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What’s in store for the former St. Paul Ford site? Ryan Cos. exec talks about pending sale, development plans

On Oct. 10, The Ryan Companies unveiled renderings and a general concept plan for the former Ford Twin Cities auto plant in Highland Park, which will be converted into 3,500 housing units and 150,000 square feet of retail space. Courtesy of the The Ryan Companies1 / 2
Tony Barranco, a vice president of real estate development with the Ryan Companies, said the Minneapolis-based developer is accustomed to ambitious 10- and 15-acre projects such as CHS Field in St. Paul and the Downtown East project in Minneapolis. Courtesy of the Ryan Companies2 / 2
  1. PAUL — Over the past 80 years, the Ryan Companies have designed and constructed some of the most recognizable structures in the Twin Cities, from CHS Field in downtown St. Paul to the Minneapolis Convention Center.

Since 2013, they’ve developed or redeveloped $600 million worth of real estate in the Minneapolis Downtown East neighborhood near U.S. Bank Stadium, including eight buildings, an urban park, a parking ramp, roads and skyway bridges.

Executives with the Minneapolis-based builder, developer and real estate manager readily acknowledge, however, that the challenge before them in St. Paul is unique, both geographically larger and more diverse in scope than even their most ambitious 10- or 15-acre projects.

In the capital city’s Highland Park neighborhood overlooking the Mississippi River, the Ryan Cos. are proposing to convert 122 acres of vacant urban land south of Ford Parkway into a veritable neighborhood of tomorrow. Environmentally sustainable, pedestrian- and bike-friendly, it will showcase “urban infill” redevelopment.

Where the Ford Motor Co. operated for nearly a century producing Model T’s and later Ford Ranger pickup trucks, Ryan officials envision 3,800 housing units over the next 10 years or so, as well as retail and commercial space.

Ford is still a few months away from closing on a land sale to the developer. Ryan executives plan a public presentation on their plan from 7 to 9 p.m. on Nov. 14 at Highland Park Middle School, and concept documents have been posted to the website of the Highland District Council.

The Pioneer Press met with Tony Barranco, a vice president of real estate development for the Ryan Cos., to discuss the future of the Ford site.

Overall vision

The Ryan Cos. envision building 3,800 residential units over a period of roughly 10 years.

Development would take the shape of single-family homes along Mississippi River Boulevard and reach taller heights and denser, more diverse housing types heading from west to east. East of Mississippi River Boulevard, the Ryan Cos. plan row homes.

About 20 percent of the overall housing on site will be designated affordable.

“My sense is we’ll need all 10 years, and there will be a few lagging lots that will take longer,” said Barranco, noting that a future recession could further slow things “depending upon how deep that is.”

Also planned are 265,000 square feet of “employment” space, such as office and commercial buildings, and 150,000 square feet of retail. Two of the three ball fields on the Ford site would be saved, and streets will be designed as extensions of Highland Village, but with better bike and pedestrian access.

Beginning south of a civic plaza at Cretin Avenue and Ford Parkway, a seven-block, creek-like water feature will run from north to south, fed by drainage water and groundwater on the north end of the site.

The master plan and rezoning approved by the St. Paul City Council last year allows for 10-story buildings toward Cleveland Avenue, but company officials prefer a medium-density, village-style layout.

Mixed-use buildings would top out at six or seven stories near Cleveland Avenue.

“We’re trying to take a thoughtful approach toward traffic and density but also we want quality over quantity,” Barranco said. “I think it’s been a good balance between what we feel the market will support and the feedback from the neighbors.”

What buildings  come first?

Barranco said the company will likely begin construction of the planned buildings along Ford Parkway and Mississippi River Boulevard, with structures opening in a general L shape on a site map.

From there, development will move north to south and west to east over the next five years, depending upon market demand. The first buildings will likely open 2K years from now.

“The summer of 2021 will be really the first that anything can come into the site,” Barranco said.

Homes overlooking river

Discussions within the St. Paul Planning Commission around affordability and river views were fairly intense. Up and down Mississippi River Boulevard, the city’s approved master plan calls for multiple-family housing in buildings that from the outside might resemble large houses.

The Ryan Cos. have met with Ford officials to discuss amending the master plan to allow for 35 single-family homes on 60-foot-wide lots.

