The Ford Site Debate is Also About Equity

About two weeks ago, the Planning Commission finally passed Saint Paul’s plans for the old Ford factory in Highland. The vote was unanimous to support to support the city’s plans, which called for around 4,000 units of housing and plenty of mixed-use, along with a host of other amenities.

(Note: there was also an amendment passed intended to increase density along the Mississippi River Boulevard in the hopes of making it more accessible and equitable.)

The approval had been a long time coming, with over a year of discussion at the Commission level. As with all Commission decisions, we had an opportunity for the public to weigh in and provide feedback. For this plan, there was a lot of it! The City received over 400 written comments and we had over two hours of testimony at our meeting in July, with many people sharing their thoughts about the pros and cons of the plans.

Though I had strong opinions of my own (which I have shared here on, I tried hard to listen to people with different perspectives. I was really interested in figuring out why so many people were so emotionally opposed to the City’s plans for the old factory site. During the public testimony, one woman against the plans even came to tears.

Honestly, apart from concerns about traffic congestion, I couldn’t really figure it out. I’ve read hundreds of comments, spent hours listening to people, and re-read the short “anti-Ford” Growler Magazine column three times. Still, the main thing I take away from it all is that people are concerned about traffic and parking.

Like it or not, I don’t share those concerns. First of all, I think as a city, we need to be much more aggressive about de-incentivising solo driving, for a host of environmental and social reasons. Simply put, “solving” traffic and (free) parking concerns should not be priorities of a progressive 21st century city.

But on top of that, people’s concerns about traffic are off-base. Whether you believe it or not, traffic in the Twin Cities is not that bad. And parking in Saint Paul is not difficult compared to other economically thriving cities. (Try parking in Boston, Seattle, or Denver or just about anywhere else many people want to be!) Given the thorough study that was done about how the Ford development would affect traffic patterns, adding 5-20% more cars to wide and mostly empty roads is not a compelling reason to be against the plan.

Finally, I’ve got lots of ideas for how we can help solve some of the problems that come from traffic and parking, and our larger auto-dependent culture. Reducing density at this site isn’t one of them, but something like parking meters would help a lot.


What Does Ford have to do with Equity?

Thinking about the whole Ford process, I feel that something important was left out of the Ford Site discussion. Opponents of the plan have said a few times that they were upset with all the money that the developer and the city are going to make from the planned development. People also said that they were upset by the tax-increment financing (TIF) dollars that the city is likely going to use to help fund the development. Often these were the same people.

The problem is that both of these things are intrinsically connected. During the city staff presentation at the Committee and Commission level, there was a slide that grabbed my attention.

Here it is (and sorry for the blurry picture):

Slide showing the tradeoff between density and subsidy. At a certain point, the TIF capacity (the white line) falls below the development “gap” (the blue line), which means that redeveloping the Ford Site would require general funding dollars from the City budget.

Developing the Ford site, there’s a basic tradeoff between density and taxpayer subsidy. If the City builds its “dense” development option at around 4,000 housing units, Saint Paul can keep its TIF subsidy to a minimum. If the City decreases density, they will have to use more TIF money. And eventually, it might have to throw in other sources of funding. The reasoning is simple: no matter how much density is included on the site, the developer and the City are still going to have to build about the same amount of infrastructure, including roads, sewers, and all the parks and other amenities. That is a relatively fixed cost, whereas the projected property tax revenue is variable.

Here’s the key point. When people in Highland are asking for “reduced density” on the Ford site, they are, in a sense, asking the rest of Saint Paul to subsidize Highland, one of the wealthiest parts of the city. A “low density” Ford Site with more parks and “reduced congestion” would amount to taking tax money from the rest of Saint Paul.

Should the rest of Saint Paul be floating millions of extra dollars to keep cars off of Highland streets? Should the rest of Saint Paul take millions of potential tax dollars off the table so that people in Highland can have a slightly larger parks? Are those Saint Paul’s priorities?

Most of the discussion about the Ford site has been done at a fairly abstract level, about things like “neighborhood character” or whether or not density inherently causes crime / depression / immorality. But the Ford site debate is also a matter of equity, fitting right into the conversation in Saint Paul about how to decrease the economic, racial, and social gaps that have grown tremendously in the last few decades.

