Screen Shot 2019 03 02 At 9.39.37 Pm

The Planned Failure of the Ford Site

Screen Shot 2019 03 02 At 9.39.37 PmOn January 25, 2019, Ryan Companies presented its plan for the Ford Site redevelopment to the St. Paul Planning Commission. One third of the way through the presentation, Ryan officials finished talking about themselves and turned to the city’s (supposed) vision for the Ford Site,

That vision includes environmental sustainability, vibrant urban infill and a transit-oriented community. The last point is arguably the most vital prerequisite to the first two, yet “transit oriented” has become, as the development takes shape, little more than a punchline. Ryan, supposedly, “applauds this vision and looks forward to carrying it out,” yet beneath the veneer of marketing jargon and flashy presentations, the development is starting to look suspiciously like a strip mall with some housing and a water fountain.

How have we come to this state of affairs? While it is worth speculating that a St. Paul company might not only lack the imagination but also share views of urban planning analogous to those held by the mendacious Ford Site opposition, in the end it comes down to a simple and depressing truth — parking is the ultima ratio, the last word, of any policy decision in St. Paul.

Ryan has petitioned both Highland District Council (HDC) and Macalester-Groveland Community Council (MGCC) to recommend variances to the proposed parking maximums, and won their endorsement to double the amount of retail parking in the development from one space per 400 square feet (1:400) to 1:200. The change is based on two aggregate yet dovetailing data points: retailer feedback and established standards.

No Right On Red

We totally need more of this.

Ryan claims that “quality” retailers need this doubling of parking and that those retailers forthrightly have said that the development will not be feasible without it. But which retailers? And how have those retailers arrived at their conclusions?

Is it Starbucks, which sought a variance to city zoning that allowed a suburban-style drive-through on Marshall and Snelling? The city has a bottomless appetite for appeasing retailers that want to make life better for cars, and I struggle to find examples of where such changes improve the community. Perhaps the retailers in question are ones like Target, which has made its fortune in car-dependent suburbs.

This leads to a discussion of standards and parking minimums.

Supply and demand

To bolster its unsourced retailer demands, Ryan has submitted average parking supply ratios sourced from the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE), in order to demonstrate that a 1:200 ratio is still parsimonious compared with a range of other use numbers that averaged 1:104. By those metrics, the Ford Site, Highland and St. Paul as a whole have come out ahead (unless you love parking as much as many in St. Paul — particularly Highland — do.)

In these post-modern and post-factual times, the importance of expertise, credentials and institutional knowledge cannot be overstated, and so I am loathe to pose questions about the ITE data set that flirt with the notion that data is somehow “biased” or “partisan,” particularly after the effective campaign of disinformation waged by “Neighbors for a Livable St. Paul.” And yet, although ITE is a respected entity, a priori choices and assumptions underlie its parking numbers that ought to be placed in context and questioned accordingly.

ITE parking numbers are primarily derived from a suburban model of transit, where cars are the only viable mode of transportation. However, the city has clearly stated that its “transit-oriented” vision for the Ford Site — a vision that Ryan supposedly “looks forward to carrying out.” No need, then, even to reference ITE figures as justification for parking ratios since the numbers are an apples-to-baseball bats comparison when applied to the Ford Site. They are irrelevant.

In truly transit-oriented communities, ITE recommendations for parking tend to be roughly double what is actually required to serve the needs of the locale. Despite this, cities that feature nearly every kind of planned transit mode-share routinely utilize ITE numbers as a baseline and then pad their final figures by an extra 15 percent. As a result, even in mixed-use localities (transit light, if you will) where surveys show that drivers believe parking to be scarce, there exists on average a 65 percent oversupply of parking. Let’s accept that the Ford Site is going to be “transit oriented,” but temper the definition with St. Paul’s idea of what that means. If ITE guidelines suggest a parking-to-square-foot ratio of 1:104, then 1:300 is closer to a correct model for mixed-use development.

Do numbers lie?

This is not to say that ITE data are incorrect. They are quite correct, in a certain ethical context, and the selection of which professional guidelines and standards to adhere to is also tribal, and ethical. These choices go into finer detail than the choice to adopt a car-centric, suburban development model. For instance, the ITE guidelines assume “free” parking, a phenomenon that prompts a great deal of circling for it, disfigures communities and is a massive subsidy for a select group. The guidelines also presuppose that the “free” parking will be primarily in lots immediately proximate to the location, without the need to cross a street or walk so much as a block — hence, Ryan’s ask for a doubling of retail parking density. Then, to ensure that the majority of users get the desired parking experience, while minimizing the circling that “free” parking engenders, the numbers are larded considerably.

