The background memo that has recently been making the rounds among St. Paul book clubs makes for alarming reading.

Warning of big problems if the giant Ford Motor site along the Mississippi River gets redeveloped as currently envisioned, it lists higher cancer rates, more violent crime, higher rates of mental illness, lower levels of happiness and a bigger problem with global climate change.

And, of course, more people likely means more car traffic on nearby streets.

This word processing file had passed through a few e-mail accounts before arriving on my St. Paul street, so it’s not clear who actually wrote it. But with a highly specific sample letter included for opponents to send to City Hall, this came from an organized group.

A decision about the master plan is still a long way off, but at least we know one thing now. Opponents are willing to talk nonsense about it.

Land-use squabbles happen all the time, of course, arising from proposed changes as trivial as moving a curb cut. Suggesting people can catch cancer from new apartment buildings seems to be a novel argument, but given the size of what’s at stake here maybe such rhetoric should have been expected.

This project is simply big, the most remarkable opportunity to build a new community in the heart of the Twin Cities in generations. Altogether it’s about 135 acres at the edge of the Mississippi River gorge, with great transit service and within minutes of a world-class international airport and close to two downtowns. Henry Ford had a good eye for real estate when he picked this place for a factory.

St. Paul residents have known for a long time that a development project would be coming, as more than a decade ago Ford Motor announced that what was called the Twin Cities Assembly Plant would close. Ford has lately been clearing the site and working to clean up some of the contamination that came from decades of operating there.

The draft plan on the table calls for a street grid to be created along with other infrastructure, with green spaces including the restoration of Hidden Falls Creek. The new buildings would be a broad mix of housing and commercial spaces. The property could one day have up to 4,000 housing units.

To be fair to the opponents, it’s possible just on Google to find studies of how residential density affects all sorts of things, from cardiovascular health to crime. If you want one on crime rates and housing density, that can be found, although things like proximity to commercial strips and overall neighborhood stability are likely going to be factors, too.

How any of those findings could be considered relevant to life in the existing Highland Park neighborhood, a residential area largely built in the 1950s suburban style, is impossible to fathom. And there simply isn’t that much of an opportunity to create gritty urban living in this corner of St. Paul even if developers wanted to.

110 feet high

Generally the plan is for housing that looks a lot like the rest of Mississippi River Boulevard along the river and moving to higher density in from the river. The biggest mixed-use buildings would be capped at 110 feet and placed next to an existing apartment community called Highland Village Apartments. The land with the highest density development would be about the size of two St. Paul city blocks, divided into smaller chunks by bike and pedestrian lanes.

It’s impossible to look at the images of modern apartments in the planning study and then close your eyes and imagine a “West Side Story”-type rumble one day on the pedestrian and bike path between buildings.

The neighbors can credibly claim that there is almost certain to be more automobile traffic. The drafters of the master plan knew that, of course, envisioning both additional ways to get in and out, as well as planning for transit and other options for people to skip using their cars.

But let’s concede car traffic on Ford Parkway and Cleveland Avenue becomes busier. What’s to be gained in exchange? Tax money, for one thing.

The city of St. Paul, as every taxpayer surely should know, has a chronic money problem that’s gotten worse, with the city having lost an argument in court with nonprofits that thought St. Paul’s right of way assessments were way too much like property taxes.

More tax capacity takes more buildings, and where land isn’t cheap enough for spreading out to make economic sense, the way to generate more value is to build up. There have been quibbles about this estimate, too, but as of the last city forecast the property taxes collected from the site should increase 19-fold once it’s out of the development phase

And make no mistake, there’s going to be demand. As of late spring, one ­forecaster said there were nearly 32,000 new apartments units in the development pipeline in the Twin Cities, so after four or five years new development still hasn’t caught up with demand, driven by baby boomers as well as millennials establishing their first households.

Let the market influence

This is a countercultural idea in the central cities, but it might be good to let the market influence what gets built on the Ford site. That is, maybe property owners, investors and tenants can decide how they would use this beautiful spot. They are going to want to build up.

Density has already proved successful in the neighborhood, of course. Maybe the oddest thing about this whole story is the presence, just a short walk away, of a 23-story apartment building. At 208 feet tall, the building known as 740 River Drive is about twice the height of what’s likely to be built on the other side of Ford Parkway.

It’s been there since the early 1960s. And 23 layers of people on top of each other, that’s awfully dense. It would be interesting to know if any researcher has thought to conduct a long-term study of cancer rates on the block since then.

 

lee.schafer@startribune.com

612-673-4302