Edina wrestling with tough question of whether Nine Mile Creek nature area should become a ‘trail’

Nine Mile Creek
MinnPost photo by Steve Berg

To be an elected official in Edina seems like the cushiest public service job imaginable. The place is one of those established suburbs where the bread is buttered on both sides. The population (48,000) is stable, affluent and highly educated. The Southdale district generates commercial activity and tax revenues far out of proportion to the community’s needs. That means taxes can be kept relatively low on well-kept homes that, despite the current recession, have held nearly all of their value.

Meanwhile, streets stay freshly paved and parks neatly trimmed. Life is good, and Edina citizens care deeply about keeping it that way. They are uncommonly engaged and committed to the life of their community.

The problem for elected officials, of course, is that people are uncommonly engaged and committed to the life of their community.

Caring deeply raises passions. And no topic raises more passion among Minnesotans than preserving natural features — trees, water, wildlife habitat, fresh air. We cherish nature, perhaps, because we’re deprived of its splendor for so much of the year.

The current brouhaha over Nine Mile Creek is mostly about to whom nature should belong. Should the picturesque creek valley remain primarily a view shed and natural buffer for homeowners along the banks? Or should it be opened to the public as a regional bicycle and pedestrian trail?

“I’d say this is about the most significant and controversial issue Edina has faced in the last decade,” Mayor Jim Hovland told me this week. “There’s a lot of emotion out there on this.”

There’s no question about creek-side ownership; it’s public land. The Three Rivers Park District, the Nine Mile Creek Watershed District and Edina’s city council, park board and school board are all involved in the creek’s future. But so are nearby homeowners, who’ve grown accustomed to treating the creek side as their own. Property values are involved, they say, as are privacy concerns and maybe even safety if strangers are invited to ride bikes through what many homeowners consider their backyards.

“It’s a classic case of trying to balance public and private interests,” said Hovland, who has been deeply involved in metro transportation issues for years.

“It’s very emotional for many people,” said Alice Hulbert, an avid biker who favors the trail but understands the frustrations of many of her neighbors, one of whom has gone so far as to dam up the creek to create a private hockey rink. “They don’t want the public coming into what they feel is their space.” She pointed out that the sides have competing websites to duke out the issue: for and against.

A decade of planning
Seeds of the controversy date to at least 2000 when Three Rivers adopted a master plan that would bring Hopkins, Minnetonka, Edina and Richfield into the metro’s impressive network of trails, including a section along Nine Mile Creek. The Hopkins, Minnetonka and Richfield portions are set, but Edina’s reluctance produces an eight-mile gap in the chain.

A process to fill the gap began in 2008 and will reach a critical point when the Edina City Council holds a public hearing and votes on Dec. 7. It has three choices: disapprove any trail, or place it either along city streets or along the creek. Proponents favor the creek-side route overwhelmingly, but some homeowners vow to block it.

The creek-side version would pass alongside 243 homes, including 216 backyards. Although the average distance from house to trail would be 175 feet, three homes would lie within 25 feet.

The trail would cut across Edina diagonally from northwest to southeast, entering at Hwy. 169, crossing Hwy. 62 in Bredesen Park and passing just north of Edina High School before crossing Hwy. 100 near 77th Street and continuing east to the Centennial Lakes/Southdale district. Initially the trail would be used largely for recreation, although its future as a bike commuter corridor is also promising, especially with jobs near Southdale expected to grow in future years.

Hovland, a moderate Democrat who has served on the council since 1997 and as mayor since 2004, said he will hold off on a final decision until after the December public hearing. Meanwhile, he and other council members are getting an earful of advice. Three Rivers has logged more than 300 comments from citizens and groups.

For or against?
Those against the project complain about loss of wildlife habitat, flood dangers, safety, privacy, diminished property values, excessive noise from portions of the trail that would be made of wooden planks over marshlands, and, of course, cost. The project is expected to cost $20 million, 80 percent of which would come from a federal grant.

Those favoring the trail say it will provide links to the extensive metro trail system, would promote recreation and healthy living, and eventually provide a low-cost, green-energy commuting solution. Another argument, Hovland said, is that Edina contributes $3 million every year to the Three Rivers district and would be getting a direct return in the form of the trail.

Hovland once lived along Minnehaha Creek and imagines how he would feel if a bike trail had run through his backyard. On the other hand, he favors regional transportation investments, including the trail system. So, being an elected official in Edina is a cushy job? Not really.

