It’s an idea more than a century in the making: Minneapolis could one day have a massive trail system for bicyclists and pedestrians that encircles the whole city.
And next year, local and regional officials could vote on making it complete.
City landscape planners have embarked on a long-range plan — called the East of the River Park Master Plan — that includes a connection between the East River Parkway along the river in southeast Minneapolis and an existing trail in northeast. The extension would make one continuous loop for the roughly 50-mile Grand Rounds trail, which is already among one of the nation’s largest urban parkways.
The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) is on track to vote on the master plan with the multimillion-dollar “Grand Rounds Missing Link” in February, and its “yes” vote would advance the trail proposal to the Metropolitan Council. That regional body has authority over funding for the path. Pending its approval, new construction on the approximately 5-mile extension across the Prospect Park, Southeast Como and Mid-City Industrial neighborhoods would accelerate during the summer and could last as long as two decades.
“It (Grand Rounds Missing Link) finishes one of the grand jewels of our parks system,” said MPRB Commissioner Chris Meyer, who is leading the project. “It’ll just be fantastic for people who are doing races and recreation to be able to have a full loop around the city.”
Multiple paths, but a missing last quarter
Here is the backstory: On multiple occasions since the late 1880s, parks officials have considered possible routes for the Grand Rounds extension. But with swaths of industrial land and evolving development — including big-name property owners, such as the University of Minnesota — support for the trail fluctuated with time.
The concept of a loop started with Horace W.S. Cleveland, the landscape architect who founded much of Minneapolis’ early park system, when he first proposed a series of pathways and parks surrounding downtown Minneapolis in 1883, according to researchers.
Then, over decades, he and other city planners designed the Grand Rounds around scenic areas along the city’s waterways. Now, the system includes multiple paths, such as the West River Parkway and Minnehaha Parkway, covering 3/4ths of the city.
But, even early on, parks officials pushed for that final quarter. A proposal for the missing link failed in 1910. And then again eight years later.
Wetlands and a profitable gravel mine in northeast Minneapolis (near what is now Gross National Golf Club) were obstructions in the 1930s and 1940s, according to researchers. Later on, new property owners, including railroads and the University of Minnesota, took over parts of the land, including parts of southeast Como and the Mid-City Industrial neighborhood.
By 2009, Minneapolis parks officials had considered proposals for the missing link five times. The latest plan had gotten so far as the Met Council, but all parties decided the park board needed to talk again with landowners — the city, the university, Hennepin County and St. Anthony Village — in order to qualify for grants, Meyer said.
“It’s not a blank canvas, you know; it’s working with a lot of private property owners,” said MPRB senior planner Carrie Christensen, who is leading research.“We’ve got good political will; we’ve got staffing capacity right now. … There are a lot of things that are aligning, I’d say, that are different than 10 years ago.”
Riding for research
Beyond policy outreach, project leaders are outside, doing bike tours of possible routes for the link. But with freight trains and strips of vacant land in Prospect Park and southeast Como, portions of the proposed path are almost entirely inaccessible, Meyer said.
During the research, at one point crossing railroad tracks, he and others had to climb under train cars with their bikes. Police afterwards questioned them for trespassing, he said, and they explained they were studying the land for the city’s parks system. “It’s really difficult to do right now because it is so disconnected.”
Right now, the city of Minneapolis, Hennepin County and BNSF Railroad own most of the right-of-way, and the University of Minnesota is a major player as operator of the Campus Connector and roads dedicated only to its buses, according to researchers.
The East of the River Park Master Plan, a guiding document with a broad vision for development, includes multiple possible routes for the missing link, each costing an estimated $27 million.
All suggest going from the existing Grand Rounds trail at East River Parkway on 27th Avenue Southeast toward University Avenue on the link’s southern end. That path would pass Luxton Park and connect with Southeast Fourth Street Southeast, which the city recently renovated. Then, on the link’s northern stretch, there is broad consensus, too; all proposals suggest using Industrial Boulevard Northeast across Interstate 35W to the existing Grand Rounds trail.
