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University of St. Thomas eyes Highland Bridge for Division I hockey, baseball, softball venues

One thing not contemplated in the city’s 2019 Ford site master plan was multiple sizable stadiums equipped for Division I athletics.

Highland Bridge development
Montreal Avenue looking west from Cleveland Avenue as construction continues in the Highland Bridge development of St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood on Friday, June 3, 2022. The University of St. Thomas has proposed amendments to the Highland Bridge master plan that would allow a hockey arena, softball stadium and baseball stadium at Montreal and Cleveland avenues.
John Autey / Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL — As the University of St. Thomas scouts potential locations for three new sports facilities, it’s putting no small amount of energy into discussions with St. Paul city and community leaders around Highland Bridge, the 122-acre site that was once home to the Ford Motor Co.’s auto manufacturing campus.

That campus, which overlooks the Mississippi River in Highland Park, has been primed for new real estate construction, including 3,800 housing units and additional office, retail, ball fields and even a skating trail.

One thing not contemplated in the city’s 2019 Ford site master plan was multiple sizable stadiums equipped for Division I athletics.

The university, hand in hand with developer the Ryan Cos., has proposed amendments to the master plan that would allow a 4,000- to 4,500-seat hockey arena, a 1,000-seat softball stadium and a 1,500-seat baseball stadium situated just south of Montreal Avenue and within a few dozen feet of Cleveland Avenue, according to a recent joint presentation to the Highland District Council’s development committee.

St. Thomas Ice Arena 7.JPEG
With seating on just one side, St. Thomas Ice Arena recently hosted its first Division I season. "It’s an intimate setting and the fans are right on top of you, which can make it an intimidating place for opponents," St. Thomas men's hockey coach Rico Blasi says. "Plus we have some of the best ice in the CCHA.”
Jess Myers / Forum News Service

The general conceptual renderings elicited questions about event-focused traffic, parking, property tax impacts and what kinds of uses toward the southern end of the Highland Bridge development might be relocated or displaced.

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The renderings situate the proposed stadiums in the same general location as the city’s future Mica Park, as well within the outlined footprint of 110 units of affordable housing and 200,000 square feet of office space.

In a May 17 presentation to the Highland District Council , officials noted that on non-game days, traffic would actually drop considerably without housing and office uses in that corner. Meeting minutes and other written materials provided by the district council indicate the housing and offices would be moved “farther north” within Highland Bridge, but they don’t specify exactly where in the development.

The materials note that Mica Park, as envisioned in the master plan, is currently bordered by wetlands and encumbered by sloping terrain, and relocating it through a land swap “to a more useable site” just west of the planned location could open the park to more users. A Canadian Pacific Railway spur into the area could become a future trail and transit link to the stadiums.

“As more people and as more of the committee gets to learn more about the project, we’ll start to hear more responses for and against it,” said Kevin Vargas, president of the Highland District Council. “In terms of positive, we’ll have more land for the park. But we’re also hearing concerns that people are nervous we could lose some of the affordable housing, at least on that parcel, and maybe concerns about game-day traffic.”

UST-Highland-Bridge-map2.jpg
An architectural site map from a May 17, 2022, presentation by the University of St. Thomas and the Ryan Cos. to the Highland District Council’s development committee regarding three potential sports stadiums within Highland Bridge for hockey, softball and baseball. The presenters will be back before the district council on July 19.
Contributed / Highland District Council via St. Paul Pioneer Press

Other potential locations undisclosed

A potential timeline presented by the university and master developer predicted master plan amendments could be finalized in September, with other technical processes — such as platting — complete by April 2023. Airport overlay, wetland and five key zoning approvals could be in hand, potentially, by early this fall.

Kathy Carruth, executive director of the Highland District Council, said the council had yet to take an official position on the conceptual plans. In February, the Town and Country Club on Mississippi River Boulevard rejected an unsolicited $61 million offer from the university , which had sought to potentially acquire its golf course for the stadium land.

Through a spokesperson, the University of St. Thomas released a brief written statement indicating that Highland Bridge was “one of multiple sites” being evaluated for the future donor-driven stadiums. They did not elaborate on the other potential locations.

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“Highland Bridge is one of multiple sites that St. Thomas is continuing to evaluate for a possible expansion to support new athletics facilities,” reads the statement. “From St. Thomas’ standpoint, we are still in the early stages of determining if the Highland Bridge site is the best fit. The university is just beginning to work with the city on various land use approvals, and it continues to explore financing options.”

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Maureen Michalski, vice president of real estate development for the Ryan Cos., said altering the city’s master plan would be a months-long process that includes several applications, public hearings and council actions.

“The recently submitted amendments for the potential University of St. Thomas athletic complex at Highland Bridge was the first step in the process and all applications will need to be approved before the athletic complex can advance,” said Michalski, in a written statement issued Wednesday.

She said St. Thomas and Ryan will continue to visit Highland District Council meetings in coming months to present updates. Representatives of both the university and the developer are expected back before the district council’s development committee on June 21 and July 19.

Vargas, the district council president, said he’s hopeful for strong public turnout and a robust discussion.

Ryan chairman and chairman of St. Thomas trustees

The university and the Minneapolis-based Ryan Cos. are no strangers to each other.

Ryan Cos. chairman Patrick G. Ryan, a 1975 graduate of St. Thomas, also chairs the university’s board of trustees. The developer has worked closely with the university on major building projects such as the Center for Well-Being, which opened in St. Paul in 2019, and the Tommie East Residence Hall, which opened in 2020.

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Interviewed shortly after the unsuccessful bid for the Town and Country Club land in February, Phil Esten, a St. Thomas vice president and director of athletics, said the university is scouting a number of potential sites for a new ice arena for its men’s and women’s hockey teams, which recently skated up from NCAA Division III to Division I.

St. Thomas Ice Arena outside.JPEG
St. Thomas Ice Arena was built in 2003 and has a capacity of 1,000.
Jess Myers / Forum News Service

St. Thomas still hosts home games in a 1,000-person arena in Mendota Heights, as it has has since 2003. In addition, university officials would like new baseball and softball stadiums, as well as indoor training facilities.

Esten noted that the Ryan Cos. and Canadian Pacific Railway own adjoining parcels of former railyard land in the southeast corner of the former Ford Motor Co. manufacturing campus. With Ryan’s help, the university is in talks with CP Rail to acquire both parcels.

City officials have long envisioned Highland Bridge as a denser, more urban community than other stretches of the city, and the stadiums — which are likely to host some 50 games apiece — could be a departure from that vision. On the other hand, said St. Paul City Council member Chris Tolbert, the area around the CP Rail spur was always envisioned to be more recreational.

“I think it’s intriguing,” said Tolbert on Thursday. “There’s still a lot of community conversation that is needed. It has a lot of potential to be a quality neighborhood amenity, with baseball, softball and ice.”

“If that could be partnered with the youth sports in the neighborhood, that could be a huge win for all of them,” Tolbert added. “They’re consistently looking for places to play.”

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