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 55Â acres of green space, 3,800 housing units, 150,000 square feet ofÂ retail space, and four new parks,Â the almost billion-dollar development, located in the Highland Village area adjacent to the FordÂ Parkway bridge in St. Paul, is closeÂ to the largest project in the TwinÂ Cities at the moment. For context, the city of St. Paul’s budgetÂ is about $165.1 million a year, lessÂ than a fifth of that billion dollarÂ estimate.
The Minnehaha Academy Upper School rebuild was itself paidÂ for by a $50 million capital campaign and is about 75,000 squareÂ feet. This equals about half ofÂ the Highland Bridge retail spaceÂ alone, a little over three percent of the green space, and little over one percentÂ of the development’s size in total.
Besides just scope, the planÂ places a large emphasis on bothÂ pedestrian access and sustainability. Almost half of the developmentÂ is planned to be green space, andÂ there will be 10 miles of bike/pedestrian paths. For the winter, theÂ plan even has the after mentioned skyways betweenÂ some of the buildings to furtherÂ enable pedestrian access.
Possibly more important thanÂ just the infrastructure of this plan,Â is the design of the buildings. They
make use of something atypical inÂ the United States: mixed commercial and residential design, withÂ shops on the bottom and apartments directly on top.
The first completed buildingÂ has the previously mentioned Lunds & Byerlys as well as a Caribou Coffee on the bottom withÂ 230 apartments above. Commercial locations being built into residential areas like this allows people to shop without leaving their building and condensesÂ both housing and shopping locations, making it more possible toÂ walk between them.
The Lunds & Byerlys mentioned here in particular has an emphasis on preparedÂ meals, as well as a beer and wineÂ open tap. Things more useful toÂ pedestrians on their way homeÂ than drivers getting their weeklyÂ groceries. Other stores are likely
to follow a similar philosophy.Â
In addition to reducing carÂ use, the development is currentlyÂ not only going to be 100 percentÂ carbon free, but will actually produce more clean energy than itÂ will consume. It will have the largest solar plant in the Twin CitiesÂ once completed, and is expectedÂ to consume five megawatts of energy while producing 20.
The roofs of the buildings areÂ also designed to be able to hostÂ additional solar panels, or green
roofs, while the lights are of newerÂ design that are both more efficientÂ and produce less light pollution.Â
Furthermore, the buildingsÂ are predicted to use 30 percentÂ less indoor water and 50 percentÂ less outdoor water compared toÂ typical designs. The plan will alsoÂ plant over 1,000 trees alongsideÂ other carefully selected non-invasive species.
The plan to conserve water
The main attention-grabbingÂ feature of the plan, however, isÂ the water feature. When the FordÂ plant was first built – it openedÂ in 1925 and closed in 2011 -Â the Hidden Falls Creek that ranÂ through the land was concretedÂ over, and the site would otherwiseÂ pollute the surrounding area. TheÂ plan not only restores Hidden FallsÂ Creek, reconnecting it to Hidden
Falls, but also turns it into a civilÂ engineering experiment.
Across the 122 acre development, five different undergroundÂ concrete chambers will collectÂ and store storm-water runoff. TheÂ storm-water from here then getsÂ filtered and let out into the creek.Â This system is predicted to capture 94 percent of the solids and 75Â percent of the phosphorus, a pollutant commonly used in fertilizers, from the water it filters, whichÂ is estimated at 64 million gallonsÂ a year. That’s about 14 times whatÂ the Mississippi discharges into theÂ Gulf of Mexico every second.
In addition to reducing pollution, the creek will serve as a recreational landmark, with multipleÂ pathways leading down into it. ItÂ has actually attracted kayakersÂ and other recreationists already.Â In addition to the creek, thereÂ will be about three acres of rainÂ gardens, which will be built at aÂ lower elevation than their surroundings to capture and filterÂ runoff.
