The water feature transformed the former site of St. Paul Ford

A flock of geese, whose heads honked their horns, flew low over the meandering stream. Nearby, the dogs and their owners went wild in the new dog park. About 50 meters away, a group of children marched down the rocky stairs to where the stream flowed into Hidden Falls.

An early autumn day in a regional park? A nature reserve?

No. It’s the former site of Ford’s St. Paul Assembly Plant, and the new stormwater harvesting system running through the 122-acre site isn’t just attracting ooh And haha but it transformed a once flat industrial stretch into St. Paul’s most talked about development.

“We knew it was going to be special, but it’s bigger and more transformative than I imagined,” said Chris Tolbert, a member of the St. Paul City Council, who represents the area. “It has been and will be a place to visit for people who live and visit St. Paul, and a great example of using rainwater as an amenity.”

Bob Fossum of the Capitol Region Watershed District stood Wednesday on a bridge spanning the stormwater collection system, a feature, designed to look and act like a natural stream, for which his organization has spent decades supporting.

“We really wanted to take this opportunity. This is a generational development,” said Fossum. “We make projects, we plan them, we design them, we implement them … this is the first project of my career where it looks better than I imagined.”

The block-long rainwater harvesting stream running through the site – from a couple of blocks south of Ford Parkway past a recently expanded Montreal Avenue on the way to the Mississippi River – feels recreational. But it actually has an engineering purpose.

Before the redevelopment, polluted rainwater from the Ford site traveled down 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 approximately 28 tons of total suspended solids and 147 pounds of phosphorus from entering the river each year, according to the watershed district.

“The goal was to get the water back to this site,” Fossum said. “The second thing was to treat it as a resource and not treat it as a waste product. There are environmental as well as social benefits from connecting people to water.”

As more of the site, now called the Highland Bridge, is developed and commercial and residential buildings grow, each will connect to the stormwater system. Several giant underground reservoirs will collect rainwater, letting solids settle and filtering chemicals, before releasing the water in a steady stream into the 4 to 5 foot deep stream.

Along the entire length of the stream, there are places where people can walk or roll down to the water’s edge. The ducks have already found the water to their liking, as have the kayakers. In the winter, officials expect ice 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, roads, parks and utilities in Highland Bridge. The city in 2016 predicted that it would contribute up to $ 275 million in public funding to the development.

But the water feature is not part of that funding. Developers will pay for it through connection fees as new housing and retail space are built, said Tony Barranco, Northern Region president of Ryan Cos., The site’s lead developer based in Minneapolis.

Barranco, who was part of Ryan’s team who spent months holding community meetings to address everything from building design to grid layout of the site’s planned 40 blocks, said the size and scale of the water had exceeded expectations.

“It’s great. We knew it was going to be the main public feature of the project,” he said. “But now that it’s been built, we said, ‘Good heavens, this is unbelievable.'”

Rainwater flow is bringing visitors to the site years before Highland Bridge’s four new city parks and 3,800 housing units, including affordable apartments and significantly more expensive townhouses and single-family homes, are completed.

“The most exciting thing for us is to see the kayakers and see the people sitting on the stones and dipping their feet in the water,” said Barranco. “We didn’t expect everything, but everything makes us happy”.

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