Some worry St. Paul Port Authority is not listening to community hopes for Hillcrest

·4 min read

As the passenger van rolled past the rolling hills and ubiquitous trees of the former Hillcrest Golf Course this week, the East Siders riding inside shared their fear for the future of the 112-acre site: that massive manufacturing facilities and high-rise housing will be foisted on the area by its developer, the St. Paul Port Authority.

Rather, the residents said, they want a diverse and eclectic neighborhood that blends housing, public spaces and entrepreneurial businesses with the site's existing landscape.

"The community wants a vibrant neighborhood that has it all," said Jan Leadholm, who said area residents keep saying they want a community center, a new library, ice cream shops and a variety of housing options.

But based on early plans, said area real estate broker Seanne Thomas, "we're going to get a campus full of one-story facilities with housing built around the edge."

The Hillcrest site, at St. Paul's far northeast corner, is one of the city's biggest redevelopment targets. And the Port Authority, which bought it for $10 million, has goals of building 1,000 units of housing there while also attracting businesses that will provide 1,000 jobs. Beyond that, there is much planning — and community input — still to be done and gathered, said Port spokeswoman Andrea Novak. Fears that Hillcrest will become a boring beige industrial park devoid of neighborhood input are misplaced, she said.

"We are listening to the community. What they are saying is important," said Novak, adding that work groups will start meeting in January to discuss housing, sustainability, the types of jobs that would come to the site and the amenities to be created as a master plan is developed, likely in the spring. "All these ideas will be collected and used in the process."

Complaints that the Port Authority isn't listening are premature, she said.

Just a few acres smaller than the former Ford plant site in St. Paul's Highland Park, now called Highland Bridge, a common complaint is that Hillcrest is seemingly on a lesser trajectory in its redevelopment.

The city took a decade to form a Ford site master plan that features 40 new city blocks with a variety of housing options and commercial spaces, numerous parks and even a man-made stream — all after extensive engagement with neighbors and community groups.

It hasn't been remotely similar for Hillcrest, Thomas said. There is a single park being discussed, she said. Hills would be flattened. Trees removed.

"The difference between what they are doing at the Ford site and what they want to do here is a stark inequity," she said. "It is a slap in our face."

The Port Authority has over the past year — while the pandemic limited in-person presentations — developed a couple general schematics that offer slightly different scenarios meshing what are likely to be light manufacturing facilities at one part of the site with higher-density housing at another, said Benjamin Werner, housing justice program director at the East Side Freedom Library.

Right now, Werner said, plans call for only about 100 units of housing that a family earning 30% of the area median income could afford — a fraction of what the city and the East Side need, he said. The focus at Hillcrest should be on building substantially more "deeply affordable housing" and offering a mix of incubator business space that attracts entrepreneurs, he said, but he fears the Port Authority will bring in companies that simply shift their workers from other facilities.

"I think Hillcrest should have jobs," Werner said. "But if you are bringing 1,000 jobs to the Hillcrest site and they're not going to community members, if there is not a requirement for local hiring and you are not paying a living wage, then any jobs you bring to the site are not going to do anything for the community."

While Port Authority officials have said they hope the site will serve as a kind of return to an era when workers lived within walking distance of work, Werner said there has been nothing presented so far that would require businesses to employ area residents.

"We're just saying the way it is going to be right now is not good enough," he said. "There has to be a better plan."

James Walsh • 612-673-7428

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