In our midst a neighborhood is born

Posted: December 14, 2022

Two turns and three blocks into my brief morning commute from St. Paul to Minnehaha, shining buildings enter into the view through my windshield.

The majority of them are four to five stories tall and feature mixed commercial and residential use. Around the buildings are parks, walkways, and even a skatepark which are meant to make the land hospitable to pedestrians. There’s even a skyway between two of the buildings to allow pedestrian access between buildings in winter.

The area lays in direct opposition to the one-story strip malls and single-unit housing surrounding it and is a sight I am still getting used to.

As little as three years ago, there was nothing there but an empty lot of land, known as the Ford plant. In fact, almost all of these buildings are still under construction and the operating ones have just now opened. About a month ago the Minnehaha Band actually played for the opening ceremony of the first shop to open in the Highland Bridge Development, a new Lunds & Byerlys grocery store.

However, more than just a few buildings, the development is major in both scale and design.

The plan embodies new ideas around city planning and is representative of a larger shift in urban design in the Twin Cities and what the future of American neighbor-
hoods may look like for a more environmentally friendly future.

Focus on sustainability

At 122 acres total, with 55 acres of green space, 3,800 housing units, 150,000 square feet of retail space, and four new parks, the almost billion-dollar development, located in the Highland Village area adjacent to the Ford Parkway bridge in St. Paul, is close to the largest project in the Twin Cities at the moment. For context, the city of St. Paul’s budget is about $165.1 million a year, less than a fifth of that billion dollar estimate.
The Minnehaha Academy Upper School rebuild was itself paid for by a $50 million capital campaign and is about 75,000 square feet. This equals about half of the Highland Bridge retail space alone, a little over three percent of the green space, and little over one percent of the development’s size in total.

Besides just scope, the plan places a large emphasis on both pedestrian access and sustainability. Almost half of the development is planned to be green space, and there will be 10 miles of bike/pedestrian paths. For the winter, the plan even has the after mentioned skyways between some of the buildings to further enable pedestrian access.

Possibly more important than just the infrastructure of this plan, is the design of the buildings. They
make use of something atypical in the United States: mixed commercial and residential design, with shops on the bottom and apartments directly on top.

The first completed building has the previously mentioned Lunds & Byerlys as well as a Caribou Coffee on the bottom with 230 apartments above. Commercial locations being built into residential areas like this allows people to shop without leaving their building and condenses both housing and shopping locations, making it more possible to walk between them.

The Lunds & Byerlys mentioned here in particular has an emphasis on prepared meals, as well as a beer and wine open tap. Things more useful to pedestrians on their way home than drivers getting their weekly groceries. Other stores are likely
to follow a similar philosophy. 

In addition to reducing car use, the development is currently not only going to be 100 percent carbon free, but will actually produce more clean energy than it will consume. It will have the largest solar plant in the Twin Cities once completed, and is expected to consume five megawatts of energy while producing 20.

The roofs of the buildings are also designed to be able to host additional solar panels, or green
roofs, while the lights are of newer design that are both more efficient and produce less light pollution. 

Furthermore, the buildings are predicted to use 30 percent less indoor water and 50 percent less outdoor water compared to typical designs. The plan will also plant over 1,000 trees alongside other carefully selected non-invasive species.

The plan to conserve water

The main attention-grabbing feature of the plan, however, is the water feature. When the Ford plant was first built – it opened in 1925 and closed in 2011 - the Hidden Falls Creek that ran through the land was concreted over, and the site would otherwise pollute the surrounding area. The plan not only restores Hidden Falls Creek, reconnecting it to Hidden
Falls, but also turns it into a civil engineering experiment.

Across the 122 acre development, five different underground concrete chambers will collect and store storm-water runoff. The storm-water from here then gets filtered and let out into the creek. This system is predicted to capture 94 percent of the solids and 75 percent of the phosphorus, a pollutant commonly used in fertilizers, from the water it filters, which is estimated at 64 million gallons a year. That’s about 14 times what the Mississippi discharges into the Gulf of Mexico every second.

In addition to reducing pollution, the creek will serve as a recreational landmark, with multiple pathways leading down into it. It has actually attracted kayakers and other recreationists already. In addition to the creek, there will be about three acres of rain gardens, which will be built at a lower elevation than their surroundings to capture and filter runoff.

Sustainable Nine, a Minneapolis based firm that designs more sustainable homes, predicted the Highland Bridge development
will be the most sustainable neighborhood in Minnesota.

The plan also has designs for affordability. About one-fifth, so 760 out of the 3,800, will be affordable; 60 of those units will also be focused towards seniors.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the single-family homes in the area expected to be priced at anywhere between $1.3 million and $3 million due to the beauty of the site.

The Highland Bridge development doesn’t exist in isolation, however. The Twin Cities at large has plans towards a more sustainable future.

The United States uses cars far more than most other countries. A car culture that the previously mentioned Ford had no small part in creating. This has affected not only the environment, but the structure of American cities, making them more spread out as opposed to denser and pedestrian focused like Europe is.

The Highland Bridge development is a step towards more dense multifamily unit housing and walkable communities as opposed to most American neighborhoods.

But more than that. The Twin Cities on the whole is moving more in the direction of the Highland Bridge development rather than the spread-out suburban model.

This means more public transportation, multi-unit housing and parks. The city landscape is changing.

What critics say

Like any major project, this development has not avoided criticism. Ranging from complaints to lawsuits, there has been opposition from many different sources to both the Highland Bridge development and the larger plan.

First, there has been a fair amount of criticism from the

Highland village area residents themselves, mostly in concern to traffic.

Ford Parkway, the only access to many of the shops in the Highland village area, is already jammed during the worst hours of the day, and there is some concern adding an additional 10,000 residents to the area would only exacerbate this.

The response to this criticism is that the plan emphasizes pedestrian use and will do little to increase the number of cars on the road. That remains to be seen.

On the Minneapolis side of the river, Minnehaha Academy has felt the impact of recent changes. As the city tries to increase bike use, more bike avenues have been built.

One was added near South Campus, reducing the street space used for dropping off and picking up student to one lane. This has made the job of Scott Glenn, M.A. transportation director, more difficult.

“It has been a bit of a mess,” Glenn said. “The construction was one deal. [For] about half a year we didn’t have access to the road, which really complicated matters. Our buses couldn’t even get to the main horseshoe where they pick up and drop off. So we were having to drop off on the other side of the football field.”

Now there is a new challenge.
“After construction, we still have a bit of headache,” Glenn said. “It gets really tight in the road. The road itself used to be 44 feet wide, now it is 23.” 

There are also environmental concerns about the designs to increase the number of multistory buildings in the city.

Taller buildings can block the flight paths of birds, cause more concentrated pollution in the areas they are built in, and put more strain on potentially already eroding foundations.

Some groups have sued the city over these concerns, and the government as a whole is attempting to move forward considering all of these potential problems.

The Highland Bridge development won’t be finished until 2030, when current 5th-graders graduate high school. By then, building technology will have developed even further, while many readers of this article will have moved beyond college to live in some other part of the U.S. or world.

Regardless, current changes in the Twin Cities, especially the Highland area, deserve notice. Cities will always evolve as the cultures and people who reside in them change. 

Maybe the Highland Bridge development becomes as successful as its designers hope, and maybe its model for sustainability become commonplace in local city planning – or not.

Whatever the case, I’m going top continue seeing new buildings on my morning commute for a while more now.  

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