All of these considerations are entirely ethical choices underlying data that masquerade as being precise simply because they are specific. But precise is not the same as accurate.

If ITE data persuade the district councils and ultimately the Planning Commission and the City Council to grant Ryan its retail parking lots, one must wonder why that particular data set is so compelling to St. Paul city planners and politicians. The data regarding 25 mph speed limits in the metro are more compelling and less controvertible than the ITE parking recommendations, and yet Ramsey County and St. Paul find myriad reasons to disregard those numbers. How refreshing it would have been had Ryan insisted that in order to build a thriving community for our future, St. Paul should enact the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) guidelines for all street construction on and around the site. Those multimodal guidelines don’t elicit the same interest or concern.

Similarly, when I pressed Highland District Council and even Mayor Melvin Carter about their interest in adopting pedestrian-safe Vision Zero in St. Paul, all parties claimed utter ignorance of the program — even while Minneapolis was launching Vision Zero across the Mississippi.

Ford Retail Parking

The circled area is the densest proposed retail parking, also closest to the A-line, the 46th Street Station, and the car-choked strip mall at Ford and Cleveland.

The upshot is this: The numbers that Ryan cites, and that Ryan wants, are accurate in addition to being precise, because the Ford Site is not a transit-oriented community. I asked at a public session whether the lack of transit was as worrisome as the perceived lack of parking. A Ryan representative replied, with no sense of irony, that residents will not want to leave, and that residents and visitors who use transit will be able to walk to the 46th Street Station available. The absurdity of this statement, and the likely need to hop the A Line on Ford Parkway to ride the two miles to the 46th Street Station (a reality that the Ryan rep did not mention), needs to be considered alongside what kind of walk and effort is ethically or practically unacceptable for a driver under ITE guidelines.

HDC members at the meeting did not bat an eye, nor did they hesitate to grant Ryan every requested parking change. Ryan doesn’t need to plan for a “transit-oriented community” because the city isn’t planning for a “transit-oriented community.” No serious transit is being planned for the Ford Site (despite the city dubbing it a “21st-century community“). It is debatable whether Riverview Corridor, the only transit project in the area involving the necessary capital investment, is real transit, and either way it will not touch the Ford Site. To build a “transit-oriented community,” the City Council tacked an amendment onto the Riverview Corridor resolution to explore adding a bus line.

Affordable Housing Parking

The lowest density parking, by the densest affordable housing, is as far from transit and the 46th Street Station as possible.

Ultimately, the opaque retailer surveys and ITE data are merely a polite veneer for Ryan’s only real negotiating point on these variances: Without the conversion of the Ford Site to a strip mall, Ryan is out of the project. They could quit, a prospect so chilling that the HDC, MGCC and St. Paul will give them whatever they want, despite the bold statement of values laid out in the Ford Site Vision and the zoning plan itself.

Ryan’s line in the sand on parking is the most definitive statement of its limited vision of the development. The Ford Site requires either plentiful transit or parking to support the density and sustain the businesses, but Ryan officials did not say they would abandon the development unless the city gets serious about transit. A more charitable view of Ryan’s line could be pragmatism: The company could demand either the ability to build more parking, or demand that the city build more transit. Which is more likely to happen in St. Paul? Perhaps Ryan just went with the most probable outcome to protect its investment.

To be fair, the Ryan modifications involve less parking than the original approved zoning plan, even if it involves more strip-mall parking. Highland District Council members who supported Ryan’s modification bring up this fact to support their decision. But that has less to do with Ryan’s commitment to a sustainable, transit-oriented community than with Ford Site supporters steadfastly refusing to talk about transit — to the extent that they missed the absurd amount of parking automatically written in under St. Paul’s internationally ridiculed parking minimums.

I, too, naively assumed that transit would be integrated, based on value statements and the concurrent transit study. But Ryan and Ford apologists on the HDC, and likely those to come on the City Council, are afraid that Ryan will quit and a development, therefore, would be delayed. Highland District Council apologists now say we should be pleased with what we get, because it will be good for the community and is still “most” of what supporters wanted. Perhaps that makes the “failure” in my headline a bit harsh. But did we expend so much political capital for “OK”? True, the evolving development will be better for the community’s bottom line than a vacant industrial waste site, but that does not make it “most” of what we wanted, given the centrality of transit infrastructure to a community. “OK” is a far cry from “hopeful,” “transformative” or “visionary.”

