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New St. Paul parks group’s first initiative is upgrading Lilydale Regional Park

The new St. Paul Parks Conservancy — set up last year to provide funding and other support for parks and recreational facilities in the city  — is launching its first big initiative with big plans for improvements at Lilydale Regional Park (PDF).

The vision:

• A dramatic stone-and-brick gateway entry to Lilydale Regional Park from Harriet Island Regional Park.

• A stone-lined creek along the Water Street roadside leading into the park, which will capture runoff from the surrounding bluffs and attend to the chronic problem of water and ice buildup on the roadway.

• Minnesota wildflower plantings on — and adjacent to — the entry median.

• Creation of three resting spots along Water Street to offer dramatic views of the Mississippi River by removing invasive plant materials and replacing them with native plant species. 

Organizers hope these very visible improvements will generate interest in even more park revitalization, maybe even partnerships to pay for such enhancementsas road improvements, power line burial, topographical improvements, debris removal, and the addition of lake and trail amenities.

The Conservancy was set up to provide money for city parks at a time when the city budget is faced with rising costs and lower state aid. It received a $150,000 grant from the McKnight Foundation to get rolling and is working with the Friends of Lilydale foundation to raise money for the Lilydale  plan.

St. Paul’s Deputy Mayor Ann Mulholland, who is on the Conservancy’s board of directors, said she and former Parks Director Bob Bierscheid came up with the idea for the parks foundation as a way to engage the philanthropic community in supporting the park system and its growth.

“The Conservancy can do things that government would not or could do,” she said. “It had to be set up to have a vision and a mission that expands and goes beyond what the city can do on its own.”

Similar foundations already exist for the city’s libraries and police department. The police foundation recently helped pay for cameras along University Avenue, and has provided protective gear for officers. Supporters of the fire department, too, are considering a foundation.

And Como Park, part of the city system, has long had its own foundation.

“A good question is: ‘Does the community have the ability to support all these organizations?’ They do,” Mulholland said. “People have a very wide range of interests and will support it as long as you are careful to have a clear mission and clear, carved-out projects that go above and beyond what government can provide. The key is to appeal to people who are passionate about your mission.”

Having clear plans is a crucial step, she said, because, otherwise, governments will tap the foundation for operating expenses when budgets are tight.

“Wearing my city hat, I’ve love to have the Friends of the Library run the library system because the city has troubling affording it,” she said. But what the Friends do is help us buy technology and improve structures, the kinds of things that expand on what the city can do.”

Lilydale was a logical choice for the Conservancy’s first efforts, Conservancy organziers say, because it’s “the largest and most diverse undeveloped parkland within a stone’s throw of downtown Saint Paul.”

And the park’s proximity to St. Paul makes it a natural for more environmental protection and access for recreational activities.

The description of the park says it’s in an undeveloped floodplain, 2½ miles in length and a half-mile in width. Its boundaries include Pickerel Lake and 100 acres of marsh and wooded areas that provide habitat for water fowl, mammals, and vegetation.

Besides the need for protection and revitalization, the group’s website says there is great potential for  a “verdant natural environment, a welcome home for a wide variety of native plants and wildlife, and an inviting venue for people to hike, bike, ski, fish, camp, walk their dog or just revel in a quiet setting close to home.”

Park work in the area during the 1980s brought improvements to bordering Harriet Island Park, but improvements at Lilydale lagged, even though there’s great historic relevance to the area, said the Conservancy’s Jim Olsen in an update to supporters.

“The landscape along the bluff includes large caves carved out for growing mushrooms or for keeping beer cool for local brewers,” he wrote. “Of particular interest are the remnants of facilities built by the Twin Cities Brickyard. The Brickyard is now overgrown by the evolving natural habitat. The former existence of these activities and facilities in Saint Paul’s flood plain is historically significant; as are the exposed fossil beds — well known to local paleontologists — that line the park’s bluffs.”

And Water Street, which runs through the park, is badly decayed, even though it’s used for walking, running or riding in the area, he said.

The cost of the first phase of the Lilydale upgrades? About $530,000, Olsen estimates.

To launch the project — and raise more money for this and other efforts — the group is holding a July 14 fundraiser.

In his letter to supporters, Olsen lays out the plan:

“While the resuscitation of Lilydale Regional Park is necessarily an ambitious, multi-partner, multi-year project, the first steps — ours as a Conservancy — can be significant in launching the effort. Anticipated components of an overall plan for the park, based both on past studies and current ruminations of the Saint Paul Parks and recreation staff, include:

Phase One

• Creating Lilydale Regional Park gateway, signage, and native wild-flower plantings   

• Creating a creek to capture and direct bluff water seepage

• Creating three dramatic viewing points along the Mississippi River by the removing invasive plant materials and adding species native to the area.

Subsequent Phases — Some Potentially Intertwined with Our Preliminary Work          

• Burial of unsightly park-entry power lines        

• Boardwalk and/or fishing pier construction

• Picnic area addition with shelter, restrooms and related topographical adjustments

• Water Street road reconfiguration beyond the gateway

• Expanded parking opportunities

• Lakeshore and river edge improvements (including debris, and invasive species removal)

• Organized group campsite additions

• Bluff path restoration from Cherokee neighborhood

• Trail enhancements and extensions, including benches and signage

• Dog park creation

• Butterfly garden and other natural specialty areas.

“Ultimately, our goal is to spur community support that maximizes the park’s value as a beautiful natural environment, a welcome home to a wide variety of native plants and wildlife, and an inviting venue for people to fish in Pickerel Lake, hike, bike, ski, walk their dog or just revel in a quiet setting close to home. While we may consider a long-term role in ensuring continued park improvements, we fully anticipate that many of those improvements (a new road through the park, for instance) will be funded by entities other than the Conservancy.”

Joe Kimball reports on St. Paul City Hall, Ramsey County politics and other topics. He can be reached at jkimball [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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