How an Ambitious Minnesota Eco-Project Became a Density Battleground

By District Energy posted 06-26-2018 00:00

  

Jay Walljasper, City Lab

Before it closed in 2011, Ford's Twin Cities Assembly Plant churned out millions of vehicles. It's now set to become a "net-zero" mixed-use development. Before it closed in 2011, Ford's Twin Cities Assembly Plant churned out millions of vehicles. It's now set to become a "net-zero" mixed-use development. Cory Ryan/Getty Images

Summary

Ford’s Twin Cities Assembly Plant in St. Paul, Minnesota opened in 1925 to build Model Ts in a state-of-the-art facility powered by a hydroelectric dam on the Mississippi River. At its peak, the factory employed 1,800 well-paid UAW workers in a 2 million-square-foot facility about 7 miles from both downtown St. Paul and downtown Minneapolis. When the last vehicle, a Ranger pickup truck, rolled off its line just before Christmas in 2011, it was Ford Motors’ oldest factory. About 7 million vehicles were built here over 86 years.

The closure left behind an economic hole in St. Paul, and a formidable environmental challenge: The site was laced with residue from decades of automaking—petroleum compounds, paint solvents, lead, and arsenic.

Today, all that remains of the Ford factory is an expansive tract of bare land in the middle of the middle-class Highland Park neighborhood, where a lone smokestack juts up from the old steam plant. The top layer of heavily contaminated dirt has been scraped away and piled up in mounds underneath plastic covers, waiting to be removed. Diesel shovels and other heavy equipment dot the grounds.

But the Ford site is poised for a dramatic rebirth: Over the next 20 years, these 122 acres overlooking the Mississippi River are slated to grow into a dense mixed-use neighborhood designed to be a showpiece of energy efficiency, smart design, ecological stormwater management, and enlightened economic development. Last fall, the St. Paul City Council approved the Ford site master plan, developed by the city’s planning department after an intensive 11-year process. The plan maps out the vision for a transit-accessible community for up to 7,200 residents, an eco-village within the city that boasts a grid of bike- and pedestrian-friendly streets, abundant green space, and jobs for 1,500 workers—almost as many as the old Ford plant had at its height. Twenty percent of the development’s housing will be priced for lower-income residents.

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