Meet the Man Caught in the Middle of the Twin Cities’ Nastiest Development Fight
St. Paul City Council Member Chris Tolbert knew what was coming, so he tried to put a lid on what was likely to be a rowdy town hall meeting.
“This is one of the most important conversations we’re going to have in our neighborhood and one of the most important conversations we’re gonna have in our city,” the Ward 3 council member told the audience at a packed Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, located a little more than a mile from what has provoked those most important conversations: what will eventually occupy the 135-acre plot of land in Highland Park where the Ford Motor Company once assembled cars and trucks.
“We’re all neighbors,” Tolbert said at the meeting held earlier this week. “And regardless of what happens with Ford, we’re gonna be neighbors after. So please keep the boo’s down and don’t make any personal attacks.”
That might have kept the cat-calling, the grumbling, and the applause to a minimum. But it didn’t totally eliminate audience participation, such as when two organized groups took turns passionately criticising and, respectively, embracing a city plan to guide the repurposing of the Ford site.
Tolbert isn’t all that different from other elected officials: He’d much rather voters like him than dislike him, of course. Yet a series of issues in his Ward 3 — which includes both the Highland and Mac-Groveland neighborhoods — have made that difficult. From making room for bike lanes on urban arterial streets to changing zoning to allow more-dense development, Ward 3 has become the stage for a conflict between older, established residents who fear for familiar St. Paul neighborhoods and younger people who want a more urban looking and feeling St. Paul.
It’s not exactly Baby Boomers vs. Millennials. (There are, after all, some Gen Xers scattered among both camps.) But it’s close. Yet bike lanes and arterial rezones were skirmishes compared to the war over the Ford site.
Welcome to St. Polarized
While Ford wants to sell the project to a master developer who will control the build-out over decades, the project will have to adhere to whatever zoning and planning rules the city imposes.
The proposed zoning issues haven't exactly snuck up on anybody. Over the last 10 years, the city has commissioned 14 professional studies — including environmental and traffic assessments — to look as the site. There were also 39 meetings of the Ford Site Task Force, as well as dozens of community engagement meetings and more than 80 presentations to groups in the city, which doesn’t even count the 18 neighborhood focus group sessions.
But then, in November of 2016, the city planning staff finally presented the Ford Site Zoning and Public Realm Master Plan. That plan envisions a relatively dense, mixed-use urban village with taller buildings close to Ford Parkway and Cleveland Avenue and lower-rise buildings closer to the Mississippi River. It would continue the street grid from surrounding neighborhoods into the site; and it would intersperse the building with lots with trails, green spaces and a unified stormwater system, complete with visible streams connected to a reborn Hidden Falls.
Town hall attendees advocating against the proposed zoning issues. (Photo by Peter Callaghan/MinnPost)
Then all hell broke loose. By last month, when the city planning commission approved much of the city’s staff report on the site, two warring groups had been hammering each other for months. Neighbors for a Livable Saint Paul was organized to oppose — passionately, it turns out — the draft plan. Meanwhile, Sustain Ward 3 — a community group rooted in the earlier battle over bike lanes — evolved to present a counter argument to Neighbors for a Livable Saint Paul, and to demonstrate that not all in the area surrounding the Ford site are against the plan.
They couldn’t disagree more completely. “Livable” hates the plan for its density, for its heights and for its potential to increase traffic; “Sustain” loves it for its density, for its heights and for its potential to increase transit.
The man in the middle
Into all this has walked Tolbert, whose represeted the area since 2012. He grew up nearby, once playing on the Ford Co. baseball fields, and was elected by voters on both sides of the conflict. But as a council member, he has not hidden his excitement and affection for the Ford vision. He has been the council’s lead on the project since being elected six years ago, and attended meetings at Ford headquarters with St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and Gov. Mark Dayton. He’s also visited other Ford brownfields and argues that St. Paul’s is alone in being considered for residential uses.
In an op-ed in the Pioneer Press on Sunday, he was restrained, if not euphemistic, in his description of the politics involved at the heart of the issue. “Much of this discussion has been focused on the important issue of what the right level of density and development is for the site and neighborhood – this has been an often robust debate,” Tolbert wrote. “We should celebrate this public process and engagement.”
