The largest urban redevelopment project in the United States is in my backyard. A $1 billion plus parcel of land is about to become a lot more than a brownfield site.
Neighbors versus Neighbors
The zoning plan for the now-empty parcel has created an unfortunate situation that has pitted neighbors against neighbors, and has blurred the lines of the usual narratives that explain the opposition to urban redevelopment. Like all things, it is messy and complex.
The Ford Motor Company’s 135-acre Twin Cities Assembly Plant in the Highland Park neighborhood was built in the 1920s along the bluffs of the Mississippi River and it was here that trucks were built for almost a century. If you own a Ford Ranger truck 2012 or older, it was built here. Whenever I’m traveling and see someone driving a Ranger, I make it a habit to point out it was built in my backyard. This is a source of pride.
There is a sense of sadness and loss that comes with a large plant closure; the neighborhood grew up around Ford and it employed its residents, paid a good wage, sponsored neighborhood Little League baseball, and kept the Union Hall across the street humming at shift close. It was an assembly plant as much as it was a culture.
Now that culture is shifting and creating complex hyper-local narratives that are all true, yet incomplete. This debate embodies the complexities of urban development issues that communities across the country are dealing with.
The Generational Divide
It’s hard not to notice the generational divide in the debate over the future of the site: baby boomers versus millennials, with Gen X split between the two. This divide is playing out in public forums and open houses, online comment sections, and on competing red and green lawn signs, petitions, and online fundraising.
On one side are those in favor of denser development that will allow more flexibility on the Ford Site, led by the Sustain Ward 3 group. As their website explains:
Sustain Ward 3 advocates for a community that emphasizes mixed commercial and residential land use with affordable housing options, has access to multiple modes of transportation, focuses on locally owned business, and implements sustainable forms of development and energy.
Sustain Ward 3, a group I am part of, supports the current redevelopment plan created by the City of St. Paul.
On the other side are residents opposed to dense development and the current plan, led by the Neighbors for a Livable Saint Paul group. As their website explains:
Neighbors for A Livable Saint Paul is a grassroots group of neighbors working for the smart development of the Ford site which is in harmony with the broader Highland community.
The current plan proposes a radical increase in population density that will further burden infrastructure and public services. There will be more people on limited acres of land than there are in communities with thousands of acres.
The City’s current Ford Site development plan was drafted based on inaccurate and incomplete community input and information. We are asking to have the City take a step back and draft a plan that takes the wants, needs, and concerns of the St. Paul community into account.
St. Paul is not unique. This sort of conversation is happening in urban centers across the country. There's a good reason for it, too.
Baby boomers have lived in this neighborhood for their entire adult lives and feel an ownership over the space. To their credit, they were the ones who stayed in the city when their generational counterpoints were fleeing to the suburbs. Now, they feel compelled to protect what they’ve helped create; and to not imperil themselves or future residents to the impacts of more traffic, a lack of on-street parking, and any other hassles that come with living in an urban environment. They view themselves as the stewards of the neighborhood character they helped create. And they’ve done a good job of it. This partially explains why the area is desirable in the first place.
Meanwhile, millennials want to live in the city but feel they were priced out of it before they even arrived. High rents combined with stagnant wages, less job security, student loans and rising health care costs have led to a growing frustration from younger people who feel financially squeezed. And it’s not just people with lower incomes who are priced out. Many of the YIMBY class are college-educated young professionals with well-paying jobs. They feel the worrisome sense that hard work doesn’t pay off like it used to.
This generational narrative is convenient (and partially true), but it should also be noted that many of the “Say Yes” group’s biggest boosters are Baby Boomers and Seniors who want more, and smaller, housing options. Millennials are also not universally in support of density, although many are.
The Equity Gap
There’s also the narrative of a stark wealth gap pitting equity rich homeowners against first-time home buyers. It’s hard not to notice that “STOP” signs are sprouting up in front of the million dollar mega-mansions of Mississippi River Blvd and Mount Curve while the “YES” signs are being proudly displayed in front of modest, but well-kept, homes and apartment buildings. This is another partially true narrative exacerbated by Millennials—shock and awe that homes here were once purchased for reasonable amounts of money. Every time someone stands up at a meeting and says, “I’ve lived here for 30 years …” the younger audience thinks, “I bet you bought that $700,000 house for $150,000”.
The "YES" Yards
The "NO" Yards
The Preferences Divide & "Neighborhood Character"
Then there is the preference argument: Adding housing within walkable, transit-connected neighborhoods is something younger people overwhelmingly support. Meanwhile, less traffic congestion and convenient parking are often supported by on older generation. These two viewpoints can’t seem to get along. For those in favor of the redevelopment of the Ford Site, issues like parking, traffic, building height and density all pale in comparison to their need and desire to simply find a place to live that doesn’t break the bank. It’s not that they don’t like the existing character of the neighborhood, they just want that character to work for more people: prioritizing parking and driving is not part of that vision.
"Neighborhood character" is a vague term used to describe the “feel” of a neighborhood. But it’s usually limited to people within bubbles. The neighborhood character of Highland Park, as many see it, is that of single-family homes along Mount Curve Boulevard, set among the mature trees lining the Mississippi River. This is true. But it’s also true that 45 percent of the neighborhood is composed of renters, 25 percent are people of color, and 10 percent of residents live below the poverty line. Go to the intersection of West 7th Street and Maynard Drive and start asking people about neighborhood character. You may get a completely different answer.
And while the conversation divide is pointed at topics like density and traffic, those are just subsets of the real questions of Who owns the city? and Who are we making the city for? It’s about the changing culture of a neighborhood and who it’s going to accommodate. I think the usual narratives are too simple. It's not exclusively generational, nor is it rich versus poor. That's the simple answer.
In a future article, I'm going to be looking specifically at the Ford Site plan and how it can be designed to better integrate Strong Towns principles. In the meanwhile, if you'd like to help support a walkable, mixed-use vision of a brownfield, you can do so by donating or signing our petition!