University of St. Thomas baseball, softball moving to Highland Bridge
The St. Paul City Council on Wednesday gave the green light to the University of St. Thomas baseball and softball teams to move to new homes 2 miles south of campus.
By a 6-0 vote, the council approved changes to the Highland Bridge master plan that will allow St. Thomas to build two new stadiums, an indoor practice facility and surface parking at the development’s southeast corner.
Phil Esten, St. Thomas’s athletics director and former baseball player at the St. Paul school, thanked council members and city staff and said the vote allows the university to begin fundraising in earnest.
“This is the result of months of really hard work,” Esten said. “Ultimately, it’s a really important part of the process. It allows us to move forward.”
Nearly a year ago, officials from St. Thomas and Ryan Cos., creators of St. Paul’s 122-acre Highland Bridge development, unveiled a broad plan to redevelop a vacant 13-acre tract just outside the development boundaries into new athletic facilities for the university’s softball and baseball teams.
At a community meeting in Highland Park, officials touted the benefits they say will come: economic development, environmental cleanup, community amenities and expanded park space. Dozens of neighbors that night said they had their doubts.
But over the ensuing months, City Council Member Chris Tolbert said St. Thomas officials worked to ease community concerns bout traffic and parking. Early on, St. Thomas officials had floated the idea of building a hockey arena there, but pulled back on that. Saying they’d make the fields available to youth and high school teams helped, Tolbert said.
“Obviously their proposal has evolved. They want to put the arena on campus and not not on the Highland site,” Tolbert said. “They’ve refined it. And the St. Thomas administration has done a really good job of going down and working with the neighbors to figure out how to be a true neighbor. And that goes a long way.”
The athletic facilities will be built on land owned by Canadian Pacific Railway. Save for the stadiums, Ryan officials had said it was doubtful anything else would be built there.
The St. Paul Port Authority will work to clean the site in preparation for the ballparks.
St. Thomas recently made an unprecedented jump from NCAA Division III athletics to Division I and officials have said they need to upgrade its facilities. It has proposed a joint basketball/hockey facility to be built on campus — at the former St. Paul Seminary. The conjoined baseball-softball stadiums at Highland Bridge will each hold 1,000 to 1,500 fans.
Highland Bridge’s ongoing transformation from the former Ford assembly plant has been dramatic, with the development of new parks, housing and a winding water feature. A new Lunds & Byerlys grocery store has opened and dozens of expensive rowhouses are in various stages of construction.
“I’m excited about what expansion of their athletic program will mean just for the vibrant upgrade to the neighborhood,” Tolbert said. “Division 1 baseball and Division 1 softball is going to be a great addition.”