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Leaving door open for TIF at Ford site

The city of St. Paul is preparing to create a placeholder tax increment financing district for the 135-acre Ford site to cover public infrastructure costs that would help future redevelopment to occur.

The TIF district offers one more funding source for projects that couldn’t otherwise get off the ground. According to state rules, planners need to decide on a TIF district within three years after starting demolition. But the three-year period expires at the end of March, and planners aren’t sure if TIF will be needed.

Meanwhile, Ford Motor Co. and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency are wrapping up a final report detailing the contamination at the old Twin Cities Assembly Plant site at 2180 Ford Parkway in the Highland Park neighborhood. Ford submitted a draft to the MPCA late last year.

“This report really was a significant milestone,” said Amy Hadiaris, hydrogeologist at the MPCA. “There have been many stages of investigation and this report kind of wraps it all up.”

Today, Ford crews are removing soil in about 60 targeted areas as part of the first phase of the cleanup, Hadiaris said. The site is just east of the Mississippi River.

Ford has spent years testing soils on the site while city planners and residents have envisioned a walkable mixed-use community with varied housing types.

The city had requested an extension for the TIF decision in last year’s legislative session, which made it into a tax bill that wasn’t passed. The city won’t withdraw the request, but a bill likely won’t be passed in time.

The proposed TIF district primarily covers the Ford site, but the project area extends as far east as St. Paul Avenue between Ford Parkway and Montreal Avenue. The district also includes some roads leading into the site.

Three years is normally enough time to make a decision, but the decommissioned Ford plant is unusual because of its size, complex permitting requirements and the level of environmental testing, said Mollie Scozzari, a city spokesperson.

“Usually between demolition and redevelopment, there’s a lot less time,” she said. “It’s just a unique site … because of the sheer size of it and because of the process we’ve gone through.”

The MPCA expects to release the final soil analysis in the first half of this year, which will determine how areas on the property can be used and what remediation work is needed. The analysis will help guide the redevelopment master plan.

So far, the soil analysis reflects what the MPCA brownfields office expected to see, Hadiaris said.

“We knew that there were historical disposal areas on the property that were used long before there were any regulations in place,” she said. “When an industrial building is demolished, you often find contamination in areas of sumps and pits, and maybe leaky utilities, and of course we found that.”

Ford, which is responsible for cleanup before selling to a developer, is expected to come up with a plan for full remediation this year, which will likely be implemented in 2017.

The St. Paul City Council will host a public hearing for the TIF district proposal March 16. The Housing Redevelopment Authority will vote on the measure March 23.

If the proposal is approved, the creation of a TIF district doesn’t guarantee that funds will be used, said Jonathan Sage-Martinson, director of the city’s Planning and Economic Development department.

“Just because we’re establishing a TIF district here doesn’t mean that we’re agreeing to spend it on anything,” he said. “The mayor has been really clear and supportive of TIF supporting … the public infrastructure — if needed — that will allow the development to take place.”

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