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.

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.