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St. Paul’s Ford site development may come with $107 million welfare tab

Ryan Companies promises to turn the expanse into 40 blocks of mixed-use, walkable, beautiful city, with public art, about 3,800 units of housing, 525,000 square feet of commercial space, and plenty of tree-lined parks, bike paths, and plazas.

Ryan Companies promises to turn the expanse into 40 blocks of mixed-use, walkable, beautiful city, with public art, about 3,800 units of housing, 525,000 square feet of commercial space, and plenty of tree-lined parks, bike paths, and plazas. City of St. Paul

St. Paul has been looking forward to the most exciting thing to come out of the old Ford manufacturing site in Highland Park since the place stopped churning out trucks in 2011. After years of emptiness and mud, the 122 acres near the Mississippi River is poised to turn into the neighborhood of tomorrow.

The new Ford site is supposed to be slick, futuristic, and civic-minded. The latest plans from Minneapolis developer Ryan Cos. promise to turn the expanse into 40 blocks of mixed-use, walkable, beautiful city, with public art, about 3,800 units of housing, 525,000 square feet of commercial space, and plenty of tree-lined parks, bike paths, and plazas.

On top of that, 20 percent of the housing -- about 760 units -- is supposed to be affordable, which is exactly what the city’s looking for. The Twin Cities can’t get enough low-cost housing right now. (Unfortunately, it's not yet clear what “affordable” means, though it's supposed to be priced for people making 30 to 60 percent or less of the area’s median income.)

The project is estimated to cost $1 billion, and it could take over a decade to complete. The question is who will pay for it. Based on a recent announcement from the St. Paul Housing and Redevelopment Authority, a good chunk of that sum -- about 10 percent -- could come from the pockets of St. Paul residents.

On Friday, the Authority revealed that Ryan is applying for $107 million in welfare for the project. That, the Pioneer Press reported, is equivalent to what St. Paul’s property taxes contribute to the city’s general fund in an entire year.

Ryan Cos. declined comment, but a joint statement from executives Mike Ryan and Tony Barranco said that the company is requesting “public investment” only for “public spaces, infrastructure, and affordable housing.” The affordable housing alone, according to the statement, is supposed to cost $200 million, and Ryan Companies wants property taxes to take a $48 million edge off that number.

“As part of this partnership, Ryan is intending to contribute over 40 percent of the land area to become new public realm and green space,” the statement continued, “including retaining two existing little league fields.”

If all goes well, it said, the new development will generate over $400 million in new taxes for the city, state, county, and schools over the next 25 years. But...

“Without the public investment, we do not believe this bold master plan, and the important goals within it, can be achieved,” the statement said.

The details included in Ryan’s application are still sparse. As the Pi Press pointed out, that welfare could come from St. Paul residents -- or the state, the county, the Met Council, “or even federal assistance.” 

City Council Member and Housing and Redevelopment Authority Chair Chris Tolbert says this is all the beginning of a back-and-forth between Ryan Companies and the city. He hasn’t seen the developer’s application, but staff are “doing their due diligence” to determine whether that $107 million is justified. 

“It could be something that’s changed – negotiated.” But Tolbert says this was always going to require a “public-private” partnership. “This is one of the most sought-after sites in St. Paul,” he says.

It’s a gigantic blank slate 10 minutes from downtown and the airport. The infrastructure costs associated with bringing it to life were always going to be significant.

As for how much Ryan is paying for the site in the first place, Tolbert says, you’d “have to ask them.” (The developer, again, declined to comment).