It’s the middle portion of the extension that is most contentious, Meyer said.
One proposed route in particular, which a citizen-led advisory group found most favorable, does not have the university’s full support. It goes from Fourth to Malcolm Avenue Southeast, which passes the Surly brewery. Then, it heads north on Malcolm, crossing an intersection reserved for campus shuttles.
Project leaders said they will continue studying how that route would affect the school’s transit system. In an email, a university real-estate planner said the school “opposes any encroachment on UMN property” and a “more detailed study is needed to identify the precise proposed trail alignment relative to UMN property boundaries, its impacts to existing UMN facilities, and any potential for partnership.”
From there, the route extends over the BNSF railyard in Southeast Como on yet-to-be-built bridges, linking up with Kasota Avenue Southeast. The bridges are the most complex aspect of the missing link proposal, and will require extensive fundraising support at both the state and local level, Meyer said.
But the lack of development in the area is part of project leaders’ argument for building a new trail there. A path through the mostly industrial section of Minneapolis, as well as more commercial and residential portions in northeast, would open the areas up to more people, they said.
“People moving from bus stops to work or going to a brewery from their house — there’s a lot of different land use happening in northeast now that make it a more complex place than just pure industrial,” Christensen said. “Different people (are) moving through those places instead of just freight.”
In addition to the bridges, the intersection of East River Parkway and Franklin Avenue on the link’s southern end could be complicated. Meyer said researchers are considering a proposal for a roundabout there.
“We can only really take it step by step,” he said. “We have a broad vision of what we want.”
Since voters elected Meyer (and five other new parks commissioners) in an unusually divisive 2017 election, he said working on the missing link has been his No. 1 priority. Former superintendent Jayne Miller, who had led the agency for seven years, had dropped the plan during her tenure, he said, and now they are picking it back up. (The board recently selected Miller’s replacement: Alfred Bangoura, who is currently superintendent of a county recreation system in North Carolina.)
Confident this time around
Despite the proposal’s failures in the past, project leaders are confident this time around, in part, because of this: Government leaders solicited the park system’s input for a new trail on the Grand Rounds’ northern end (along Industrial Boulevard Northeast) so that it aligns with the long-term vision for the missing link.
“There’s definitely optimism and determination,” Christensen said. “The actual trail is really important and having it in these few blocks, but thinking through that larger network is a really important part of what people want.”
The master plan is open for public comment until Dec. 28. After that window closes, staff will make revisions based on the feedback and then present it at a public hearing with the board in February, Christensen said.
Commissioners’ approval of the plan would advance the proposal for the missing link, likely including multiple route options, to the Met Council — which would then decide if, or to what extent, the ideas meet guidelines for regional funding. (The MPRB would need to use some of its own money to complete the entire corridor.)
The council, made up of 17 appointees of Gov. Mark Dayton, is anticipating the Grand Rounds Missing Link proposal in mid-2019, according to council staff.
The council’s approval would unlock funding for construction crews to extend the trail on its northern end for a few blocks across Interstate 35W to Broadway Street Northeast, which is where the city is working on installing new protected bike paths.
After that, the MPRB will push forward with more detailed designs of the missing link, mainly by working with property owners, so that it can propose extensions in increments — likely two blocks at time — in coordination with other street renovations and long-range planning, Christensen said.
Met Council Member Cara Letofsky, who represents the area and supports the missing link, said she is looking forward to voting on the proposal next year, mainly because the routes run near public housing complexes, such as the 184-unit Glendale Townhomes in Prospect Park, that she thinks deserve access to a new recreational path.
“I’m very excited that this could get completed, in part, because it’s slated through a part of the city that’s not really accessible to your everyday Minneapolitan,” she said. “It’s one of these projects, like Southwest Light Rail, that takes years and years and years to get done.”