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How an Ambitious Minnesota Eco-Project Became a Density Battleground

A century ago, Henry Ford saw this corner of St. Paul as a good place to build cars. Now it’s slated to become a green neighborhood that won’t need them.
Before it closed in 2011, Ford's Twin Cities Assembly Plant churned out millions of vehicles. It's now set to become a "net-zero" mixed-use development.
Before it closed in 2011, Ford's Twin Cities Assembly Plant churned out millions of vehicles. It's now set to become a "net-zero" mixed-use development. Cory Ryan/Getty Images

Ford’s Twin Cities Assembly Plant in St. Paul, Minnesota opened in 1925 to build Model Ts in a state-of-the-art facility powered by a hydroelectric dam on the Mississippi River. At its peak, the factory employed 1,800 well-paid UAW workers in a 2 million-square-foot facility about 7 miles from both downtown St. Paul and downtown Minneapolis. When the last vehicle, a Ranger pickup truck, rolled off its line just before Christmas in 2011, it was Ford Motors’ oldest factory. About 7 million vehicles were built here over 86 years.

The closure left behind an economic hole in St. Paul, and a formidable environmental challenge: The site was laced with residue from decades of automaking—petroleum compounds, paint solvents, lead, and arsenic.