A flock of geese, its leader honking loudly, flew low over the winding stream. Nearby, dogs and their masters frolic in the new dog park. About 50 yards away, a group of children descended rock stairs to where the creek flowed to Hidden Falls.
An early fall day at a regional park? A natural reserve ?
No. It’s the former site of Ford’s St. Paul Assembly plant, and the new stormwater harvesting system that runs through the 122-acre site doesn’t just draw Oh and ah but transformed a once flat industrial area into the most talked about development in St. Paul.
“We knew it was going to be special, but it’s bigger and more transformative than I imagined,” said Chris Tolbert, St. Paul City Council member who represents the area. “It has been and will be a place for people who live in and visit St. Paul to visit, and a great example of using stormwater as a facility.”
Bob Fossum of the Capitol Region Watershed District stood Wednesday on a bridge that crosses the stormwater harvesting system — a feature, designed to look and act like a natural stream, for which his organization has spent decades advocating.
“We really wanted to take this opportunity. It’s a generational development,” Fossum said. “We make projects, plan them, design them, implement them…this is the first project in my career where it looks better than I imagined.”
The block-length stormwater brook that runs through the site—a few blocks south of Ford Parkway through a newly extended Montreal Avenue toward the Mississippi River—seems recreational. But it actually has an engineering purpose.
Before the redevelopment, polluted stormwater from the Ford site went to the river through an underground pipe without any treatment. When the site is fully developed, its stormwater systems will capture and clean 64 million gallons of water annually, preventing about 28 tons of suspended solids and 147 pounds of phosphorus from entering the river each year, according to the district. of the watershed.
“The goal was to bring water back to this site,” Fossum said. “The second thing was to treat it as a resource and not a waste. There are environmental benefits, as well as social benefits, of connecting people to water.”
As the site, now called Highland Bridge, is developed and commercial and residential buildings are constructed, each will be connected to the stormwater system. Several giant underground tanks will collect rainwater, letting solids settle and filtering chemicals, before releasing the water in a steady stream to the 4-5 foot deep creek.
All along the creek there are places where people can walk or ride to the edge of the water. The ducks have already found the water to their liking, as have the kayakers. In winter, officials expect skaters to benefit as well.
The city has approved Tax Increase Financing (TIF) – which captures tax revenue from rising property values – to help pay for affordable housing as well as streets, parks and utilities in Highland Bridge. In 2016, the city projected that it would contribute up to $275 million in public development funding.
But the pond is not part of this funding. Developers will pay for it through connection fees as new housing and commercial space are built, said Tony Barranco, president of the northern region of Ryan Cos., the site’s lead developer based in Minneapolis.
Barranco, who was part of Ryan’s team that spent months hosting community meetings to discuss everything from building design to the grid layout of the site’s planned 40 blocks, said the size and the scale of the water feature exceeded expectations.
“It’s fantastic. We knew it would be the public highlight of the project,” he said. “But now that it’s built, we said, ‘Holy buckets, that’s amazing. “”
Stormwater flow brings visitors to the site years before Highland Bridge’s four new city parks and 3,800 homes – including affordable apartments and townhouses and much more expensive single-family homes – were completed.
“The most exciting thing for us is seeing the kayakers and seeing people sitting on the rocks and dipping their feet in the water,” Barranco said. “We didn’t have everything planned, but all of this makes us happy.”
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