To the neighbors of St. Paul’s former Ford site, Ryan Cos.’ announcement Thursday that it has purchased the 122-acre parcel means that a decade of uncertainty is over and work on a much-anticipated modern urban village will finally begin.
“It’s a very exciting and rewarding day for the city of St. Paul and our neighborhood,” said City Council Member Chris Tolbert, who represents the area. “We have a local company that now owns the Ford site.”
It also means that for the first time in nearly a century, something other than cars or pickup trucks is going to be built on this site overlooking the Mississippi River. Work is expected to begin in the spring on a project to add 3,800 units of housing, 265,000 square feet of office space, 150,000 square feet of retail space and 55,000 square feet of civic or institutional space.
On Thursday, Ryan Cos. announced it bought the site for $61 million, starting the clock on what is expected to be at least two decades of work to create the modern urban village city planners and Ryan officials envision.
“We’re kind of excited that this is finally, actually going to be starting,” said Howard Miller, a Ford site neighbor and president of the Highland District Council. “It’s the beginning of what is going to be a long process and, hopefully, a successful project.”
Ryan also announced Thursday a partnership with Weidner Apartment Homes to develop market-rate housing on more than 16 acres of the site. Weidner bought several parcels as part of the closing transaction.
Weidner and Ryan Cos. are already working together on the 318-unit Daymark multiuse project in Minneapolis’ Uptown neighborhood.
“The Ford site redevelopment is a once-in-a-generation opportunity, and we are thrilled to be a part of this transformative project,” said Greg Cerbana, Weidner’s vice president of public relations.
CommonBond Communities and Project for Pride in Living Inc. had previously been named as partners with Ryan to help create the affordable housing element, which the city says must make up 20% of the units created, the company said.
In November, Mayor Melvin Carter announced a final development deal that provides $53 million in public financing for infrastructure. Ryan is expected to request more than $100 million more in the years to come to develop affordable housing at the site.
On Wednesday, several Highland Park-area residents expressed relief that the project will now get started and optimism over Ryan’s plans for it.
“It’s exciting news,” said Rob Wales, an advocate for higher-density housing to help ease a tight marketplace in St. Paul. “It’s good that progress can actually start being made at the site itself, as soon as it thaws out.”
Kevin Gallatin, a board member for the Highland District Council, said he expects the next couple of years will be occupied with site preparation and infrastructure work — grading, installation of stormwater systems, sewer, water and buried electrical service.
Ryan officials have said the first housing to rise on the site is likely to be 35 single-family homes the company wants to build along Mississippi River Boulevard, with construction of townhouses along a streamlike stormwater feature to occur around the same time.
“I’ve heard from a lot of people who seem surprised that no one will be living there for about three years,” Gallatin said, adding that it will be interesting to see how Ryan phases construction. “It’s a really big puzzle that Ryan has to solve.”
Neighbor Kate Hunt said Ryan’s purchase of the site “is a relief that this aspect has been resolved. But what is a concern for us is the use of public money. It is not transparent at all.”
She said the city’s commitment to using what is known as tax-increment financing (TIF) to help develop the Ford site is problematic. TIF is a tool cities use to promote development in areas where it would not otherwise occur. As the property increases in value, the increased property taxes are used to pay for the infrastructure costs and don’t go into city and county coffers for 20 to 25 years.
TIF often is used to develop blighted areas. The Ford site, Hunt and others say, is not blighted. Yet the city established a TIF district for the site that could raise $275 million in financing over the next 25 years.
“It seems like a shell game with the taxpayers on the hook,” she said.
Tolbert disagreed, saying that TIF is needed for a 40-block development starting from scratch. Public financing is being used only to pay for “public uses,” such as infrastructure and affordable housing, he said.
It will add more than $1 billion in value to a city with an estimated tax base of about $24 billion, he said.
“This is a great investment for the neighborhood, a great investment for the city of St. Paul and the residents of St. Paul,” he said. “We had some very ambitious goals for this site — sustainability, affordable housing — and at the end of the day, when this project is built out we will have achieved those goals.”