Ramsey County considers three properties for redevelopment, conservation

by Colleen O'Connor Toberman

Among the Ramsey County properties being considered for redevelopment is this mostly undeveloped bluffland and oak savanna on St. Paul's east side.

Ramsey County is making plans for the future of three county-owned parcels of land near the Mississippi River in St. Paul and Maplewood.

On the east side of St. Paul, the former juvenile correctional facility known as Boys Totem Town closed in 2019 after more than 100 years of operation. The property is 72 acres in size. Intensive development has been limited to 10 acres of the site; the rest has remained open space with blufftop views, rolling hills and a rare oak savanna.

About a mile away, two parcels in Maplewood are also being planned for future redevelopment. One of them is the 88-acre Ponds at Battle Creek Golf Course. Sightings of the endangered rusty patched bumblebee have been reported here.

The other Maplewood property is a 77-acre open grassland directly adjacent to Battle Creek Regional Park. Community members have documented the presence of several bird species at this site — including bobolinks, dickcissels and clay-colored sparrows — whose populations are in worrisome decline.

Ecological inventory needed

These properties aren't directly on the riverfront, but they provide important ecological benefits to the Mississippi River and its surroundings. Each contains some kind of unique habitat or inhabitants. The sites also serve as stopover points for birds migrating along the Mississippi River international flyway. And all three properties are near or adjacent to Battle Creek Regional Park, creating an opportunity for a larger network or corridor of connected habitats.

As highlighted in the Star Tribune, county leaders and residents have expressed interest in a wide range of future uses for the parcels, including affordable housing, community services and amenities, recreation and wildlife habitat. We believe that all of these things are crucial to community well-being. 

The future of these properties will likely include a mix of all these uses. To guide the decision-making process, we encouraged Ramsey County to conduct an ecological resources inventory of all three properties — documenting existing ecological conditions and the presence of any Species of Greatest Conservation Need — before proceeding with further planning.

We are pleased that the county recently acted on our recommendation and hired a natural resources consultant to conduct an ecological assessment of the Maplewood properties. Boys Totem Town will likely be evaluated later.

A completed inventory will help the county make better-informed decisions about the most important areas of the properties to preserve and restore as wildlife habitat. It's important to incorporate these findings into potential development scenarios before they are shown to the public. Otherwise, the county risks creating community excitement over options that turn out to be inadvisable — or even impossible — to implement. 

The Boys Totem Town site also needs to be studied further for potential archeological resources related to the long history of Dakota presence in the area. A recent preliminary study commissioned by the Lower Phalen Creek Project and the Boys Totem Town Land Preservation Group noted a "high potential" for such resources, partially because the blufftop portions of the site have never been developed. 

Given that Boys Totem Town operated as a detention facility for 113 years, special consideration also needs to be given to the hundreds of youth and families who were affected by the often-traumatizing practice of separating children from their families and neighborhoods. The correctional system disproportionately affects BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) people, and Totem Town was no exception.

Stay informed

We'll keep our Ramsey County River Guardians informed about opportunities to weigh in on the future of these sites over the coming years. If you're not yet a River Guardian, sign up today.

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