Dear Mayor Carter and Members of the City Council
Fifteen years ago, when Ford had decided to abandon its St. Paul assembly plant, people asked: What would happen next at the site? Covering roughly 50 city blocks of prime real estate, situated on the bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, convenient to the downtown areas and the airport, and flanked by desirable neighborhoods, its fate was clearly consequential.
How the site would evolve was a matter of much discussion. Many ideas were surfaced and quickly abandoned: a park or natural area, a university or corporate campus, a center for light or heavy industry, a golf course, a medical center. The mayor opened discussions with Ford. The city’s planning department became involved, and a community-based Task Force was formed to help guide the redevelopment of the site. Neighbors expressed a preference for redevelopment that would complement and enhance the surrounding neighborhoods.
The City, however, had its own ideas. The City’s concept was that the site should become an ultra-dense collection of high-rise apartment buildings with space for retail businesses, but with limited park and recreation space, and without public facilities such as schools, recreation centers, or libraries. Everything would be efficient. There would be apartments, not homes, so each person’s real estate footprint would be small. Heating, cooling, and electricity usage would be minimized. Tenants would mostly be without cars, so they would rely on more efficient public transportation. A thriving middle class was apparently not part of the vision, but the City would provide some adequate housing for 760 families in difficult circumstances.
The City’s vision worked well for the construction industry, assuring that there would be construction jobs for many years at the site. And developers, once the apartments were built and tenants found, would profit by selling the buildings to wealthy out-of-state or foreign investors. It’s true that tenants’ rent checks — money that might otherwise be invested in the community — would be cashed in Boston or New York or Beijing, but with the high density would come high property tax revenues. Or such was the hope. On top of the millions the city had spent on planning, the City was willing to pay out hundreds of millions in tax-increment financing (TIF) subsidies for the project, gambling that property values would keep going up.
But things have changed.
The COVID-19 epidemic, along with nationwide protests and discontent over current societal systems, have brought a sense that business-as-usual is no longer acceptable. Crowding people into constricted apartment buildings, into busses and light-rail cars, into brew pubs, or into constrained parks and walkways is increasingly understood to be unhealthy. Even Uber and other car-sharing operations are being shunned. People have developed a much greater appreciation for spending time outdoors, in nature, and away from crowds. And epidemiologists warn that the COVID-19 epidemic, once contained, will not be the end of the story. It will be followed by others, yet unimagined.
The desire to have one’s own home has intensified. Home prices continue to rise as demand outstrips supply. With working-from-home having become normalized, the need for daily commutes to offices has dwindled. And those who have been able to escape urban density in favor of the relative peace and isolation of smaller towns and rural settings have already relocated. As a result, after having committed hundreds of millions of dollars of TIF financing of the ultra-high-density Ford plan, occupancy is doubtful, and it is looking more and more like the City has placed a bad bet.
Meanwhile, the social unrest sparked by the George Floyd killing has gone well beyond demands for police reform. Cries are heard not just for criminal justice, but for social and economic justice. The protests have brought forth a broader awareness that current social structures are not sustainable. It is seeming unlikely that we will continue to maintain a system where a few ultra-wealthy float on a vast sea of under-paid workers. It may no longer be acceptable to design and maintain urban environments built to house people in inexpensive high-rise barracks so they can pay rent to distant landlords while devoting their days and lives to dead-end jobs without benefits.
Things have changed.
And because they have changed, we should be re-evaluating our plans for what sort of urban environment we will create.
Efficiency is important. Tax revenues are needed. Everyone needs a place to live. The existence of jobs and meaningful paid work is essential. And making a profit isn’t wrong. However, all of these should take a back seat when imagining the architecture for human society. The primary design question should be: How do we create habitat for humans that is healthy, generative, and enriching? How can we create habitat that will be beautiful and generative, optimal for full human development?
The Ford Site re-development, albeit unintentionally, seems predicated on an assumption of a dystopian future without a middle class. Within this vision, a large group of impoverished citizens will be squeezed into a constrained living situation, with the profits and benefits flowing up and out. Absent is an assumption of a thriving middle class, or a central focus on providing conditions for a healthy and fulfilling existence.
Let us stop and reconsider. Let us re-imagine the project before hundreds of millions more are spent in support of an outdated and unacceptable notion of human society, a notion unsuited for the our newly-awakened understanding of what we all should expect and demand for a fully human life.
We can, and we should do much better. Bulldozers are already rumbling at the Ford site, but so far little has actually been built. We should take the COVID crisis and the current social unrest as an opportunity to step back and re-imagine the future at the site.
Let us look to a future where people are all respected and treated as full human beings, where it is no longer acceptable to have a vast sea of poorly-paid citizens. Let us re-imagine society, and create a place where people can own a home and invest in it and the community, where people can build a life for themselves. Let us create a place where buildings are at a human scale, with plenty of opportunity to enjoy open space, parks, and nature. Let us create a place where people will remark on how strong is the feeling of community, and how great is its beauty.
The people who will come after us, who will take our place in St. Paul after we are long departed, will thank us.
Neighbors for a Livable St. Paul