U plans clash with city’s vision

by Jake Kapsner

Editor’s note: This is the first of two stories examining Minneapolis’ strong desire to extend a recreational river parkway on the east bank of the Mississippi — the same stretch of land on which the University continues to expand its steam plant operation. The second part will appear tomorrow.

When the University began building a $3 million facility to store coal for its steam plant on the east bank of the Mississippi last year, opponents accused the University of putting a lid on more than just fossil fuel.
City, state and federal officials — who had long hoped to turn the east bank of the river into a picturesque place for biking, walking and river access — said they didn’t know the University was building a 55-foot-tall coal shed until its concrete walls began to rise.
The structure, still under construction, stands directly in the path of their vision: to move away from the area’s historical industrial use and tap the Mississippi’s recreational potential.
The move struck Minneapolis officials as a new twist on an old debate.
Remnants of the tension that surrounded the University’s decision to renovate its Southeast Steam Plant, which provoked years of legal battle with the city, resurfaced in December.
Michael McDonough, a water recreation coordinator with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, literally stumbled across the early stages of the coal shed construction in November. He found crews pouring concrete while doing a feasibility study for a proposed whitewater park along the river between the University’s two steam plants.
“It’s mind-boggling,” McDonough said. He couldn’t understand why the University would build a five-story coal shed behind its Main Steam Plant when numerous master plans — including the University’s — called for future recreational development near the riverbluff.
The road to the future?
For 25 years, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has expressed the desire to link East River Road with Main Street, said Judd Rietkerk, a park board planner.
Clearing a path for that road depended on, among other things, the University demolishing the Main Steam Plant or removing the coal pile behind it. Instead, the University chose to build a building around the coal pile to prevent coal dust from spreading into the surrounding environment.
“We felt it would’ve been nice to know about it, or be reminded, before they started laying the foundation,” Rietkerk said.
Others echoed Rietkerk’s surprise.
In her State of the City Address last month, Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton cited a need to create the kind of access to the east bank of the Mississippi that has been developed along the west bank in recent years.
“We must not let the University of Minnesota coal bunker stand in the way of implementing that plan. We are working with the University of Minnesota to avoid a repeat of the steam plant dispute,” she said.
Together, they seem to be doing just that.
City and University officials are now brainstorming ways to extend East River Road to Main Street Southeast along the Mississippi River, in spite of the emerging coal shed.
With preliminary costs ranging from $10 million to $47 million, planners and engineers are now fine-tuning five possible routes to bring a new road, bike lane and footpath to the area. They hope to present the plans to Sayles Belton and University President Mark Yudof in a month, said Fred Neet, principle city planner.
But the path to linking two roads along this stretch of the east bank has been anything but straight.
Initially, the coal shed touched off the passions of local neighborhood and government officials. Many felt the various decision-making bodies within the University were as detached from one another as they were from the outlying communities. They said it was the only way third parties could have remained in the dark about the coal shed construction.
University officials insisted that building the coal shed was planned “all along,” and that the plans were communicated.
Besides, University officials argue, the shed was built at the request of the same groups who later opposed it.
Workin’ on a coal pile
When the University sought to upgrade its heat source for the Minneapolis campus in 1996, the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association asked the University to cover the coal pile for environmental reasons.
City and state leaders attacked the University’s decision to renovate the Southeast Steam Plant then, insisting that operating the plant would endanger existing and proposed land uses.
In 1997, Sayles Belton and Gov. Arne Carlson offered the University $17 million of state and city funds to relocate the plants — a sum turned down as inadequate. The city of Minneapolis later sued the University and lost in an attempt to block the renovation.
In January 1996, the Board of Regents voted to add “coal unloading and storage facilities” near the main plant as part of a larger contract with Foster Wheeler Twin Cities to renovate the southeast plant. With that, the battle was underway.
But despite the history of miscommunication, conflicting visions of the future of the riverbanks and perceived stubbornness on the part of the University, the city of Minneapolis and supporting groups are sharing new hope.
Even as crews put the finishing touches on the coal shed, University officials have been working with city and park planners to push a path to the river. The process is opening new lines of communication — and raising questions as to the future of the coal shed.