Cheer or boo?
Cheer for the National Park Service’s decision last week to disapprove a new St. Croix River bridge near Stillwater.
The new bridge would have a “direct and adverse” affect on a river protected as “wild and scenic” by federal law, the NPS said. Unless Congress intervenes, the new crossing appears to be dead in the water (sorry). That’s a good thing. Minnesota can find better ways to spend $400 million (it’s portion of the $700 million project). Existing roads and bridges need critical repairs. Offering easier trips for 20,000 Wisconsin residents isn’t really in Minnesota’s best interest, especially since Wisconsin has balked at paying for its portion of the project. It’s best that MnDOT concentrate its efforts on bottleneck removal and other mobility and infill projects rather than promoting a further spread of the metro region across the St. Croix.

In metrospect:
Three significant stories this week

• An urban smackdown: Portland’s Pearl District outpoints Minneapolis’ North Loop. Sam Newberg, in his Joe Urban blog, compares the much-celebrated Portland neighborhood with the Twin Cities’ closest equivalent. Both districts were abandoned by industry and adopted by residents who wanted to live in old warehouses and new loft-like condos. Portland produced a better district, Newberg says, because its design standards are tougher, its attention to detail is greater and its use of streetcars to help build the population and business activity was a huge success. Sam provided photos, too. My own comment: Minneapolis hasn’t done nearly enough with its public realm to “set the table” for development in districts like the North Loop. Compared to Pearl, it’s still a primitive area. The glaring need for better streetscapes in the North Loop arises because the streets are far too wide for pedestrian comfort. This district still looks as if it’s made for trucks.

• The end is near for parking meters. Read Tom Vanderbilt’s overview in Slate.com. Some cities are abolishing them altogether; others are devising newer technologies to charge for parking.

• Federal grants for tearing down freeways. Grist.com’s Jonathan Hiskes noticed that three of the new TIGER II grants are for tearing down (or planning to tear down) elevated freeways in New Haven, Conn., New Orleans and the Bronx. Those follow other urban freeway teardowns in San Francisco and Portland, Ore. A trend? We can hope.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Usha Abramovitz on 10/26/2010 - 10:52 am.

    Re: “Edina wrestling with tough question of whether Nine Mile Creek nature area” should be replaced by a manmade trail.

    So much is made over the question of ownership of this picturesque piece of natural habitat. We ask if the area should “remain primarily a view shed and natural buffer for homeowners along the banks” or whether it should be opened to the public as a super built up bike and pedestrian trail.

    Well, I say that this is already public land and therefore always open to the public. Let all who wish to enjoy this beautiful and serenely peaceful area feel free to use it as a walking path. Bring your kids and let them roam amongst the trees and wild grasses, skip on newly fallen autumn leaves, poke their sticks into the swampy areas and delight in creatures that they may discover therein. Let them enjoy the water close up, step out onto the rocks in response to an older sibling’s dare, squeal in delight at the snapping turtle and look up in awe at the egret spread its wings in graceful flight.

    How can we want or need more than this?

  2. Submitted by Mike Hicks on 10/26/2010 - 12:52 pm.

    I often hate these either-or propositions. Multiple routes would probably make it even better due to network effects.

    I’ve personally been growing tired of bike trails that run on dedicated rights-of-way. They’re nice in that they can carry you relatively long distances with little effort and few interruptions, but — much like cars on highways — riders can end up skipping past a lot of useful and interesting places. That can mean stores for buying goods, but cyclists are also in need of food and beverages.

    As we transition away from car-centric designs in cities, the bicycle is becoming increasingly important. We need to make sure that bikeways link directly from homes to business districts and contribute to the overall connectedness of a region.

    Of course, business areas already have roads. There are often safety problems with building bikeways next to roads as opposed to modifying existing roads to handle bikes better (usually just by repainting). Drivers handle bikes better when they are sharing an intersection than when there is a bike crossing several yards beyond an intersection.

    That said, Edina’s road network doesn’t have many through routes. Compare that to Minneapolis, where existing side streets can easily be converted into bicycle boulevards miles long with little impact on car traffic.

    So in this case, I’d advocate building the creek-side route, but also add bike lanes to the roads that had been considered for the other route and other roads that connect to the bikeway.

    I do somewhat scratch my head about why Edina of all places needs federal assistance to build the thing. I’m sure they could afford it on their own.

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