2019 20 Mile Route

Not unlike my Strava feed.

Most of the Ford Site opposition fought hardest against the most visionary aspects of the development, in the nebulous cause of preserving Highland’s character. Supporters like me hoped that the new development would be the seed of a re-imagining of the city. Highland Park is home to some of St. Paul’s most dangerous intersections, to copious sidewalk gaps and unwalkable tracts, to tiny pockets of dense housing shunted off behind stroads. No coincidence that the annual “Tour de Highland” bike ride gets out of Highland as quickly as possible, since the HDC acknowledges that Highland’s roads are unsuitable for families not armored in cars.

Now, the Ford Site is becoming an expansion of the car-choked Highland Village strip mall. The most affordable housing will be shunted to the back of the development as far as possible from the 46th Street Station, and the A Line that will get people there, and we’re even keeping the ballfields. So much character. It seems “Neighbors for a Livable St. Paul” got at least partial veto authority over the project after the public zoning was approved.

What might we have done instead? A proud city, committed to its values as stated in the Ford Site zoning vision, would start by actually enacting those values and becoming serious about transit to the site. We citizens shouldn’t have to hope that companies like Ryan will enact values that the city itself is unwilling to uphold. Then, having firmly committed to transit, and maybe even NACTO design standards, if a developer like Ryan lacks the imagination to work within those guidelines and values, let them walk away.

How many cities have ever had a development opportunity this large, this blank, centered within their urban core? Somewhere is a developer — maybe from Portland or Boston — that knows how to succeed within transit-oriented communities and within NACTO design, and that developer will show up for an opportunity of this scale, for a city that is clear about enacting its values. Let Ryan walk away. Cities and communities, not companies, establish their values, and cities and communities should proudly stand by their values.




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.

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24 thoughts on “The Planned Failure of the Ford Site

  1. Jeffrey Klein

    I’ve definitely wondered this entire time if the best result wouldn’t have been realized by just platting the who thing out, zoning it medium density mixed use, and letting it develop more naturally.

    1. Jim

      Ford wasn’t interested in selling off pieces of the property piecemeal. Certain parcels such as those along Ford Pkwy could command top dollar and high interest. But other parcels probably wouldn’t.

      It will develop naturally though in a sense. Ryan or another developer isn’t going to build 20 apartment buildings all at once. The whole area probably won’t be developed after 2030.

    2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      This. St. Paul Port Authority should have taken a break from their industrial big box bread-and-butter, bought the site, and subdivided it for many individual developers to be resold and developed over like a 20-to-50-year timeframe.

      A single developer doing this big of a site was always going to be very flawed.

      1. Andrew Evans

        I can see transit orientated, but that transit just isn’t there. I can see a city wide need for more dense development however the streets and infrastructure around there aren’t conducive to having that high of density. Or at least goes the complaints that a friend who lives a few blocks from there has, well and they didn’t listen to local residents or take their concerns into account. It seemed to be more of a city wide political thing than anything else.

        It’s a great area for low density single family homes, but that as a solution isn’t really politically correct these days.

        1. Jeb RachJeb Rach

          “I can see transit orientated, but that transit just isn’t there.”
          The northern end of the site has the A Line, which even from the southern end should only require a 10ish-minute walk to get to. The 46, 84, and 134 bus lines also go along the eastern side of the site, and the 23, 70, and 74 also run along Ford Parkway. There’s plenty of transit to support TOD, even if it’s not as flashy as a rail line.

          “I can see a city wide need for more dense development however the streets and infrastructure around there aren’t conducive to having that high of density.”
          What makes this site significantly more difficult to access than other sites across St. Paul? The area surrounding it isn’t terribly dense already, and even with the proposed full density it still wouldn’t be the most dense census block in St. Paul, even excluding downtown. There’ll be some more traffic, sure, but the area handled commuting traffic for the Ford plant until the plant closed down. What makes this any different from that traffic?

          “It’s a great area for low density single family homes, but that as a solution isn’t really politically correct these days.”
          Given the location and amount of infrastructure already in place here, it’d be a huge waste to limit the area to low-density single family homes. It’s not a matter of “political correctness,” but the reality of the situation at hand where there’s more people wanting to move in than there is housing stock, and this site being very well positioned to have dense housing in one of our central cities without having to tear down existing housing stock.

