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Twin Cities parks 3.0: Bold new initiatives coming to our green spaces

With their respective plans, which together cover 22 miles of the Mississippi corridor, both cities are balancing needs for ecology, access and development. 

Digital rendering of proposed Scherer Park
Courtesy of Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board
The Line

As they begin repairing and rejuvenating shoreline along the Twin Cities’ curving Mississippi River “spine,” Minneapolis and St. Paul park and rec departments also have their hands in some diverse projects that expand conventional ideas about recreation, ecology and economic development.

From re-creating islands and enhancing riverside parks to proposing a bridge connecting Lake of the Isles and Lake Calhoun, and preparing to build a new St. Paul Saints ballpark and purchase an 11-acre urban farm, there’s a lot going on with both cities’ parks.

With their respective plans, which together cover 22 miles of the Mississippi corridor running through Minneapolis and St. Paul, both cities are balancing needs for ecology, access and development. And together they are seeking federal funding for the projects. While these extensive projects will be ongoing, over the next several years park lovers will find new and enhanced parks and green spaces, new trail connections, and more natural shoreline.

Reclaiming a shoreline

Minneapolis’ RiverFirst plan calls for making a once-industrial shoreline greener and more accessible, according to Bruce Chamberlain, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board assistant superintendent for planning.

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“The vision is a big vision and it’s really creating a continuous green ribbon on either side of the river through North and Northeast Minneapolis,” he said. “That means property acquisition and recreation of the ecological habitat and development of parks and parkways. That’s a generational effort.”

Among the park spaces the city is planning along 5.5 miles north of downtown Minneapolis is Scherer Park, a former lumber company site on the east side of the river north of Boom Island. Movies will be shown on the site during August. The Park Board will soon seek financing for the first phase of the park project, including the re-creation of Hall’s Island, a natural island that was previously removed for commercial reasons.

St. Paul’s riverworks

Rather than creating a lot of new park land as part of its Great River Passage plan, St. Paul is enhancing and redeveloping some of its existing sites along 17 miles of the river, according to Jody Martinez, St. Paul Park and Recreation manager of design and construction.

“Really what our passage is doing is taking a look at all of our existing lands and pieces and making sure that we’re being ecological, we’re making the most of it,” she said.

lilydale trail
Photo by Bill Kelley
Trail connections are being expanded in Lilydale Regional Park.

Work will be completed later this year on Lilydale Regional Park, where trail connections are being expanded and facilities added, she said.

“Our intent is to leave it very natural, keep it very low key, just trails, some picnicking, bird watching; no heavy duty recreational activities there at all.”

Photo by Bill Kelley
Watergate Marina in Crosby Farm Regional Park

Watergate Marina in Crosby Farm Regional Park is another area that will be improved to make it more accessible including the addition of a café and boat mooring area.

How Minneapolis parks improve western Minnesota

Minneapolis’ project focuses strongly on ecology and restoring the river’s shoreline after decades of industrial use — an effort that will affect not only the Twin Cities but the entire region, Chamberlain said. This goal encourages city builders and developers to be creative as they pursue development interests.

“By focusing on habitat in this particular corridor we’re improving and enhancing habitat that is in western Minnesota, in Red River Valley, across the entire region of United States so we’re enabling habitats elsewhere to thrive because we are paying attention to the ecological health of this particular piece of river corridor. In addition to creating a localized healthier environment and habitat we’re enabling that broader habitat to be healthy as well. “

Because St. Paul has already done reclamation work, especially near Shepard Road, the city is not focusing on it so much, Martinez said.

Parks for people? Parks as habitat?

Along with ecology, access is another focal point, especially for Minneapolis’ RiverFirst project. A challenge is to transform the industrial backbone of the city into land that is amenable to economic development and accessible to park users — especially nearby populations, said Jayne Miller, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Superintendent.

“Particularly with [Interstate] 94 moving in and the industrial development that’s happened along the river, historically it’s really cut people’s access to the river. We have the wonderful chain of lakes in Southwest Minneapolis and other lakes in South Minneapolis but there’s no natural body of water close for people in North and Northeast Minneapolis. So providing that kind of access to people is really important.”

In work on the river corridor and all other parks, both cities have the challenge of weaving together recreational benefits and the ecological system. The challenge, park planners say, is to find balance.

“I think there are inherent conflicts in most landscapes and certainly there’s potential conflict in creating a space for people and creating a space for habitat,” Chamberlain said. “What we need to do as the stewards of the riverfront as well as the designers of it is find the balance that is healthy for everyone. … We’ll always pay attention to it and try to find that appropriate balance between habitat creation and restoration and preservation and human access enjoyment and benefit to people as well.”

Neither the river area nor any other park can be everything, Martinez said.

“People are looking at parks for storm water,” she said. “Now they’re looking at parks for urban agriculture. They’re looking at them for recreation and they’re looking at them for natural areas. They can’t be all things to everybody. … It can’t all be heavy use and recreation. We have to find that balance of sustainability and availability.”

The ethnic challenge

Balancing different activities and gathering the preferences and needs of different ethnic groups is also a challenge for both cities.

“A lot of what we are trying to do is make sure we meet the needs of different ethnic groups,” Miller said. “Different ethnic groups have different cultural recreational histories, so I would suspect that we may have different programming and different policies as a result of finding out what is either preventing people from using our parks or what we need to do to provide space that works for different cultural groups.”

A lid over Lake Street

An idea that’s likely to affect everyone who passes on or near the most heavily traveled road in Hennepin County is the proposed “Lid” over Lake Street, which would connect Lake of the Isles and Lake Calhoun for the first time in a century. The Minneapolis Park board’s vision is for a green land bridge just east of the Calhoun Beach Club over which the Midtown Greenway would connect the two lakes, Chamberlain said.

Among its benefits, the “Lid” would address congestion issues, Miller said. “It’s a very popular section of the lake and there are safety concerns.“

Farms in the parks

Other activities becoming more popular in the parks are urban agriculture and community gardening. In St. Paul, land has been secured for the 11-acre Frogtown Farm, which will become a working farm aimed at teaching about agriculture. The farm also will be surrounded by park land and may be completed by fall of 2014, Martinez said.

To address urban agriculture needs Minneapolis is developing a system-wide urban agriculture activity plan. In St. Paul, as demand for community gardens continues to grow, St. Paul Parks and Recreation is pursuing zoning changes that will make it easier to use park land for gardening and agriculture, Martinez said.

A ballpark’s impact 

Baseball is also on the park and rec plate. The 7,000-seat Lowertown Ballpark, future home of the St. Paul Saints, is scheduled to open in downtown St. Paul in the spring of 2015.

“By moving it to downtown I think it just brings with it all kinds of vibrancy and exciting options,” Martinez said. And “vibrancy” and “exciting options” sum up pretty much all the plans that our park boards are making as they innovate within one of America’s premier park systems.

This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.