Officials from the University of St. Thomas and Ryan Cos., creators of St. Paul's 122-acre Highland Bridge development, on Monday unveiled a broad plan to redevelop a vacant 13-acre tract into new athletic facilities for the university's softball and baseball teams.
At a community meeting in Highland Park, officials touted the benefits they say will come: economic development, environmental cleanup, community amenities and expanded park space. But Highland Park residents such as Marcia Avner have their doubts.
After all, Highland Bridge has yet to fill a single one of its 3,800 units of housing, yet to sell a single product out of its retail space. Yet to suffer snarled new roadways with that once dead-ended at the old Ford site.
So, Avner wanted to know, why would anyone agree to add a couple of athletic stadiums and a parking ramp to it?
"We don't know the congestion we'll see when people are living at Highland Bridge," Avner said. "Now they're talking about Sports-zilla on the corner of Montreal and Cleveland."
Officials on Monday gave more detail to a plan to build athletic facilities for the school's baseball and softball teams near Highland Bridge's southeast corner, now owned by Canadian Pacific Railway. Save for the stadiums, Ryan officials said, it's doubtful anything else would be built there.
But if several of the speakers in the crowd of about 130 are an indication, St. Thomas and Ryan officials have some work to do to win over skeptical neighbors worried about even more noise and traffic that would come with college athletics.
St. Thomas, which recently made the unprecedented jump from NCAA Division III athletics to Division I, said it needs to upgrade its facilities. It chose to pitch this spot, nearly 2 miles south of its St. Paul campus. Athletic Director Phil Esten said conjoined baseball-softball stadiums at Highland Bridge — each holding 1,000 to 1,500 fans — "could lead to some really unique fan experiences as well."
Patrick Martin is in favor of the move. The board member for Highland Ball, a youth sports organization with 1,000 boys and girls playing baseball and softball on fields nearby, said the stadiums would be a boost to the community. The opportunity to play on those fields and train at the proposed indoor facility are too good to pass up, Martin said.
"This means better access and better opportunity for our kids," he said.
The university is exploring the Ford site because it has no room to build new facilities on its St. Paul campus, officials said. It also cannot build nearby, since a conditional-use permit issued in 2004 prohibits St. Thomas from building anything within a mile.
Monday's meeting followed a rejection much closer to St. Thomas' home.
Earlier this year, university officials approached Town & Country Club, about a mile north of campus, about buying at least a portion of its golf course for a possible $61.4 million athletics expansion — including a new ice hockey facility. The Tommies now play in the 1,000-seat St. Thomas Ice Arena. Current baseball and softball facilities are wedged on campus. The softball team shares its field with men's and women's soccer.
But Town & Country's board voted unanimously to reject the bid.
After being rebuffed, St. Thomas turned its attention to the Highland Bridge development, the grounds of a former Ford assembly plant. The development, featuring housing, retail, office space and new parks, came after more than a decade of discussion among planners, developers, city officials and neighbors.
But in July, St. Thomas took the hockey arena off the Highland Bridge table. The other athletic facilities remain. Esten said officials will continue to look for a hockey arena site and hope to keep hockey in St. Paul and relatively close to campus.
While far from finished, Highland Bridge's ongoing transformation has been dramatic.
A new Lunds & Byerlys grocery store is set to open at the end of September. The site's central water feature, designed to mimic a winding stream that feeds Hidden Falls, is already attracting kayakers. A skateboard park has been open several weeks. Several other buildings, including dozens of rowhouses, are in various stages of construction.
After the meeting, St. Paul City Council Member Chris Tolbert, who represents the area and was a champion of Highland Bridge coming to fruition, called the St. Thomas proposal for stadiums there "intriguing."