouraged and confused, I set off in search of more cues as to the the character of Highland that is in jeopardy.

I think I found part of it here. This is Highland Park, the place “where the sidewalks end.” It turns out that Highland has more sidewalk gaps than anywhere else in St. Paul. Maybe the Ford Site will have contiguous sidewalks? That would certainly be a radical change.

A bit further on, I thought I found another precursor to the tall-building destruction of the neighborhood character.

Most people actually forget that the unsightly high-rise in the background of this picture from Mississippi River Boulevard even exists, because it can hardly be seen from any angle in Highland. More research revealed that this, too, was taller than anything else planned at the Ford Site. I needed to see what it looked like at planned zoning distances. But before I got there, I found the clearest sightline available for the first building I photographed.

As a reminder, Ford Site structures will be, at maximum, half that height. Also, this sight-line is about as clear as one exists for this structure.

Eventually I found a residential street near the Ford Site, one about the right zoning distance from the second high-rise apartment on this journey. I searched for the best-looking angle, and came away with this photograph:

If you look closely, it’s there. I can see how people often forget it even exists, but according to critics of the plan it’s also a bit too tall for the Ford Site.

By now, I was really mystified about the concerns over sight-lines. And I couldn’t find anything that looked remotely like the flyers that some groups had been circulating, claiming that the Ford development would deprive them of light and air.

Part Two: In Search of Traffic

At this point I gave up on the visual aspect, and shifted my focus to the question of density and traffic. While Highland is primarily single-family homes, I knew that there were, in fact, some slivers of mixed-density housing in the area. I needed to see how the character of Highland typically encompassed that kind of dwelling.

The clues started coming together as I pedaled closer, and the meandering and scenic byways give way to this high-speed multi-lane death-stroad on Sheridan.

So many lanes of character! Up until this point, the residents of Highland had easy access to the trails and parks, and to the rest of Highland in general. But here things looked different.

Would you believe that across all these lanes of traffic, and on the other side of that fence, is a scenic network of trails? Now I was starting to get the idea. I turned my bike north to see what the apartment-dwellers face on the other side of their block. The answer: lots of character.

So this looks like another multi-lane death-stroad.

And also some fast food, a gas station, which seem to me like conveniences located there primarily for the drivers who live in single-family homes on the interior of Highland as they utilize this uncrossable to get in and out of insulated neighborhoods. But this stroad effectively isolates the denser housing from the decidedly less-dense.

I was finding abundant character on my journey now!

Nothing says “character” like parking and strip malls. I felt myself compelled to fight to preserve this.

Character is a wide stroad.

Strip mall and single-family homes to my left, denser housing to my right in this picture, and the whole scene looks like a car paradise. Now I was starting to get it; it’s not that Highland is opposed to denser development, but that the character of Highland involves a certain place for denser housing!

Despite my admonition to a friend just the other week that cyclists should ride on the road, I continued my journey by sidewalk since the dense housing is fenced in by stroads that are absolutely terrifying to even contemplate riding on.

This fact alone reveals something seemingly humorous about Highland’s character, since this stretch of the neighborhood has the largest number of people who don’t own a car, or only own one per household. And yet those people who most need neighborhoods that are not cut off by stroads live here:

You can see the building in the left, behind the trees. Cut off from the rest of Highland by these tracks, and beyond them a another deadly-looking street. The tracks are part of the CP Rail Spur, which could be a viable means of commuting, and recreation, and travel, if transformed into multi-use greenway. It would dramatically transform this area into something incredibly livable…a human means of transit and recreation that would parallel and bypass the stroads while connecting the housing along this segment to Highland as a whole.

All the best trails, however, seem to belong to multi-car, single-family homes.

Part 3: Crossing the Uncrossable

From my own cycling experience I knew that on the southern edge of Highland there were paths and parks. Surely people here had some other means to access them, so I went to see how to get to one of my favorite routes.

I found it, the river trail, but I couldn’t figure out how to get there. I’ve biked it a lot from my own easy access point. I could only assume that children in these apartments had heard legends of the biking and walking trails on the other side. But there was no way in hell that I was going to try to cross, so it was hard for me to imagine them doing so.

Crossing the uncrossable moat of cars.

This elderly lady was more intrepid than I, however. The nearest “proper” crossing points are a mile in either direction, with no direct sidewalk access. To get there by sidewalk, she would have to walk to the death-stroad on the north side, take the sidewalk, then walk back. By the time she’s done that, from my house I’ve biked half the trail that is rumored to be on the other side of that steel barrier.

Luckily it was a low traffic time of day. Yes, that is a walking stick in her hand. I was transfixed by my luck in my opportunity to witness live-action “Frogger”, a fun past-time on Highland’s stroads.

Here be dragons.

There she goes. Would she make it?

Safely to the log halfway across the stream.

That car in the picture isn’t stopped, by the way. Or slowing. I just had great timing with the camera by pushing the button before the car entered the field of view.


Safely to the cutout in the steel barrier on the other side. Why is that even there? To entice people to play Highland Frogger? I should bring a chair and watch more often. This, I decided, must be the character I was searching for!

Part 4: Lost in Stroad-Land

Filled again with hope, I ventured back to the other side, and continued on my journey.

Another sign!

Would you believe that to the left, beyond this stroad and those trees, are some nice park space, TWO golf courses, and scads of single family homes?

No one here does either. I suppose I can’t blame it all on the stroad, because there are terrain issues hampering access as well, but this 40 mph 4-lane death trap isn’t helping anyone to find any solutions. (And no one here is going 40 to my eyes, anyway.)