“We’re a little surprised with how much conversation has evolved around these,” Barranco said. “We anticipate more conversations, for sure. We don’t have a lot of feedback because we just rolled it out.”

The Ryan Cos. will find a development partner to construct much of the housing.

“We will not be the developer of the row houses and the single-family houses,” Barranco said. “We will do the site grading and supply the utilities, and then bring in a partner.”

Additional amendments to the master plan will be more technical, such as the layout of a new civic plaza near Cretin Avenue and Ford Parkway.

Tax increment financing

In 2016, with the future plans for the Ford site still unclear and no developer yet designated, the St. Paul City Council agreed to allow up to $275 million in “tax increment financing” development loans that may be paid back through property taxes.

The figure represented a maximum, and not a guarantee that TIF financing would be used on the site.

Barranco said the Ryan Cos.’ vision includes many public features, such as a civic plaza by Cretin Avenue, a seven-block water fixture and other amenities to benefit the public at large.

For those public areas, as well as the affordable housing on site, they’ll ask for financial assistance from taxpayers.

“We will be seeking public support for the public spaces — the roads, the civic spaces, the central water feature,” he said. “We will not be seeking public support for the private spaces. Also, the project’s affordable housing would need significant support on the public side.”

Cleanup almost done, sale pending

Before Ryan buys the land from Ford, the companies are waiting for a certificate of completion from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency indicating that Ford has cleaned the property to residential standards.

The MPCA is conducting a final review, and Barranco said the approval is expected before the end of the year.

A land sale could follow this winter or next spring. Barranco would not comment on the sale price.

“We can’t disclose it based on our agreement with Ford,” he said.

Ballfields

Highland Ball has played Little League games on the Ford site for decades, and Barranco said the Ryan Cos. plan to keep two of the three ballfields on site.

Discussions with Highland Ball and the city now revolve around who will own and maintain the ballfields, and that has yet to be sorted out. Another question is how to ensure the ballfields are available to the general public when Highland Ball isn’t using them.

“Council member (Chris Tolbert) and Mayor Carter both said early on ‘We’ve gotten a lot of feedback on it,’ ” Barranco recalled. “We think it’s a community resource,’ they not-so-subtly said. We think we have a format where we can keep them in the hands of Highland Ball on a long-term basis.”

Spur cleanup

A Canadian Pacific Rail spur toward the site’s southeastern edges needs additional cleanup, and Ford is working to remove oils and other contaminants from the ground.

“That will likely occur this calendar year,” Barranco said.

The spur could become a pedestrian and bicycle connection to Cretin Avenue, or a streetcar route, depending upon whether Ramsey County and the city of St. Paul approve a streetcar extension into the Ford site.

“In the long run, Canadian Pacific has mentioned interest in the sale of the property,” Barranco said. “At some point we may pursue that.”

Renewable energy

The Ryan Cos. plan to use a lot of native and local landscaping, and they’re still in talks with the city about how to approach sustainable energy generation on the site.

A district energy system could provide power, or a solar array could work, or a combination of the two, Barranco said.

Meanwhile, along the lower banks of the Mississippi River, Brookfield Renewable Power Inc. operates the Twin Cities Hydroelectric Facility that was formerly owned by Ford, which dates back to 1924.

Currently, the power generated by the dam is sold into the Midwest’s wholesale market. It generates 18 megawatts of energy, enough to power about 14,400 homes for a year.

Infrastructure, permits

The Ryan Cos. will complete a six-month study of potential traffic, noise and light issues known as an “Alternative Urban Areawide Review,” or AUAR, and submit it to the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board. Given the size and scope of the Ford site redevelopment, the study is required before the city can issue a construction permit.

Once that’s complete, utilities and basic infrastructure work will begin in 2019.

“We have 12 to 18 months of work that will start hopefully next fall,” Barranco said.

Assuming a land sale takes place by spring, mass site grading could begin next fall. The finished grade will be ready for utility construction, and a seven-block central water feature would also be added in 2019.

Extensions of Cretin, Montreal Avenue and Mount Curve Road would be installed in 2019 or 2020.

Building construction could begin in the spring or summer of 2020, and it’s expected that tenants would be able to move in 12-15 months later.