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St. Paul City Council approves Hillcrest plan

1 June 2022

What was once a failed golf course on the East Side of St. Paul is now the capital city’s second-largest foray into creating a modern urban village, seeking to combine much-needed housing with well-paying jobs.

By a 5-0 vote, the St. Paul City Council on Wednesday voted to approve the master plan for developing the 112-acre site at the northeast corner of the city, renamed the Heights.

The city and the St. Paul Port Authority, which is developing the site, now start the work of creating 1,000 new units of housing and 1,000 jobs in a part of the city desperate for both.

“The thing we can be proudest of with this project … this is a plan that will lift up the people of the East Side,” said City Councilmember Jane Prince.

Councilmember Nelsie Yang, who represents the area, was not at the meeting because she was close to giving birth. She issued a statement praising the project and the collaboration it took to complete the master plan.

“This is an exciting day,” she said.

Next up, said Port Authority spokeswoman Andrea Novak, is finalizing a clean-up plan. After decades of life as a golf course, including the use of fungicides on greens and tee areas, mercury and other pollutants need to be removed from the soil. The authority has estimated it will cost about $2.5 million to remediate contamination.

“Remediation plans start in October 2022 — that’s when people will start seeing things happen,” Novak said. “That keeps us on track to start building in late 2023. And that gives us occupancy starting in late 2024.”

Hillcrest is only slightly smaller than Highland Bridge, the former Ford automotive factory site now being developed in St. Paul’s Highland Park. But city officials hope it becomes even more distinctive.

Where Highland Bridge will feature dozens of multimillion dollar homes and tony rowhouses to accompany more affordable housing options, officials hope the Heights will make St. Paul stand out as one of the planet’s truly green communities to live and work. Planners are exploring ways to create the city’s first carbon-neutral neighborhood. Novak said that work continues.

The other hope? Some see the site as an opportunity to provide live-where-you work jobs, affordable housing advocates want even more emphasis on developing deeply affordable housing and livable wage jobs for East Side residents.

Benjamin Werner, housing justice program director at the East Side Freedom Library, said he and others hope that a lot of those jobs end up going to underemployed East Side residents. That starts with companies that are willing to train their employees on site.

“At least some of the jobs need to go to people who are there,” Werner said.

Officials have formed four workgroups focused on urban design, sustainability, outside spaces and housing. Community input is needed, they say, to help bring the site’s final development plan to life.

Hillcrest opened as a municipal golf course in 1921 and in 1945 became a private club for Jewish golfers, who were barred from other clubs. Membership restrictions were lifted in the 1970s.

Steamfitters Pipefitters Local 455 bought Hillcrest in 2011 for about $4 million and closed the golf club six years later. In June 2019, the St. Paul City Council approved borrowing $10 million to finance the Port Authority’s purchase of the site. The Port Authority has also helped redevelop other projects, including the former downtown Macy’s building and Allianz Field.

Plans for the Heights also include 5 acres of parkland and another 15 acres of open green space. Fully developed, the authority estimates the site could produce $250 million worth of development and generate $5 million a year in property tax revenue.

By comparison, the Ford site is expected to be worth $1 billion and generate $18 million per year in new tax revenue.

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