1 big thing: Highland Bridge is still in limbo

Axios Twin Cities

By Torey Van Oot, Nick Halter and Audrey Kennedy · Sep 29, 2022

 

Ryan Cos. is not sure that St. Paul's recent amendments to its rent control ordinance will be enough to reignite its massive Highland Bridge development project.

Driving the news: Ryan developer Maureen Michalski told Axios the company does not know if a 20-year exemption from a 3% rent hike cap for newly constructed housing will bring investors and lenders back to fund new apartment projects.

  • "We had been advocating for a 30-year new construction exemption," Michalski said. "We're not sure that 20 years is enough to incentivize investment at this time."

The other side: St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter's spokesperson Kamal Baker pointed to a January letter in which Ryan indicated support for a 20-year plan.

  • "This policy was built in consultation with developers — including Ryan — who conveyed their support for a 20-year exemption. We are disappointed by their change of tone, but remain committed to the Highland Bridge site, and confident in Ryan Co’s capacity to deliver a first class development."

Yes, but: Michalski says Ryan only suggested support for a 20-year plan when it thought the city was considering a full vacancy decontrol measure that eventually became partial vacancy decontrol. Vacancy decontrol is when a landlord raises rents beyond 3% after a tenant leaves.

  • Since April 21, Ryan has submitted at least four letters to the city stressing that lenders wanted 30 years, and that 20 years would not be enough.

Flashback: Ryan was working on its first Highland buildings when the rent control referendum passed. The Minneapolis-based developer then halted future rental housing projects.

  • Ryan has won approval for 3,800 units on the land, but has only completed 230 rentals.

Why it matters: The mayor and city council invested a lot of political capital into loosening up the strict rent control policy approved by voters, much to the disappointment of affordable housing advocates.

Between the lines: It's not easy to make construction projects work these days, with or without a rent control policy, because both interest rates and construction costs have spiked.

Who will live in Highland Bridge?

"Minnesota's two largest urban counties saw striking population declines in 2021 after a decade of growth, according to new U.S. census data, likely due to COVID-19 pandemic disruptions which upended college plans and accelerated retirements.

Hennepin County's population, which includes Minneapolis, dropped by nearly 13,900 last year and Ramsey County, which includes St. Paul, declined by 8,200 people, according to new census estimates released Thursday."

Mpls. Star Tribune 3/24/2022

CDC data fly in the face of the Metro Council's projections so this article had to follow quickly. The Met Council, it turns out, doesn't count people to estimate population growth. They actually count permits developers request for new housing development.

 

The difference is quite staggering. Read the article noting especially the graphs comparing the Met Council and Census Bureau numbers.

Other recent articles have described a surprising decline in MN, birthrates, reductions of in migration of any kind, and declining life expectancies due to Covid. It all adds up to a mind-blowing bottom line for state population in the negative with little expectation of change. 

Now, look around as you drive through either city or nearby suburbs. Development is everywhere, as it is in Highland Park's Highland Bridge. For who are these buildings being erected?

In their own words:

“We haven’t done enough of these projects to know what we don’t know,” said Hennepin County Commissioner Debbie Goettel, referencing the failure to anticipate the water problems. Goettel is a civil engineer who sits on the Met Council committee that approves change orders to the project and represents the southwest portion of the line. She notes the contractors and consultants the Met Council hired also failed to foresee the extent of the problems, though ironically, project opponents in the neighborhoods adjacent to the tunnel were warning of them for years.. (MinnPost, 2/4/2022, Difficult Questions Remain  about how the SWLRT will be completed)

What's so 'sustainable' about Highland Bridge?

Is bigger, denser, or any of the other attributes the City or the builder claims for construction of Highland Bridge sustainable? Let's go over the facts.

Let's start with the contention that new buildings are more sustainable than old stock.

Not so (click here). Costs arising from any new construction make the notion of building affordable housing in todays market almost untenable without large infusions of cash (read, TIF or other deferred payment).

 

Most of these buildings, which make up much new development across the country are regarded as unattractive and questionably safe. (Click here)

"The greenest building is one that already exists" former president of the American Institute of Architects. Because "there are so many variables involved in a decision to demolish, including the embodied energy of what is demolished and the energy consumed in construction, there are no universal comparative metrics. While some might claim that there was little deconstruction involved in Highland Bridge should take note of all the construction that has taken place on the site to date.

But the buildings going up at Highland Bridge will all be LEED certified and so will have met the highest level of sustainability. Just check out Ryan's publication, Artful Living. "All projects built onsite, both commercial and residential, will be certified to high sustainability standards, making it the most sustainable community in the region. This includes compliance with LEED standards..." 

 

Not so, US News in 2014 published an article questioning the value of LEED certificates and many others have followed. You can Google LEED to get a better idea.

But it's going to be walkable, have lots of transit and good stuff to make it even more sustainable. 

Ryan's publications report that "more than a thousand trees will be planted throughout the Highland Bridge community" Ryan cannot replace the forest of 100 year old trees they took down for a bike tunnel and playground at Hidden Falls.

Final arguments against calling Highland Bridge sustainable:

  • It has increased concrete surface in Highland Park astronomically and concrete spews more carbon into the atmosphere than any other single element.

  • Most buildings on the campus of Highland bridge will be more than three stories so they will require elevators and cannot avail themselves of a tree canopy so air conditioning will be required.

  • Although we've been told that many residents and customers of Highland Bridge will be using public transit to access the site. Well, as people trying to be diplomatic say, "when pigs fly." The 10,000 people who will live and work in Highland Bridge will drive cars, probably regularly.

So, where is the sustainability that those who advocate for this development refer to constantly (an advocacy group supporting the development, even incorporates the word in their name)? There is very little that a reasonable person would regard as sustainable about this development.

tunnel mess.jpg
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How are the SW/LRT and Highland Bridge alike?

Click on the link in the headline to discover what can happen when the Metro Council, developers and city political entities completely ignore the citizens they represent. What a future we have to look forward to! Think Riverview Trolley.

NLSP remains committed to promoting responsible community development that enhances the existing neighborhood and the City overall. we need your financial support to ensure that we have the resources to help fund this effort, the pending petition, and future legal action. Please consider making a contribution to support NLSP's Legal Action Fund by clicking HERE.