Groundbreaking for The Heights development in St. Paul in advance of soil remediation

11 July 2023

For some 40 years or more, the Hillcrest Country Club in St. Paul used mercury to control fungus along its golf course fairways, greens and tee boxes. Bolander Construction will soon begin removing soil running at least six inches deep in those locations, and up to one and a half feet of contaminated dirt along the greens, to prep the land for up to 1,000 new housing units and 1,000 new jobs.

Environmental engineers with Braun Intertec will then test the soil, and if necessary, more dirt removal will follow.

That’s step one of many. The shuttered clubhouse off Larpenteur Avenue will be demolished before the end of August, one of the more visible milestones in the gradual redevelopment of the 112-acre Hillcrest site into the future East Side live-work destination known as The Heights.

“It’s such a big, unique shift,” said George Hoene, a senior project manager with the St. Paul Port Authority, which acquired the defunct golf course and sizable brownfield from the Steamfitters Pipefitters Union in 2019.

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, Port Authority President Todd Hurley, City Council Member Nelsie Yang and a who’s who of state and local elected officials, housing developers and city and county staff gathered Tuesday for a groundbreaking years in the making.

Among the assembled were representatives of master developer Sherman Associates, Twin Cities Habit for Humanity and the JO Companies, which have committed to a wide mix of market-rate and affordable housing throughout The Heights.

“One of the things I’ve learned really quickly as mayor is you don’t get to just say abracadabra and have amazing things happen in a community,” Carter said. “It requires good partners.”

Possible ground-breaking next year

Assuming soil remediation goes well, the developers could break ground on the first housing units by the fall of 2024, with construction spanning 13-16 months, said Johnny Opara, the founder of the JO Companies. His company’s goal is to develop some 130 to 190 units of affordable housing geared toward families.

“We’re still working through the actual numbers just to make sure how … feasible (it is),” said Opara, who recently opened the Hollows, a 62-unit affordable apartment building off East Seventh Street and Payne Avenue. “It’s a pretty big undertaking.”

And it’s an undertaking that might not have been possible at all without a wide range of public backing, Hurley said.

Following the mayor, state Rep. Liz Lee and state Sen. Foung Hawj delivered brief remarks celebrating the $11 million in public infrastructure funding for The Heights included in the state bonding bill signed into law by Gov. Tim Walz. Hawj has advocated for the project since 2019, while Lee — who grew up a few blocks from the site and was elected in 2022 — spent her freshman year running with the same ball. Lee, who sponsored the bill, also credited state Sen. Sandy Pappas, chair of the Senate Capital Investment Committee, with the win.

The Port Authority recently agreed to sell 20 acres of land in the lower center of the former golf course to Xcel Energy for $6 million, allowing the energy utility to move its Rice Street operations center to the East Side and build a modern new facility that will be twice the size.

An extension of neighborhood

In interviews, Ianni Houmas and Carren LaBrasseur said their goal was to see The Heights developed as an extension of the surrounding neighborhood, rather than siloed away from it.

Houmas, president of the Greater East Side District 2 Community Council, served on an environmental advisory committee that successfully advocated for geothermal, solar and water retention strategies.

A further possibility — “it’s not inked,” he said — is to have geothermal heating under the roadways, which would reduce the need for salting and plow trucks.

LaBrasseur, a member of the Community Council’s Executive Committee, who was born in Kenya, said many immigrant families take care of multiple generations and extended family under one roof, and offering a wide mix of housing, including affordable family-sized housing, will be key. She’s hoping to see assisted living on site.

“We live in the community and we want the community to thrive,” LaBrasseur said.

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