When this was planned years ago, I never would have predicted that we would end up debating whether the University of St. Thomas should build hockey and baseball facilities on the south end of the old Ford site. If you follow St. Paul’s politics, it’s an ironic twist, because if there’s one thing that infuriates concerned neighbors more than tall buildings, it’s St. Thomas students. The number of times St. Paul politics has swirled around the 6,000-person University of St. Thomas campus — restrictive student zoning, campus expansion debates, nuisance complaints, and more. – is practically infinite.
But why not hockey and baseball facilities? There are several reasons why this might be a bad idea and a few reasons why it might be a good idea. At least it will be interesting.
The mystery of CP’s land
Throughout the years of debate over the old Highland Ford factory, there was always a little asterisk in PowerPoint presentations. While most of the 122-acre site is believed to be owned and controlled by Ryan Companies, the master developer of what is now known as Highland Bridge, a sizable chunk of the old rail yard was hidden at the bottom of the maps . It was still surrounded by a dotted line and marked “CP Rail”, and no one knew what would happen to it.
One of the hopes was that the government would buy the property along with the five-mile rail spur leading northeast. In the master plan, there were supposed to be offices and 55 housing units on Canada Pacific (CP) land. But rumors suggest the asking price for the land was quite high, and perhaps that land deal with St. Thomas is one of the reasons for the standoff.
That all changed when, a few months ago, the university released a plan to build an athletics complex that would include upgraded Division I facilities for its hockey and baseball teams. If built, the new arenas and ballparks would occupy the entire CP parcel, plus another dozen acres of Highland Bridge land currently owned by Ryan Companies.
The big story here is that three years ago, Saint Paul University in St. Thomas was kicked out of Division III Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference for being too big and too good. They had to pivot quickly to join the D1 school and lined up a series of different conferences for their various athletic programs, including the CCHA and WSCHA for men’s and women’s hockey, respectively.
While I’m sure athletes on MIAC teams like Hamline and St. Olaf breathed a sigh of relief after the change, at the time few people spoke about how the new league rules required facilities improved sports for St. Thomas. Since then, school officials have been looking for land — ideally, in St. Paul — where they could locate their new areas and baseball stadium. After a failed attempt to purchase the Town and Country golf course (some of St. Paul’s most valuable waterfront properties), they ended up here, in the old Ford Plan Rail Yard.
“I think it’s an intriguing prospect,” said St. Paul council member Chris Tolbert, who represents the area and has worked at the Ford site in various ways for a decade. “It could be a nice piece of equipment for the neighborhood. We lack softball, baseball and ice fields in the area. And it would be fun to watch Division I baseball and hockey in our own neighborhood.
Tolbert looks forward to a conversation with the community and negotiations with the St. Thomas and Ryan companies on how to ensure all sports facilities serve the city.
As part of the moving parts of the Highland Bridge site, Ryan Companies is oddly moving some of the affordable housing and a planned park to other parts of the project. But not everyone is happy with the plan.
“This sports complex; it’s just another bridge too far,” said Brandon Long, who lives a few blocks away on Cleveland Avenue and has spent years advocating for density at the Ford site and. “The section of it which occupies the land of Ryan (Companies) has been considered for housing for the elderly.”
Long argues that housing for the elderly was popular in the community and would have brought good jobs to Highland as well as much-needed housing for the elderly. Instead, he views the St. Thomas proposal as shifting project costs to other landowners.
“We’re going to spread the assessment of this parcel for (tax increase funding) TIF over the rest of the site,” Long explained. “If they do, that means they can’t be taxed – they’re not for profit – but they’ve pushed the cost onto everyone else.”
Brandon Long is not mistaken about the impact of property tax. By selling part of the Highland Bridge property to a non-profit university, Ryan Companies would permanently remove this land from tax lists for lost stadiums and parking lots that sit empty at least half the time. This makes it harder for the rest of the site to generate envious revenue to repay the city’s initial investment, which is part of a funding scheme called financing by tax increase.
But Tolbert doesn’t see the tax implications as a deal breaker and suggests it’s possible the sports facilities could help boost business and property markets in Highland Bridge.
“Part of the vision for Highland Bridge was to have vibrancy and I think that could add a unique vibrancy to the area,” Tolbert told me. “On the site you will always have the market price and affordable housing. We are going to have large park spaces and a large water feature. More than anything, it’s just about connecting all of these things.
Another irony in the St. Thomas proposal is that the baseball complex will occupy the site of Ford Fields baseball stadiums, built by the Ford automobile company almost a century ago. The ballpark has long held a totemic place in the community and was often featured prominently in Highland Villagers headlines, the local newspaper.
If the university wishes, there is a chance that the new domains will become an asset to the community and can sometimes be used in its presence. If that happens, it will be quite the graduation for former Little League diamonds, another sign that St. Paul is becoming a city.
In the meantime, because they are working under a binding agreement with the city, Ryan Companies must go through a public process called Master Plan Amendments. These changes will be presented to City Council this summer, and there will be a public hearing on the plans at 8:30 a.m. at City Hall (Room 40) on August 5. If this hearing is like every other public meeting in St. Paul where St. Thomas students are on the agenda, it should be very busy.