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At a recent public hearing, speaker after speaker praised plans by developer Ryan Cos. to transform the former Ford site in St. Paul into a massive new community.

The expression of support for the project at the St. Paul Planning Commission was a remarkable turnaround. Some of those speaking were among the residents who had posted yard signs, organized petition drives and even tried renting a billboard to fight the city’s desire to add thousands of residents to their neighborhood.

Ryan, the Minneapolis developer that built St. Paul’s CHS Field and Minneapolis’ Downtown East, reached out to neighbors and won them over by, among other actions, scaling back the project’s density.

“They listened to us,” said longtime area resident James Winterer.

Said Kate Hunt, another Ford site neighbor: “Ryan’s plan has been a balm to the divisiveness that the city’s plan created.”

The question now is whether Ryan can gain the approval of city leaders. Officials have said the 122-acre site, fully developed, could hit $1.3 billion in value and generate more than $20 million a year in property taxes. Ryan is expected to ask for millions in public financing to pay for sewer, water and other infrastructure. Ryan also is asking for a number of amendments to the master plan, including allowing 35 single-family homes along Mississippi River Boulevard as well as row houses near a stormwater stream and a parking structure in a commercial zone.

“There is still skepticism,” said Kevin Gallatin, president of the Highland District Council and a density promoter who nonetheless likes the Ryan plan. “But now, most of the skepticism is from the pro-density people. Density champions don’t want to see any retreat.”

Master plan angst

In September 2017, the City Council approved a zoning and public realm master plan that immediately divided neighbors. It pitted advocates for greater housing density and affordability against those who feared an overdeveloped Ford site would obliterate the character of the surrounding neighborhood.

The master plan called for dividing the site into six districts filled with housing, retail and open space, with the least dense development closest to the Mississippi River. It called for capping buildings at six stories, but allowed developers to build up to 10 stories if they add parkland elsewhere on the property.

Officials estimated that by 2040, 1,500 people could be working at the site and 4,320 to 7,200 residents could be living in as many as 4,000 units of housing there.

Last June, Ford chose Ryan Cos. as master developer of the site. Ryan officials promised at the time that it would work hard to “understand the history and complexities of the site” and work with the city on a detailed development plan. City leaders and residents praised the choice of Ryan and the company’s reputation of working with neighbors on other projects.

Howard Miller, Hunt’s husband and a master plan critic, said Ryan began reaching out to neighbors immediately. Leaders of Neighbors for a Livable St. Paul, a group that had distributed thousands of red Stop the Ford Plan signs throughout the neighborhood, went to Ryan headquarters in early fall to discuss ideas. Ryan also held a number of community meetings in which residents’ opinions were invited regarding everything from building heights and styles to landscaping and parks.

At every turn, Ryan touted its local ties and commitment to community. They pointed out that Ryan officials have lived in Highland Park, played Little League Baseball there and owned area businesses. It proved an effective strategy. In October, Ryan unveiled its plans to applause.

Green space, waterway

Ryan wants to build fewer units of housing — 3,800 instead of 4,000 — with a mix of single-family homes, row houses and senior rentals. No building would be taller than six stories and 20 percent of the housing would be affordable. More than 50 acres will be publicly accessible open space, including a storm­water collection feature resembling a river flowing through the site. In addition, Ryan’s plan calls for planting 1,000 trees, creating miles of pathways and preserving two of the area’s three Little League Baseball fields. That won over Shirley Erstad, executive director of Friends of the Parks and Trails of St. Paul and Ramsey County.

Before Ryan’s presentation, she said, green space advocates feared nature would be crowded out by maximum development. “I was breathing a sigh of relief when I saw their proposal for the first time,” she said. “And saving those Little League fields was huge.”

Lower buildings, row houses faced with brick and a smaller commercial district than the master plan calls for have all assuaged many worries, onetime opponents said.

“They really put a lot of effort into taking all of the input and coming back with what I think is a very balanced plan,” said Lisa Erbes, who moved to St. Paul from Atlanta three years ago and lives less than a block from the site.

Bruce Hoppe, one of the leaders of Neighbors for a Livable St. Paul, said Ryan’s less dense proposal is still very close to what the master plan was seeking. It’s just that “Ryan has done a very professional job in public relations.”

He said his group still isn’t happy with the density of Ryan’s plan and members worry about traffic. But for the most part, he said, “it is several degrees better than what the city proposed.”

Gallatin, the district council president, said it’s possible that proponents of higher density could pressure city planners to oppose Ryan’s amendments. But he is fine with Ryan’s compromises. He hopes to persuade friends to support it.

“The opposition could jeopardize the [Ryan] plan,” Gallatin said. “I am convinced that Ryan is the best developer for this. I don’t want to go back to the drawing board.”

James Walsh • 612-673-7428