          1. Andrew Evans

            So there is a city lab article that said at it’s peak the Ford site employed 1800 workers. In that same article they mentioned a plan for 7200 residents. Granted I don’t know which iteration of the plan that was, but either way I’m assuming there will be more than 2000 new residents there. I would have imagined that traffic wasn’t that much fun, especially across the bridge and then waiting for the light on 55.

            The issue is there isn’t a great easy way to get to that neighborhood or great freeway access or options from that neighborhood. Granted I’ll admit I’m car centric, but it’s right in the middle of a residential area without some simple freeway access.

            If it were that great of an idea, why were quite a few residents opposed to the plans? That’s why it was political correctness that moved this through, and not really listening to the residents there. Also it seems in Mpls there was quite a bit of pushback to building a light rail or streetcar line down whatever Ford Parkway turns into. Thus why I said it was more politically correct and driven to push through the plans, since single family or low density housing doesn’t get votes for council members in the greater city.

            1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

              “‘If it were that great of an idea, why were quite a few residents opposed to the plans?”

              Because people are completely irrational about traffic and parking and unable to imagining other people who prefer to avoid those things. They live in a car-dominated world and don’t realize that it’s entirely dominated by cars as a matter of policy, while other policy decision can allow people to live differently.

              It’s impossible to listen to the residents there, because the neighborhood doesn’t exist yet.

              1. Mike SonnMike Sonn

                Also, Mayor Carter, who supported the Ford Site Master Plan, handily beat Pat Harris, who supported restarting the process a la Livable St Paul, in Ward 3 and nearly every precinct around the Ford Site. Someone saying “it was political correctness that moved this through” sends up major red flags.

        2. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

          I don’t see that it makes sense to build block after block of single-family homes at this location. Within St. Paul, it is certainly not the most central or transit-oriented of site — but it certainly is the most central of its size. And on the metro scale, it is extremely central. It’s also just a desirable place to live in its own right. A lot of amenities are nearby, and I think it strikes a good balance of being driveable but also walkable and transit-friendly. (Bike accommodations could use some work)

          Just because it made sense to build single-family houses nearby in a much smaller region in the 1920s through 1950s doesn’t mean that makes sense today.

          And despite the differences in the number of people, I still believe replacing an auto plant with single-family homes would be a less intense use. Actually, so would replacing it with low-rise apartment buildings. Industrial uses generate freight traffic, pollution, noise, and abrupt spikes in traffic on shift changes. I think it is misleading to act like the “natural” thing to build at this site is single-family homes, and anything more intense than that is a change.

          1. Jeffrey Klein

            Agreed. There’s no reason to assume people would build single-family; in fact, with such a good location I would expect the lots would have been quite expensive, and making each unit not be super expensive would have required a bit of density. And if it were zoned medium density from the start (say up to 4-6 stories, no set backs needed, or even form based), nobody would build a single family mcmansion because the people would want that also want the guarantee they will live next to single family mcmansions, which would not be the case.

  2. Elizabeth Larey

    Retail does matter in a space this large. Recently in Uptown, several prominent retailers departed, stating their customers mentioned lack of parking as a reason they stopped shopping there. I like the fact this will be one of the largest affordable housing developments the city has undertaken.
    With all of the different visions for this parcel, there will be many who are disappointed. But compromise is what has to happen on a project of this magnitude.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      They asked the customers who were no longer shopping there??

      There are studies that consistently show that people running retail businesses in cities routinely over-estimate the proportion of their customers that arrive by car and thus the importance of parking to their business. Take anyone blaming a lack of parking with a huge grain of salt.

      Specifically as to Uptown, Victoria’s secret just announced 53 more stores closing. Were they all short on parking to? Or maybe fashion brands are cyclical and it, Columbia and North Face are past their peak and downsizing.

      1. Mike SonnMike Sonn

        Yeah, I don’t believe, for one second, that those stores left Uptown/Grand bcs of “parking concerns raised by former customers.”

    2. Andrew Evans

      Agree with UpTown, although with the extra grain of salt that the truth is somewhere in the middle between that study and Adams opinion below. Uptown has changed a lot in the past 10 years, and changed tremendously from the 10 years before that. Some of this could be cyclical, however, and maybe it’s due to me getting older, it seems more of a pain in the butt to get down there than it used to.

      Reminds me I need to make it back to Amazing Thailand, and my partner and I need to visit Jasmine 26. Used to be regulars at both places, but have since moved on for various reasons. Pretty much the Kitchen Window is the only reason we’ve been down to UpTown proper lately.

    3. Chip Coldwell

      I have heard Costco is proposing a two story building, similar to the Manhattan location.

