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Historic Ford Plant Site Likely A Tough Sell

The Ford Motor Co. recently closed its historic Twin Cities Assembly Plant on a scenic river bluff in St. Paul, Minn. In better times, the parcel of land might have made condo developers drool, but in today's real estate market, redevelopment of the old factory could be a long way off.

The industrial architect Albert Kahn was particularly skilled at making factories blend into their surroundings. The 2-million-square-foot plant has a classical stone facade that flows along the Mississippi River bluff. The red tile roof of its hydroelectric plant glows in the sunlight.

Tia Anderson, who lives near the plant in the Highland Park neighborhood, says this behemoth was scarcely a bother.

"A lot of people don't even notice that it's there," she says. "It is sort of walled off, almost, physically from the rest of Highland, so a lot of people don't necessarily think about it day to day."

But they will soon, as Ford puts this prime piece of land up for sale. Hydropower and silica for glassmaking brought Henry Ford here a century ago. Today, city officials hope the scenery and central location will attract someone with a new vision.

Life On The Assembly Line

Steve Overby popped each hood to check the fit as the last few Ranger pickups rolled toward the exit this month. Then, he nudged the hinges with his mallet.

Overby's job — using hand tools in a factory full of robots — is a throwback to the earliest days of auto making. On this very spot his predecessors churned out Model T's and Model A's.

In 1929, Ken Muxlow started work at the plant making seat cushions. In an oral history interview shortly before his death in 2000, he said those pre-union years were tough and unpredictable.

"The line kept going no matter what," Muxlow recalled. "If you had to go to the bathroom, you had to go, and you had to catch up your job when you got back. They didn't give you any time."

The threat of losing defense contracts during World War II forced Henry Ford to negotiate with the United Auto Workers and conditions slowly improved. The assembly lines produced tanks and armored cars. Postwar, it was Fairlanes, station wagons and trucks. Now Ford has ended Ranger production and closed the plant, even though it's hiring elsewhere.

A Rare Opportunity

While tales of life on the line will remain for historians and former workers, the future of the 122-acre site lies with a developer — once Ford finds one.

Cecile Bedor, St. Paul's planning director, says the job losses are unfortunate, but the plant's closing offers a rare chance for a city with little empty land to do something ambitious.

"What it does present is a really exciting opportunity to really realize a beautiful development that's really going to add to this community and the region," Bedor says. "And really, our hope is to showcase how to do really good development."

What that might be is anyone's guess. Ideas range from light manufacturing to a data center in the old silica mine, to housing.

With the Mississippi River nearby, Bedor says, attracting a green development is a priority.

But defunct factory sites in gritty industrial suburbs have proved tough to sell. And even though this one is in a thriving residential neighborhood, University of St. Thomas real estate professor George Karvel says finding the right buyer could take years.

"It's a great piece of property — for retail, for single-family housing, for apartments — but just not today," Karvel says.

Crews will spend the next year demolishing the buildings. Then they need to figure out how polluted the land is after nine decades of manufacturing. Cleanup will likely take several more years. By then, city leaders say, they hope the economy will have finally caught up with their ambitions.

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Matt Sepic