The basic dynamics of our Saint Paul streets. (See more on this illustration here.)

Personally, I was bothered by how many times during the conversation around Ford, people seemed to flaunt their economic and social privilege. It’s a sign of a segregated urban society, for example, that everyone at the Planning Commission public hearing was white. What’s more, a few of the people testifying explicitly stated things like “this wouldn’t happen in Wayzata” or “Highland elects the mayor.” After the meeting, I went on a long bike ride that passed through some of the poorest neighborhoods in Saint Paul. I often do this while traveling through the city, to keep a broad perspective, and whether you’re talking about the West Side, Frogtown, the North End, or Payne/Phalen, the contrast with the perspective from the Highland Lund’s parking lot is always striking.

For me, catering to the traffic and parking concerns of the most privileged people in our city is the exact wrong direction for Saint Paul. We need to be putting racial and class equity at the core of our city decisions, and make sure that Saint Paul always serves everyone with a sense of justice: renters and homeowners, white and black and Asian-American and Latin/x, documented and undocumented, young and old.

“Spending” millions of dollars chasing the hopeless goal of removing traffic from the Ford/Cleveland intersection is the last thing Saint Paul should be doing in 2017. If people want to move over the river to Mendota Heights because it’ll be too hard to park cars on Cleveland Avenue (as one testifier said would happen), then let them. There are thousands of people that would love to live in a walkable, transit-connected neighborhood like Highland, and Saint Paul has more important things on its to-do list.

25 thoughts on “The Ford Site Debate is Also About Equity

  1. jeffk

    Amazing that almost all of the complexity of this and similar issues can be boiled down to division – literally the simple arithmetic that indicates what each person in the city needs to pay to build and maintain a fixed amount of infrastructure and amenities – and yet people are still baffled by it.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      Well that’s never simple, even when it is! Witness Saint Paul’s garbage collection organization attempts, negotiations for which have been going on for over a year.

      1. Bob Roscoe

        Reply to your post on the Ford Plant issue: Your comment: “For me, catering to the traffic and parking concerns of the most privileged people in our city is the exact wrong direction for Saint Paul.” is very insightful. However, increasing density in the progressively liberal but back yard conservative STP / Mpls can often be problematic.There are right places and wrong places to add density. In the middle of Highland – NO. at the edge on an empty site that has spatial separation from the traditional Highland Park residential area – why not?
        Two other issues – design: an opportunity for Saint Paul to experiment, but hopefully not with the misadventures of the Sackhouse/Headhouse complex along Shepard Road. The other issue – so many large new housing complexes in the Twin Cities tend to be suburban-like. Ugh!

        1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

          The design guidelines are TBD but are next on the list, Bob, after the zoning and public realm plan is adopted. I’d love to hear your suggestions about what to do to make sure the buildings here are the best they can be!

          1. Bob Roscoe

            In the urban spaces of Minneapolis and Saint Paul, there are many wrong sites for increased density, and especially the Ford Site. But unfortunately, our city agencies and governments don’t consider those places where increased housing units can appropriately integrate with urban cityscapes.

            Concerning the Ford site and density, this is an opportunity for city planning to design density and architecture to provide Saint Paul with enlightened and publicly pleasing places to live, adding new chapters to the urban design playbook.

  2. paddy

    This particular map ( ) shows up in the email I received on this post but not the post itself.

    Its difficult to reconcile the facts of that particular map with this sentiment,

    When people in Highland are asking for “reduced density” on the Ford site, they are, in a sense, asking the rest of Saint Paul to subsidize Highland, one of the wealthiest parts of the city

    At the very least, I think that you have advertently emphasized that the Ford Site debate is all about money.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      Oops. that was in an earlier draft. The question i’d ask you about it: what do you think that map means? Should Saint Paul make decisions based on who has the most wealth?

      1. paddy

        Umm no I don’t think they do and I don’t think they should.

        But really that wasn’t the point was it?

