The University of St. Thomas recently withdrew plans for a proposed Division I hockey arena in Highland Park, but that doesn’t mean its dreams of a multi-facility sports complex at the location are dashed.
In fact, the master developer behind the 123-acre Highland Bridge site maintains a contract to purchase more than a dozen acres of adjoining Canadian Pacific Railway land, raising the possibility of situating new college baseball and softball fields there, as well as an indoor practice facility and parking structure.
Officials with the Minneapolis-based Ryan Companies have stopped short, however, of confirming that the CP Rail land alone could accommodate the entire sports complex, minus hockey. It’s clear, however, the railway land is still in play.
The land, which is popular with coyotes, was rezoned in 2018 to accommodate a wide variety of “gateway” uses, but “it’s not part of any plan right now,” said St. Paul City Council member Chris Tolbert. “It’s pretty wide open. (Ryan and St. Thomas) will put something forward. I suspect so. I’m not quite sure what that’s going to be. I’m waiting like everybody else.”
Maureen Michalski, a vice president of real estate development with the Ryan Cos., plans to offer a brief update before a community development committee of the Highland District Council on Tuesday, to be followed by a broader public discussion on Aug. 22 at the Lumen Christi Catholic Community on Bohland Avenue.
“A revised site design accommodating softball, baseball, practice facility and parking ramp will be needed to assess what land would be utilized for the newly defined program without hockey,” said Michalski in an email. “Ryan has the CP Rail land under contract.”
She confirmed that the University of St. Thomas would ultimately own whatever land is developed for its athletic complexes. In other words, St. Thomas would have to buy the CP Rail land from Ryan and own it outright, as opposed to renting space there.
Among the advantages, CP Rail pays no property taxes on its 13 acres, so transferring the land to the university would not take existing taxable property off the tax rolls. The athletic complex would be tax-exempt.
HOCKEY PLAN SCRAPPED
The University of St. Thomas had previously considered situating a Division I hockey arena, a second sheet of practice ice, softball and baseball fields, an indoor practice facility and a parking ramp within 23 acres of land in the southeast corner of Highland Bridge, west of Cleveland Avenue.
That would have likely led to the relocation of some 110 units of planned affordable housing, office space, a public park and other amenities.
That proposal, now defunct, also raised the question of how, with less land available for private development, the Ryan Cos. would meet more than $100 million in tax increment financing, or TIF obligations. Through tax transfers, the affordable housing planned throughout Highland Bridge will be developed with the financial support of the market-rate development around it.
The Highland Bridge Master Plan requires 20 percent of all housing units to be affordable, for a total of 763 new units of affordable housing at full build-out.
By canceling the hockey arena at that location and moving the proposed facilities, Ryan and St. Thomas would avoid those questions entirely. On July 6, St. Thomas notified students, faculty and staff that “the Highland Bridge site is no longer a viable option for a future hockey facility, primarily due to financial considerations.” The announcement did not elaborate.
Michalski, in her email, confirmed that the TIF agreement at Highland Bridge does not extend to the CP Rail site, which could be developed in a number of ways.
“The CP Rail site in and of itself is independent of the existing obligations and redevelopment agreement between Ryan and the city of St. Paul,” she said.
The St. Paul Planning Commission had previously scheduled a public hearing for early August on proposed changes to the former Ford site master plan and zoning code. With the hockey arena proposal scrapped, that hearing has been canceled.
Kathy Carruth, executive director of the Highland District Council, said she expects university officials to appear before the council’s community development committee in August or September, once a new site plan and application has been submitted to the city.