Hillcrest Knoll Park, the seven-acre block in the middle of Saint Paul’s sprawling East Side, has a fascinating history, best told here at MinnPost in Andy Sturdevant’s 2016 Stroll column. After a flash flood inundated two dozen homes in 1997, it was clear that the land could never be habitable. Instead, it became a city park.
Sturdevant describes the end result:
The park is operated by St. Paul Public Works, and the green space acts as a holding pond during rainy seasons. The area was marked as a swamp on early maps of St. Paul, and development grew up slowly around it on commercial thoroughfares like Arlington and White Bear Avenues. During the postwar boom, the land finally became too valuable to ignore. The swamp was filled in and an assortment of Cape Cods and ramblers were built over it.
For the two decades after the demolition, not much happened at Hillcrest Knoll Park. People would walk their dogs, fly a kite, play a game of frisbee. Most of the time the land sat empty: an wide open, occasionally very soggy, green space.
That changed last year thanks to an idea from of local residents, Tony and Amanda Kutzke, who launched a grassroots effort to install a disc golf course at the site. The nine-hole result, which officially opened last August, is sure to make 2023 a banner year in Hillcrest Knoll Park history.
“It’s been a great collaborative project between the city and the community, coming together to help activate the park and create more use,” said Tony Kutzke, who lives two blocks away. “Once the baskets went in, it’s been lots of fun to see so many people using the park in a different way.”
The cabbage of park infrastructure
Disc golf is the cabbage of park infrastructure, in that compared to just about anything else you can buy in the city budget, it’s deeply affordable. (By the way, that analogy makes a do-it-yourself disc golf course the equivalent of homemade sauerkraut: cheap, healthy, and delicious.) The total cost of the brand new Hillcrest Knoll Disc Golf Course was $8,300, over half of which was donated by Kutzke and his family. That kind of sum would be a rounding error for any other parks project.
They also received donations from a few East Side businesses and a local construction company. As part of the park installation, collaborating with the St. Paul Parks and Recreation Department, they hired a local disc golf designer named Cale Leiviska to lay out nine holes on the undulating site.
They range in size and difficulty but sit on the easier end of the spectrum of disc golf complexity. They had to be fit into the landscape, to not interfere with the various bits of technical infrastructure like the main sewer and the underground water storage tank.
After that, it was just a matter of installing the holes — orange chain “baskets” about four feet tall — spreading the mulch and some (very subtle) hole markers. The end result is pretty seamless, and gives new life to what had long been a marginalized bit of green space in the midst of the residential East Side.
It’s a friendly course for beginners, but also has technical shots for experts, so they can still enjoy the course,” Tony explained.
Adding to the disc golf landscape
This year, the Kutzkes have applied for a city Neighborhood STAR Grant, a grassroots capital investment process that doles out small bits of money to businesses, non-profits, and other community projects. With another $15,000 from the city, the Kutzkes plan on adding better signage, concrete tee pads and stairs on the hill at the third hole to make it a bit more accessible. (If you ask me, such a cost-effective request ought to score highly with the STAR committee.)
“It provided a great opportunity to get more people into disco golf that didn’t have access previously,” explained Tony Kutzke.” There’s a hole in the East Side for disc golf courses, that make this key to having more accessibility for more people.”
“It’s just been a lot of fun to see our neighborhood,” agreed Amanda. “You see families and a bunch of kids out there learning how to disc golf, getting out and being active.”
Before Hillcrest Knoll, the disc golf landscape sat largely in the southern part of the city. For what I assume are topographical reasons, the east metro’s disc golf courses form line in a line stretching from South St. Paul to Minnehaha Falls, but nothing in the northern half of the city.
As you’d expect, both of the Kutzkes are eager disc golfers, as are both of their teenagers. They each appreciate different things about the course, which has enough elevation change (thanks to the flood-prone park) to provide some degrees of difficulty. Amanda likes Hole 8, built around a few trees and a retaining wall, which she describes as both beautiful and challenging. Tony’s favorite is Hole 3, which offers the best view of the landscape.
There’s a crew of east side fans of the new course that get together to maintain and support the park improvement. On Earth Day a few weeks ago, via their homemade Facebook page, they organized a park cleanup. And now that the weather’s warming up and the floodwaters receding, disc golf season can begin in earnest.
“I’m really excited to get some course improvements for the whole park,” said Amanda Kutzke. “They’re going to be great, getting more people out there doing things like tournaments and leagues.”