        Your explicit point was that Highland (Mac/Grove etc etc) would be making the rest of city subsidize it when the current reality is exactly the opposite. The areas West of 35E and South of 94 subsidize the rest of the city in the extreme. And that’s in terms of property tax only. The other sources of city revenue (LGA for example) are probably more progressive.

        Which is fine. Personally happy to do it.

        But to write a whole post stating the opposite is disingenuous at best and specious at worst.

            1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

              I think the point of Bill’s article was not necessarily to say that less-wealthy parts of St Paul would pay *more* (per-parcel/household) than the welathier areas nearby. I think if we did the math, the land outside a 2-mile radius of the Ford Site will certainly end up picking up more of the TIF burden than the areas within it.

              And so the point is that, yeah Highland Park and Mac-Grove may put in more per household to the city/county’s coffers. And by nature they’re paying a more progressive income tax to the state’s general fund (but, it should be noted that sales taxes also dump there and are regressive). But every additional $million the city uses in TIF, the burden of which gets placed on all residents, means everyone else is still paying more.

              Maybe HP/MG residents see value in that – a new neighborhood more in keeping with their preferred character/traffic/whatever – and are willing to pay out a bit more in property taxes if need be. But the end result is still having HP/MG residents asking other parts of the city to chip in more. And that’s not fair, since whatever benefits you could define of limiting housing/commercial on the Ford Site aren’t really transferable to other parts of the city.

              One could obviously make the case that maybe we shouldn’t even be building out the Ford Site asking for TIF at all – which could be done in a combination of more housing, fewer open spaces (replaced by tax-generating parcels), narrower roads (less public infra), etc.

              1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

                Fairness isn’t really the concept I was looking for here, but rather one of priorities. Should Saint Paul be prioritizing reduced Highland congestion* versus other things that it might “spend” money on in the city budget?

                * I still think this whole notion is dubious given the existing traffic volumes, minimal LOS impact, and long timeline of the build-out.

  3. Sharon DeMark

    Thank you so much for calling this out. We know that affordable accessible housing is what our community needs. I’m grateful to all the city planners who have placed equity front and center in this work.

  4. Robert Wales

    Great article, Bill. This is something that is, I think, lost in a lot of the debates with such a local focus on the neighborhoods immediately surrounding the Ford Site. The emphasis in this debate should be about the benefits to all of St. Paul. It’s important to mitigate the impact on those close to the site, but it shouldn’t be the sole focus and I believe the current plan does a good job of recognizing and addressing those impacts.

    I’d also like to put a link here to a way that you can submit your comments regarding the plan to City Council

    or there is an ongoing petition to support it if that’s more your style –

    Moderators – hope that’s ok.

  5. Conie Borchardt

    Thank you for this overview and observations of the process and sharing your thoughts about equity. It has helped me realize why the Ford site should be higher density.

    I have to say I was disappointed in one of the map graphics when I saw it not show the pocket of low income residents that is around W 7th and Davern. I went to the Met Council website and found this. It shows changes in that area over time.

    I wonder how fine the data was parsed down. I imagine the newer construction on the southwest corner of Davern-W 7th has shifted the averages.

    I fear this vibrantly diverse corner of SP will be gentrified swiftly, the many low income immigrants displaced as Sibley Plaza loses more tenants in what feels like a willful complacency in the hopes city/state money will be thrown at them to revitalize.

    Though this comment is not about the Ford site, it is related to equity and is connected, down the tracks, literally, from Ford. It’s the next thing we need to keep our eye one.

      1. Heidi SchallbergHeidi Schallberg

        Btw “RCAP” is no longer used at the request of community members. Now ACPs for Areas of Concentrated Poverty or ACP50 where 50 percent or more of residents are people of color.

        1. Heidi SchallbergHeidi Schallberg

          Wish I could edit my comment! Yes, this does use Census tracts.

          Conie, I’m also very concerned about this area gentrifying and displacing people in a region that does not have anywhere near enough affordable housing.

  6. GlowBoy

    Good story. 4,000 units is a good number to help make sure all this new development pays for itself. I too am skeptical that the new development will overwhelm neighboring streets.

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