From Model Ts to Model Communities

Highland Bridge Project Team Finds Common Ground in a Digital Environment

For more than 80 years, the Ford Twin Cities Assembly Plant, located along the banks of the Mississippi River in Saint Paul, Minnesota’s Highland Park neighborhood, produced vehicles that ranged from Model Ts to Ford Ranger pickup trucks. When the plant closed in 2011, all of the structures on the nearly 122-acre site were bulldozed, and the land was left as the city and community engaged in a multi-year planning effort to define the vision for the site moving forward.

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The Highland Bridge development in Saint Paul (MN) will include 3,800 apartment, townhome, senior, affordable and single-family housing units; 265,000 square feet of office space; and 150,000 square feet of retail space. Project photo from March 2022 by Drone Brothers.

Not long after, national builder, developer, designer and real estate manager, Ryan Companies US, Inc. (Ryan Cos.) was selected by Ford Motor Company to purchase the land and develop a modern, sustainable urban village. The community, called Highland Bridge, will include 3,800 apartment, townhome, senior, affordable and single-family housing units; 265,000 square feet of office space; and 150,000 square feet of retail space. Future residents of Highland Bridge will have the option to source 100% of their power through renewable energy. The master plan includes more than 55 acres of public and open space. Full build-out will likely take more than two decades.

According to Ryan Cos., the name Highland Bridge reflects the mission of this development and the goals in the transformation of this space. The developer believes this community has the potential to bridge the generational gap between natural spaces and urban city living, and the completed project will create new housing options, employment opportunities, and retail spaces. That community character is embedded in every aspect of this massive effort, as teamwork and technology are crucial facets of efficient and effective project delivery.

Conduit of collaboration

Site work and infrastructure construction on Highland Bridge began in Spring 2020. Efforts included the construction of roads, utilities, parks, open space and bike lanes. Minnetonka, Minnesota-based Sambatek, Inc., a firm that specializes in engineering, surveying, planning, and environmental services, was responsible for the engineering work related to utilities and much of the survey tasks related to utilities, stormwater, roadways (especially curb and gutter), as well as support for other members of the project team including mechanical and electrical trades. Sambatek, in business since 1966, has extensive experience working with public and private sector clients on projects that range from healthcare campuses to luxury apartment projects. And yet, Highland Bridge was a task unlike any other, in terms of comprehensive survey needs.


Six full-time surveyors from Sambatek worked on the Highland Bridge project to meet comprehensive survey needs, including 10,000 stakes in the ground and bringing data together from a variety of sources using Trimble products. Project photo from April 2021 by Drone Brothers.

With six full-time Sambatek surveyors—a first for the firm—working the project, as well as surveyors from Ryan Cos. and the engineering team, the demand for accurate geospatial data and a cohesive site control network is tremendous. In total, Sambatek surveyors will put well over 10,000 construction stakes in the ground to support the effort by the time the project is complete. Bringing the data together from a variety of sources was an especially big concern from the outset.

Michael Conlee, Director of Field Services at Sambatek, said, “Trimble’s value on this project is heavy on quality assurance. We’re using every tool in our toolbox to get this one right.”

That toolbox includes the latest in advanced survey solutions such as the Trimble® S Series total stations, and GNSS receivers including the Trimble R12i with IMU-based tilt compensation for fast, quality work in challenging conditions (no leveling pole needed.) Frontier Precision is supplying and supporting both Sambatek and Ryan Cos. on the project, including assisting with emerging technologies so the teams get the most out of the equipment.


Sambatek used Trimble Business Center to marry data from a variety of sources. Project photo from May 2021 by Drone Brothers.

Also, the team has found the advanced Windows 10-based Trimble TSC7 controller with Trimble Access software to be one of the most beneficial tools to ensure precision during construction.

“We can review plan revisions in the field on the color screens,” said Conlee. “Along with file sharing and cloud data sharing, which are essential for quality assurance, we’ve got the ability to move data back and forth from field to office. The availability of a 3D model on the site to check elevations—that’s been huge for our production. I can’t imagine doing this on a different system. We probably get an hour a day back just from the TSC7s on this project.”

Sourced and synced

One of the biggest challenges of the Highland Bridge project has been assimilating the mix of data from a variety of sources including 3D and 2D data, traditional staking positions, DTMs, etc. Conlee noted, “Everything has to come together to provide a sole source of site precision to support the construction of everything from roadways to park water features.”


The Corridor and Alignment features of TBC played an integral role in building surface models to ensure intersections drain properly. Project photo from November 2021 by Drone Brothers.

Chris McLey, Virtual Construction Manager at Ryan Cos., added, “When everyone’s not working in the exact same world, there’s always a challenge. The tolerances for the various design features are different based on scope. Footings and foundations need to be exact, while architectural or landscaping features have more flexible tolerances. In essence, we have one entity hyper-focused on design accuracy and another focused on design aesthetics and usability—sometimes there’s a bit of a gap.”

At any given time, there are dozens of contractors on the Highland Bridge site. Sambatek has to be very proactive in its computations and calculations to accommodate all of the different group needs.

Conlee said, “It would be very easy to get bogged down in data, causing significant delays. We have to marry all of that data together, and we have to be responsive to changes, questions and issues that arise. That’s why we’re using Trimble Business Center (TBC) software well ahead of time to find problems before they arise.”

TBC provides the platform to ensure the accuracy and precision of deliverables for such a complex and innovative project and determine the way that the stakeholders evaluate success. Sambatek relies on TBC to create 3D alignments and to perform quality assurance checks on staking data from the field.

When asked about specific tools within the solution, Conlee pointed to Corridor and Alignment functionality. He added, “The art of our job has been finding a way to bring all the different source data together at an intersection. The Corridor and Alignment tools in the program bring the data together and allow us to build surface models to make sure intersections drain like they’re supposed to. We’ve been able to use horizontal and vertical profiles for some of the streets along with the corridor modeling to manage slope offsets and drainage, for instance.”

Thus far the first phase utilities and mass earthwork has been completed on the Highland Bridge project, as have the Phase 1 roadways. Park and open space development is ongoing, and Phase 1 infrastructure with site opening is planned for construction this year.

Vicki Speed is a freelance writer covering the construction and geospatial industries.