Sustainable Nine, a Minneapolis based firm that designs moreÂ sustainable homes, predicted theÂ Highland Bridge development
will be the most sustainable neighborhood in Minnesota.
The plan also has designs forÂ affordability. About one-fifth, soÂ 760 out of the 3,800, will be affordable; 60 of those units will alsoÂ be focused towards seniors.
On the opposite end of theÂ spectrum, the single-family homesÂ in the area expected to be pricedÂ at anywhere between $1.3 millionÂ and $3 million due to the beautyÂ of the site.
The Highland Bridge development doesn’t exist in isolation,Â however. The Twin Cities at largeÂ has plans towards a more sustainable future.
The United States uses cars farÂ more than most other countries.Â A car culture that the previouslyÂ mentioned Ford had no small partÂ in creating. This has affected notÂ only the environment, but theÂ structure of American cities, making them more spread out as opposed to denser and pedestrianÂ focused like Europe is.
The Highland Bridge development is a step towards more denseÂ multifamily unit housing andÂ walkable communities as opposedÂ to most American neighborhoods.
But more than that. The Twin Cities on the whole is moving moreÂ in the direction of the HighlandÂ Bridge development rather thanÂ the spread-out suburban model.
This means more public transportation, multi-unit housingÂ and parks. The city landscape isÂ changing.
What critics say
Like any major project, thisÂ development has not avoided criticism. Ranging from complaints toÂ lawsuits, there has been opposition from many different sourcesÂ to both the Highland Bridge development and the larger plan.
First, there has been a fairÂ amount of criticism from the
Highland village area residentsÂ themselves, mostly in concern toÂ traffic.
Ford Parkway, the only access to many of the shops in theÂ Highland village area, is alreadyÂ jammed during the worst hours ofÂ the day, and there is some concernÂ adding an additional 10,000 residents to the area would only exacerbate this.
The response to this criticism isÂ that the plan emphasizes pedestrian use and will do little to increaseÂ the number of cars on the road.Â That remains to be seen.
On the Minneapolis side of theÂ river, Minnehaha Academy hasÂ felt the impact of recent changes.Â As the city tries to increase bikeÂ use, more bike avenues have beenÂ built.
One was added near SouthÂ Campus, reducing the street spaceÂ used for dropping off and pickingÂ up student to one lane.Â This has made the job of ScottÂ Glenn, M.A. transportation director, more difficult.
“It has been a bit of a mess,”Â Glenn said. “The constructionÂ was one deal. [For] about half aÂ year we didn’t have access to theÂ road, which really complicatedÂ matters. Our buses couldn’t evenÂ get to the main horseshoe whereÂ they pick up and drop off. So weÂ were having to drop off on theÂ other side of the football field.”
Now there is a new challenge.
“After construction, we stillÂ have a bit of headache,” GlennÂ said. “It gets really tight in theÂ road. The road itself used to be 44Â feet wide, now it is 23.”Â
There are also environmentalÂ concerns about the designs to increase the number of multistoryÂ buildings in the city.
Taller buildings can block theÂ flight paths of birds, cause moreÂ concentrated pollution in the areas they are built in, and put moreÂ strain on potentially already eroding foundations.
Some groups have sued the cityÂ over these concerns, and the government as a whole is attemptingÂ to move forward considering all ofÂ these potential problems.
The Highland Bridge development won’t be finished until 2030,Â when current 5th-graders graduate high school. By then, buildingÂ technology will have developedÂ even further, while many readersÂ of this article will have moved beyond college to live in some otherÂ part of the U.S. or world.
Regardless, current changesÂ in the Twin Cities, especially theÂ Highland area, deserve notice.Â Cities will always evolve as theÂ cultures and people who reside inÂ them change.Â
Maybe the Highland Bridge development becomes as successful as its designers hope, andÂ maybe its model for sustainabilityÂ become commonplace in local cityÂ planning – or not.
Whatever the case, I’m going top continue seeing new buildings on my morning commute for a while more now. Â