He even tried to frame the two sides as being mostly in agreement. “From that public discussion a consensus is emerging in our neighborhood on generally-agreed-upon principles,” Tolbert wrote. “Most neighbors support the change from an industrial site to a mixed use development, the addition of new and needed housing options for Highland Park, the opportunity for green space and recreational land uses, a vision for sustainable development and affordable housing, and the prospect of business and commercial growth while maintaining the character of the community we know and love.”
True, the different sides might all use those words, but they have vastly different definitions for concepts such as mixed-use, affordable housing, sustainable development and character.
Tolbert had decided to wade in anyway. Forging what he says is a compromise, he took on three of the biggest complaints by “Livable”: that the buildings are too tall; the they're too close together; and that the plan lacks open space.
Town hall attendees at the Gloria Dei Lutheran Church expressing their concern about the potential development. (Photo by Peter Callaghan/MinnPost)
He has proposed reducing the height limit in the “Residential Mixed High” zone from 110 feet, about 10 stories, to 75 feet. Such heights are allowed in just one of the six proposed zoning areas, but have become the focus of the opposition. (At the planning commission hearing last month, one opponent said, “there’s no way to design something attractive with the current zoning plan. It will be hideous.”)
Tolbert’s proposal would use that 35-foot reduction as a carrot to entice developers to exceed the green space that the city can legally require. Under the St. Paul park dedication fee ordinance, developers can either set aside 9 percent of developable space for parks and open space or chip in money to help the city acquire it nearby. And Tolbert’s plan would still allow 110-foot maximums in exchange for the extra open space that both opponents and the city itself want. Either result would reduce the capacity for residential development: by cutting the number of floors in that zone or converting otherwise developable land into green space.
The amendment would also require buildings to have a second story setback from the front property line and for the city to create design standards for buildings and review developer plans to make sure they meet those standards “so that we ensure quality building construction and great architecture.”
Ready to respond
And yet, depending on which side you’re on, Tolbert’s changes are either minor and a smokescreen, or an unnecessary-but-acceptable compromise. Not a single opponent announced that they were placated by the proposal, and not a single supporter said the amendments would change the staff report too much.
But with those amendments in place, Tolbert has said he would vote for the plan. “The current rezoning plan has been thoroughly reviewed, revised, and critiqued,” he wrote. “It reflects the shared values of the neighborhood and city and seizes a historic opportunity to revitalize the property. It lays the foundation and framework for the important work that will follow in the coming decades.”
Tolbert not only laid out his position, but he did so two days before the town hall meeting. Not surprisingly, those attending the gathering at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church were ready to respond. “The buildings will go up, the density will occur. For the next 30 or 50 or 100 years we will be stuck with the fact that we’re cramming 10 pounds into a five-pound bag,” said Pat McGuire, a longtime resident of nearby Highland Village.
Proposed residential and business use for the former Ford Plant site. (Image by the City of St. Paul)
But another participant, Michael Daigh, said he moved to the neighborhood with his family after leaving the military because of the city’s plans for Ford. At first he avoided living near an abandoned industrial site, but then he looked at the city webpage on the project. “I decided I need to take a second look at this because this is a place I want to build a future for my family and my children,” he said. “And I wanted to get in before I couldn’t get a house here because it was gonna be so great.”
The council will hold another hearing at 5:30 on Sept. 20, and it is expected to vote on the plan Sept. 27. Opponents have been urging the city to wait; to take time to consider concerns and perhaps to wait until a new mayor takes office in January. Tolbert said he wants to vote on the plan soon, before the land is sold to a master developer, since he thinks the rules should be in place so that a future developer knows what is possible and what isn’t. “We want to be in the driver’s seat,” he said. “We want to set the framework for them to work within, not be reactionary.”
Even if the council approves the zoning and public realm master plan, however, the end of the process — and the argument — still would not be in sight. Any master developer would have to present a master plan to the city for approval, complete with more environmental and transportation management plans. That could begin as soon, or as late, as 2020.