In 1913, when the City of St. Paul purchased the small triangle of land at the corner of Portland and Summit Avenues, it marked the fulfillment of long-held wishes. The Carpenter family, the Victorian-era landowners, had tried for years to preserve a pair of triangular pieces of their land as city parks, and in 1909, as part of the parkland push, a local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution commissioned a noble statue to seal the deal.
It was a lovely sculpture, a life-size likeness of Revolutionary War icon Nathan Hale, crafted by famous East Coast sculptor William Ordway Partridge. According to the extensive historical research on the public artwork, the statue was the first such Nathan Hale tribute west of Ohio.
Over a century later, the park remains a triangular green nestled in the elbow of Summit Avenue, the city’s most elegant street. Hale still stands watch, observing the cars parading by or the occasional wintertime skaters, when part of the small park is flooded with a rink.
But in one corner of the Nathan Hale Park, a problem popped up this year when a neighboring fence mistakenly truncated a slim margin of land. The remnant corner has thrown a dispute into the jurisdiction of the city’s otherwise obscure Parks & Recreation Commission.
“When the parkland was purchased by the city [in 1913], it had just such an odd angle to it,” said Tucker Carlson, who owns the Portland Avenue house next door to Nathan Hale Park. (For the record, Carlson is not connected to the famous TV host with the same name; however, he is the son of former Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson.)
When the Carlsons bought the house a few years ago they were led to believe, mistakenly, that a triangle of yard between their walkway and the park was part of the property.
“The piece of land that we’re on was, for the majority of time, one single property,” Carlson said, explaining the park conundrum. “We trusted the previous owner and his real estate agent as they walked the property with us. Where the park land comes across the property, they presented to us a small triangle. We looked at the GIS map, and didn’t have it surveyed at the time. We just trusted them and purchased the house.”
Soon after, the Carlsons did some landscaping to their new home, erecting a small metal fence to edge their front yard.
But as it turned out, the property line ran at an angle and the fence straddled both sides of the park property line. After a complaint from a historically astute park visitor, the Carlsons had a dilemma.
“The piece of land looks like it belongs to this house, but is actually parkland,” explained Carlson. “It hasn’t been maintained by the Parks Department for who knows how long. The previous owner even did some landscaping on there. They even put in a sprinkler system.”
Faced with the problem, and under the stern gaze of Nathan Hale, the Carlsons petitioned the city for a diversion of a small slice of city parkland. (A “diversion” is the oddly technical term for selling off municipal park land.) Explaining what happened, the Carlsons drafted a proposal to purchase some of the park from the city and have the marginal ground — now less than 1,000 square feet — transferred from the city rolls.
The process proved to be a bit complicated, especially once the city’s Parks Department weighed in opposing the request.
According to city staff, St. Paul’s official policy is to only grant sales of parkland in cases where a clear financial hardship is presented. On wealthy Summit Avenue, that’s almost an impossibility.
“We routinely get requests to purchase easements for parkland, often for utilities,” explained Paul Sawyer, a management assistant for the St. Paul Parks and Recreation department. “One of the big things we take a look at when we get applications in is whether there’s a hardship at play. We look for circumstances unique to the property, or somebody presenting an application where they’re prevented from being able to use property in a reasonable way. For example, industrial properties that are landlocked who need to get utilities into the site would be a hardship where we might be willing to divert parkland.”
For cities with many parks rubbing shoulders with residential and industrial users, these conflicts come up repeatedly. Requests for diversions, easements, and the like are the sorts of problems that quickly fill parks-related meeting agendas.
“Generally I try to do what would do the greatest good for the most people, a utilitarian philosophy,” explained Chris Meyer, one of the nine members of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.
(Note that Minneapolis is relatively unique among municipal governments in that it has a separately elected Park Board, distinct from other branches of city government. In St. Paul, as in most cities, parks commissioners are appointed rather than elected, and serve a largely advisory role to elected officials.)
In his year on the Minneapolis Park Board, Meyer has faced many issues of diversions or easements, and has managed to work a nuanced position. For example, he explained that in many cases, he defers to commissioners more familiar with specific areas where they live.
On the other hand, when it comes to things like driveway access or curb cuts for cars, Meyer often votes to deny requests.
“We’ve had requests around the lakes for new curb cut access,” Meyer told me. “We turned down one around Lake of the Isles where [someone] wanted a new curb cut.”
Another such case came up recently along West River Parkway, near the shadow of downtown, when a new apartment building wanted to build a driveway into the parkway. (The request was denied.)
In the case of St. Paul’s Nathan Hale park, however, a settlement seems more likely, despite the city’s official opposition to the diversion request.
For his part, Tucker Carlson does not hold a grudge about the Parks & Recreation Commission’s stance against the plan. Instead, he’s taken pains to empathize with the official position of the city, even while campaigning for some leniency in his case.
“The Parks Commission is doing just what they’re supposed to be doing,” Carlson said, having gone through a few steps of the delicate process. “To try to do this properly, we proposed purchasing a piece of land. But it’s a negotiation with the Parks Commission.”
For one thing, the Carlsons received the support of the local Summit-University neighborhood group, an encouraging sign. But then, meeting with the six-member Parks & Recreation Commission, their proposal was denied on a tie vote.
A month later, the Carlsons tried again, this time for a smaller piece of land at the margins of Nathan Hale Park. This time it was approved.
The next steps are for the diversion proposal to go to an official committee and for the sliver of land to be properly appraised for a sale to the neighbors. If the deal is approved by the City Council — and by order of the City Charter, the diversion requires a 2/3 supermajority — the land swap becomes final.
If Nathan Hale were alive, one can imagine him taking a stubborn stance regarding his small triangle of land. After all, he was a defiant martyr.
On the other hand, it’s also possible to imagine Hale, clearly no fan of unnecessary imperial restrictions, as more empathetic. One might hear him saying, “I only regret that I have but 700 square feet of parkland to lose to my neighbor.”
Personally, I think he’d understand.