If I wanted to cross to the other side, how would I do so?

Found it!

I even crossed the stroad here, to check out a bus stop. It turns out that it was so pathetic as to be nearly demeaning. And there’s nowhere to walk beyond that stop even after braving the crossing.

Obviously, the large numbers of non-drivers and transit users are valued. They just have to make it across to stand on this little snub of a sidewalk, and I really don’t know how other people cross here.

I only got cars to stop for the crosswalk by pushing the front of my bike into the zebra-stripes, and cringing at the very real possibility that one of those drivers would smash it right out of my hand.

Under the principles of Vision Zero, it is an ethical imperative that any road in which pedestrians are exposed to vehicle traffic in this manner would never be allowed to have such high allowable speeds. But if character is the moral/ethical qualities unique to a place, then I suppose things like this are character too.

Back on the sidewalk, I tried to figure out how to get to the pleasant park environs, and indeed to the rest of Highland. This was harder than it looked, unless you were zooming about in a car. But then — Lo! — near my next access point, I found another apartment building. See, there is density in Highland!

Beyond it lay another Highland Frogger-stroad, and while I really wanted to see someone else play, I had a destination to reach.

Here’s what I would need to cross to get there:


The dreaded five-way intersection! I’m scared to drive through this thing, because drivers so routinely screw it up. So I pedaled further up the road to cross someplace far less frightening, and doubled back to Montreal St. Eventually I discovered the pleasant character of Highland.

Part 5: At Long Last, I Discover the Pure Character of Highland

What an adventure to get here! But so lovely and idyllic. And look at the attractive pedestrian bridge that those of us in Highland built.

Encouraged, I set off across to see how it connected to the isolated parts of Highland. Here’s where it went.

So that’s the end of the line.

Or is it? Maybe that bridge serves someone else?

Curious, I turned west, towards the homes that I couldn’t reach earlier. On the way, I found more charming character…that some people can reach really easily.

Who has such amazing access to these things? How do they travel here?

Must be by car, because there’s not a sidewalk to be seen. But that’s ok…the stroad below exists to serve this area in a couple of ways. It’s how the people who live here get where they are going, and it keeps the pass-through traffic away. And it’s funneled towards the people who don’t own cars. Brilliant!

Wait, I was wrong. With this kind of neighborhood engineering, who even needs sidewalks?

Not this lady. Double bonus: she doesn’t even get stuck with the assessments that those other poor saps pay, because the city and state have made sure the traffic doesn’t exist here.

The cute pedestrian bridge previously pictured serves this part of Highland, which occupies a commanding block of geography centered in the district, and enables the residents to safely…and charmingly…cross Montreal, a street that while busy, is not half as busy as the stroads to the south.

This part of Highland is also nearly non-navigable by any form of transit, due to the large golf courses, and the fact that the residential streets are built on a slightly more dendritic plan.

But is there a way that the people who live here overcome the barrier of terrain on the other side of that stroad? It wouldn’t do at all for them to be cut off from it, with only the five-way death intersection, and Cleveland, for access.

As it turns out, it is possible to find ways to transit that terrain…for the right users.

This road is steep, because of the ridge. It’s windy, because of the same ridge. It’s narrow, with no sidewalks, and no bicycle signage, and no way for a pedestrian or a cyclist to get at it from the stroad below anyway.

I rode it once, and never will again. But it shows that it is possible to connect that stroad to the rest of Highland, but only for the users of the stroad.

Part 6: A Return to the Comforts and Parking Lots that I Knew as Home

I think I had it now. If we built denser housing on the Ford Site, it would destroy Highland’s character by violating long-standing customs of how and where we build these kinds of things. If built according to plan, the future residents of the Ford Site will be able to access the central part of Highland, and the rest of its character, by an easy bike or bus ride up this road.

This is the western terminus of Montreal, which just up the block is striped by bike lanes on both sides, and also bordered by sidewalks.

Additionally, the Ford Site plans don’t allow for other key features of Highland’s character to be built, like these lovely vistas:

Or things like this, the best grocery store in Highland, built with Highland parking character.

Can’t build THAT on the Ford Site, with the current plans!

Finally, what if traffic had different outlets other than the intersection of Cleveland and Ford, where all of it is shunted to now by an impassible dump? Or what if more people started walking?

Here’s a Highland crosswalk:

See the guy crossing on the other side of the pickup truck’s bed? That truck gunned it to make sure he raced through before the pedestrian was halfway across. Gotta beat that red light, after all! We absolutely need more of this…without it, where’s the adventure in Highland? Would Highland become too boring if things were safe and livable for everyone? What if there were so many pedestrians going about their business in “The Village” that it was impossible for vehicles to even consider doing something like this, because the potential for human carnage would make national news?

In the end, I’m not sure that I discovered the true character of Highland that is in danger. Seems that the character was destroyed when it ceased to be the home of a Ford manufacturing facility, with three rush-hours per day, in an age of urban decay, when all the employees rushed back and forth to their homes in the suburbs. Is that what we want?

As for the character now, it appears to be a place in transition. And maybe it can be better than what it is, and what I discovered, particularly when it comes to the placement and amount of multi-density housing, and access and safety for something other than cars. Sure would be an improvement.

But until that change happens, it felt like the best metaphor for the current character of Highland might be this:

Michael Daigh

About Michael Daigh

You might have seen Michael Daigh riding his bike around the Twin Cities metro. He resides in St. Paul, but only since 2015, so his opinions don't count. Michael holds an MA in History, and is the author of the book: "John Brown in Memory and Myth". He is also a decorated fighter pilot.