  3. Jay Severance

    You mentioned the Riverview Corridor Project and its failure to provide service to the Ford site. The Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) provides for a “modern streetcar” on 7th street from downtown St Paul crossing the river at and tunneling under Fort Snelling to the Blue Line accessing MSP and Mall of America. This plan was approved by the Met Council just last week. Unfortunately, a suggested plan which would serve the Ford site was rejected without being evaluated against the LPA. It would utilize the abandoned CP rail spur to access the South end of the Ford site and then continue across the river on a new bridge to the Blue Line at 54th st. This would provide a base for transit oriented development in the Ford site and would cost $250 million dollars LESS than the LPA to build…plus provide faster and more reliable service than the modern streetcar. Check out the article on page 6 of the February 27th edition of the Villager “Misplaced Desire for Streetcars on W. 7th” for more information.

    1. Monte Castleman

      Besides the long detour making it less attractive as a way from downtown to the airport, the problem with that is that it involves a new bridge over a national park, the Mississippi National River and Recreational Area so building any new bridges is pretty much a non-starter. That’s part of why extending the Greenway across the river is stalled. The railroad doesn’t want to share it’s private property and the feds don’t want a new bridge and it seems there’s no political appetite for seizing the railroad by eminent domain and likely forcing some businesses providing well-paying jobs to relocate.

      That’s not an absolute prohibition, but the St. Croix Crossing got delayed close to 20 years by litigation. I don’t think we want a repeat of that delay with the Riverview corridor.

      1. Allen

        and it seems there’s no political appetite for seizing the railroad by eminent domain

        That’s because it can’t be seized by eminent domain.

  4. Coz Lindsay

    Hi, Mike! Re: Tour de Highland, the HDC Transportation Committee approved a ten mile route utilizing the Cleveland bike lanes and a 20 mile route utilizing Elway, Montreal, and Saint Paul Ave. Highland Business Association nixed that 20 mile option and the image above is the resulting compromise. I offer these notes as context; I don’t disagree with your points. There’s an image on the tour’s website of a previous 10 mile ride which will be update shortly. Here’s the approved 10 miler:

  5. Steve S

    My question has always been, “Where will all those people living at the Ford site work?” I thought a good answer to that question would be “downtown St. Paul” because city officials would realize that the downtown would also benefit by creating a direct and efficient link between the two areas.

    I’m old enough to have hoped (in jest) that the Mayo Clinic would buy up the site, put in a big healthcare facility, and surround it with assisted living apartments. We could have had jobs, less traffic, and an easy transition for aging Highlanders.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      Moderator’s note: I removed a comment here that was not being respectful, and attacking groups unnecessarily. I would urge people commenting to stay positive and take people at their word about what they believe.

    2. Serafina ScheelSerafina Scheel

      The Shriners Hospital just up the river is available should Mayo want another health care facility. But talk about somewhere not accessible by transit…

    3. Monte Castleman

      A few thoughts on that:

      Mayo’s pattern is to buy up existing hospitals rather than build new ones. With all the mergers going on Allina is now the smallest of the big three healthcare systems in the Twin Cities so if the Mayo wants in in a big way maybe they’d try to acquire them.

      If Mayo did build a facility there, you can bet they’d want to make it a marquee location and make it easy for rich suburbanites to drive there. Although that’s one reason why they’d be unlikely to put it there as opposed to along a freeway someplace, if they did you can bet they’d want plenty of parking. And does the neighborhood really want ambulances and helicopters screaming by at all hours of the day and night?

      From what I’ve seen, assisted living facilities have little engagement to the neighborhood. With food and programming provided and the limited mobility of the residents it’s rare for them to leave except in a car when their family takes them out for the day.

  6. karen

    I feel like this primo spot is coming on line for development just a few years, maybe just 5 years, too soon to be designed around the transportation of the future – the next 50-75 years.

    First there is Riverview corridor for rail and A Line BRT which could be connected at this site but doesn’t seem on the map.

    And EVs will change a lot, we have rediscovered how great biking infrastructure will be, computer tech is brining on things like Uber/Lyft and bike/scooter sharing systems, the success of aBRT with very little start-up costs or time, little EVs etc

    And the potential of autonomous vehicles to make transit on fixed routes very cheap and frequent.

    The demand for parking and individually car could plummet depending on how well this plays out.

    Instead, this will be developed a lot like what we have done in last 60 years and a little bit of change thrown in.

    In ten years, think we are going to totally regret we didn’t see big shifts coming and insist on a different way.

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